x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Party hard and pay the price

Let me take you inside the mind of a professional footballer. It's tough being for your kids' birthdays. You become like a permanent traveller journeying from game to game, hotel to hotel with the same people day after day.

Cardiff slumped to a 3-0 Championship play-off semi-final loss against Reading on Tuesday. Stu Forster / Getty Images
Cardiff slumped to a 3-0 Championship play-off semi-final loss against Reading on Tuesday. Stu Forster / Getty Images

Football players have always enjoyed nightlife, but you can have too much of a bad thing, especially as an athlete

Cardiff City and Birmingham City players have both been criticised recently for having a late night out during critical stages in the football season.

Cardiff were chasing promotion to the Premier League and the riches that go with it, Birmingham fighting relegation from it. Staying out until 4am is not going to do either cause any good and it's disrespectful to the fans.

The players have rightly been criticised, but let me take you inside the mind of a professional footballer.

You spend more nights in a hotel away from your family than you do at home. Home is often not a home, either. Players can be in a rented apartment hundreds or thousands of miles from their families.

It's tough being in hotels 10 months of the year, tough being away at Christmas and for your kids' birthdays. You become like a permanent traveller journeying from game to game, hotel to hotel with the same people day after day.

Frustrations arise - and not just from having BBC News on 24/7. Play for a big club, where you are well-known, and it's not like you can walk the streets either.

Combine that with the fact that top players are rich, famous and in their physical prime. They lead a privileged life, but it's regimented and that can cause frustration.

Free time is rare during the season and boredom frequently kicks in during those long spells away in hotels. Players can only watch so many DVDs or play so many computer games. You are only training for a couple of hours a day and days need filling, so players - especially young single players - look for an escape and there's no shortage of temptations. Dwight Yorke sometimes smuggled girls into the Manchester United hotel the night before matches. It was comical and gave the other lads something to talk about.

Dwight's method is happening more now because in days gone by players would turn to alcohol rather than women.

They would drink too much - sometimes for team bonding - but that culture had started to die out by the time I was playing. I was left with the stories of heavy drinkers from the 1970s and 1980s.

They wouldn't have got away with it in the 1990s or 2000s, though I once saw Newcastle players smuggle hip flasks on a long Christmas trip to Norwich, and Tottenham Hotspur players recently felt the wrath of their management for overindulging on a night out.

Alcohol damages the body of a professional athlete. Drink and you don't play. I knew the England and Nottingham Forest defender Des Walker well. He would go out every Wednesday and Thursday for a few beers. He probably wouldn't get away with it now, but he was still consistently the team's best player.

Even when you do have free time, going out has its risks. You could sip nothing stronger than water in a bar and it would be reported that you'd been drinking until 4am.

While at Newcastle, Patrick Kluivert would frequent bars to escape boredom. Humans are social beings after all. Patrick didn't drink, yet because he was seen out so often he was labelled a party animal and that went against him.

A record transfer fee meant that there was so much pressure on me to perform that I ended up living like a hermit and hardly going out. It just wasn't worth it.

Fans used to ask for autographs, but that changed to photos with camera phones.

Those photos, given in good faith, can find their way into newspapers or on to the internet. News of Birmingham's 4am finish got out because the wife of a player put it on her Twitter account. I bet he was popular in the dressing room.

Some players turn to gambling to kill the time. I've seen lads lose absolute fortunes at cards. Again, I avoided it. My dad is a Caribbean card shark. I learnt early how not to fall victim to other card sharks, yet when I played for England I routinely saw players write out cheques for £15,000 (Dh89,100) to pay for gambling debts. I saw a player run up even bigger debts on one trip.

"Don't give me the money," said the player who was owed the money. "Buy me a watch instead."

The watch he suggested cost the equivalent of the debt: £45,000. I'm not sure whether it was bravado, a form of boasting by players who earned so much money that they could afford to lose astronomical amounts, but it became a serious problem for some.

Managers often turned a blind eye as they had enough on their plate. And if the boys went out once in a while it wasn't a problem - until the newspapers got hold of it.

 

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten

 

sports@thenational.ae