Pampered. Overpaid. Too much too young. Do you criticise the player or the culture? Addiction in is an inevitable symptom of the modern game. Will Unwin meets a Premier League manager who has taken positive steps to address a growing problem for football.
Football has had many high profile cases of players with personal problems ranging from addiction to family issues. These matters can get splashed across the pages of the tabloids as the public are given an insight into the aspects of a person’s life they would rather keep private.
With this in mind it is unsurprising that personal problems may impact on the performance of players. One club has decided to try and prevent any issues manifesting to the extent that they affect a player’s ability to perform to their potential on the pitch.
Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Mick McCarthy brought in counsellors five years ago in order to help the younger players at the club with their transition from childhood to adulthood and hopefully into becoming professional footballers. Wolves were the first club to have a dedicated in-house sports fitness laboratory, which proves their desire to do everything in their power to ensure players are in peak condition for professional football.
“The younger players, and young people in general, have issues in their lives that they won’t talk to their boss about, and you’ll never find out about them.
“If we’re doing everything we can for them physically, why wouldn’t we try and help them mentally and emotionally as well?”
One of the counsellors is former Manchester City and Northern Ireland midfielder Jeff Whitley. As a player he was a robust defensively minded footballer. However, throughout his career he was dogged by addiction issues and chronic low self-esteem. He was forced to retire at the age of 27 after being engulfed by drinking before moving onto cocaine.
The fact that the other counsellor alongside Whitley is another former addict in the form of Mike Wood, has caused some people to accuse the Black Country club of having a drinking problem within it. That is far from the truth, as this is a preventative measure to avoid players suffering from the issues that affected the likes of Whitley in the past.
“There will be players out there who will have a problem with gambling, or drink, but just because our counsellors are recovering addicts doesn’t mean we have a problem with addiction here, as we’ve had that levelled at us before,” adding, “It’s just forward thinking on the club’s part.
“It’s not all about drink, drugs, gambling, social excesses. People do suffer from those, and not just footballers, but for us to put somebody in place if people ever need them and that’s just responsible on our part.”
McCarthy is definitely looking to the future when it comes to this programme, as he understands what goes through the minds of the modern-day young footballer, and hopes that with this assistance they will become the type of man the former Republic of Ireland manager wants in his team.
“There’s a lot of pressure that they put on themselves to become footballers, as when they walk through the door they’re just apprentices. A lot of them suffer from the peer pressure making them think they have to act like footballers.”
As a manager, McCarthy is known for being hands on, but realises when to take a back seat in order to allow others to do their jobs. His expertise lies in a dugout, but he knows who are the right people to have around him and he has great trust in his counsellors, especially knowing their backgrounds.
“It’s almost like a credibility thing, people who walk into the club don’t have the credibility of someone who has been involved in the game all their lives,” Mick explains, before adding “Jeff is the footballer that has had all the issues you can think of. He’s played international football, he’s played in the Premier League, and won a championship medal with me at Sunderland.
“I don’t get to know if somebody has an issue or a problem that they need help with as it’s not proper. There’s got to be confidentiality, as that’s the best way to deal with it.”
No one within the game will deny that there are individuals within football who have succumbed to a variety of issues, and McCarthy is the first to admit that this can be an issue for those at the highest level of the sport. At the same time, the evolving world means that there are other temptations and vices for one to potentially indulge in.
“Gambling has been proved to be a problem in the game. I am sure we have lads who gamble. I haven’t been at a club where there aren’t gamblers, but the question is ‘to what level?’
“It could be something as crazy as being up all night playing on his Xbox, and not sleeping, and that’s affecting his performance and how he is with other people, because he’s tired.”
It’s with points like that McCarthy acknowledges he doesn’t have a great understanding of what makes people tick, and potentially become addicts, which gives him more conviction that hiring in Wood and Whitley is the best for the club.
“I don’t know how gamblers think. There does lie the problem, that they may be doing everything they can do physically, but if a player has lost X and can’t afford to lose X, and he might be losing friends, and family or his house and car, then that’s affecting his game.”
Times have changed since McCarthy was an uncompromising centre-back for the likes of Manchester City and Celtic; the fitness levels in the game have altered rapidly in the recent years, meaning that infamous drinking culture at clubs in times gone by are no longer sustainable.
“Drinking was a tolerated part of football, if a player had a few beers and then came into training, and played well it was accepted.
“We can’t stop players from going home and downing a bottle of vodka, but we feel we would be able tell from looking at them physically,” adding, “With gambling it may be harder to spot, but we have the people in place to talk to them, if they want to seek out help.”
One of the greatest indications of how McCarthy is not personally adept to spotting a player’s issues by himself is that he missed how serious Whitley’s problems were whilst the two were at Sunderland. The midfielder was in the midst of alcoholism at that stage, and was even reprimanded for late night indiscretions, but he wasn’t encouraged to seek help.
“I saw it impair his performance in training, when he came in bleary eyed. I didn’t know he was an alcoholic, I accepted he liked a beer, but he came in trained and played hard, and won the Championship with me.”
After his career had finished, Whitley eventually sought help and checked into Sporting Chance, the addiction centre for sportsmen. McCarthy hopes his proactive nature will mean that he won’t have to see another one of his players visit such an organisation, and the Wolves manager has a simple message for them.
“We’re trying to put Sporting Chance out of business, as it’s a preventative measure.”
Word of the operation at the Wolves training ground has reached far and wide within the game, with the PFA hierarchy and Peter Kay, the Chief Executive of Sporting Chance visiting the club to look at their innovative methods.
Deputy Chief Executive of the PFA, John Bramhall, is a great advocate of educating players about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and women, but worries that it is impossible to pick up on each player’s problems.
“The earlier you can get into the youngsters, and make them aware of the issues they may face, it’s a major positive,” adding, “It’s good for them to identity with someone such as Jeff, who has played at the highest level, and then had to spend time working outside of the game.”
Bramhall and McCarthy share a common belief that a player’s background can have a severe impact. Traditionally, many footballers come from poorer areas, and grow up surrounded by the undesirable aspect of life.
“Some of the player backgrounds are horrendous. They come from environments where drug use and violence is a day-to-day norm,” Bramhall stated.
Yorkshire man McCarthy said: “I had a particularly pleasant upbringing with a happy family life. I got into mischief, of course. But not everybody has, we hope we are well rounded, and we feel we helping the younger players get to that stage.”
Kay has only praise for Whitley and the work he is now doing, “He is a fine example of what we do. We can’t do it all, you have to have the right attitude, and Jeff does. I am very proud of how he uses his experiences to aid youngsters now.”
Sitting in on the group ‘therapy’ sessions, you can see the respect the players have for the counsellors, whilst at the same time the knowledge that they can be open with them in confidence. All information received by Whitley and Wood is confidential, and is not passed onto the coaching staff. The matters that are discussed in the time spent with the lads include behavioural, family and addiction. They are quick to say they don’t believe they would have received the same level of assistance had they joined another club. One youngster even admitted that he doubted he would still be in the game if it wasn’t for the intervention of the two counsellors.
Reflecting on his own experiences Whitley debates whether his career could have been different if he had been helped before his drinking took over his life away from the pitch.
“If someone had been doing this for me as a youngster, maybe I would have made different choices, who knows? What I do know is that by being here, we are helping people that otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to speak about their problems.”
One would hope that the lasting legacy will be that by him speaking so openly about his issues that maybe other footballers will seek guidance from the likes of Sporting Chance, rather than bottling up their problems due to the macho nature of the footballing bubble they live in.
His former boss at Sunderland knows that the system they have in place is working for them, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day. McCarthy is seeing results, and feels that other clubs could see an advantage from incorporating such a programme within their training schedule.
“It’s not me to put it into other clubs, but we’re doing it and it’s a success. It’s for us to try and help the social welfare of our players. It’s all about trying to make them better people and better players, and we feel we’re doing that.”
Ultimately, McCarthy feels vindicated by the fact his side has stayed in the Premier League for the past two seasons, which is the greatest reward possible for the system he has put in place, as Wolves continue to thrive.
Will is a freelance writer that has been published in The Guardian, The Daily Mirror and The Observer. You can follow him on Twitter @WillU87