Every week Lawrence Gray-Hodson, a man who made his name in the upper reaches of Division 2 in the 1970s and 80s as well as being a former Scotland and England international, writes a column exclusively for Three and in.
This week it’s footballers and doping.
How sad was it to see young Theo Walcott carted off on a stretcher like some kind of victim of war to which we send our young men to fight and die? Theo Walcott might not have died but inside a part of me did. Don’t get me wrong, I like Walcott, despite what Alan Hansen says about him not having a football brain. I think he’s one of the brightest talents in England right now.
Arsene Wenger is an intelligent man and he simply wouldn’t choose a player who didn’t have a brain, even if Emmanuel Eboue must skirt the boundaries of that particular criticism from time to time. I’d take Wenger’s judgement over a man who earns £1m a year from the BBC but still hasn’t had that ghastly line down the middle of his forehead sorted out. Where is the man’s personal pride?
When I talk about a part of me dying, I look at how Walcott sustained his injury and I feel that footballers these days are just too brittle. I know many Arsenal fans will agree with me having seen Robin van Persie ruled out for the best part of two months after a nothing challenge in the game against Blackburn. I know, I know, too many youngsters these days don’t want to hear about how things were ‘back in the day’, and if that’s the case feel free to click over to the Faceblog or Twinker, but back in the day Walcott and van Persie would be playing for their clubs this weekend.
I remember playing a game against West Brom in the late 70s. One of those muddy, heavy pitches which was made all the worse by torrential rain. It was like trying to play football in a swamp but the game went on. Early in the 2nd half I nicked the ball away from Jeff Blockley who, in a desperate attempt to regain possession, hacked at my legs like a rabid mule. One only needs to remember the classic David Attenborough films to know how hard they kicked. Immediately my ankle swelled up like a balloon and when Blockley landed his foot got caught in the mud, his knee twisted and there was a sound like styrofoam being scraped against a wall.
I can vividly remember his screams. I can only liken it to the noise made by a cat in heat when the male cat withdraws his heavily barbed penis from her cat flap. However, the physios came on, had at both of us with the magic spray, some deep heat and, in Blockley’s case, a couple of Anadin and we got up, picked ourselves off and played the rest of the game. We played the rest of the season in fact. Nowadays that kind of injury would keep a player out for months because apparently it’s important to have a non-torn cruciate ligament. We just didn’t know any better. Pain was part and parcel of the game.
There’s little doubt though that footballers when I played were tougher. They’d run off sprains and twists whereas in this era they get carried off on a stretcher to generous applause. You would have had to have been paralysed from the neck down not to be barracked for coming off on a stretcher when I played. Football needs a change, and fast.
We can’t make the players change their attitude, so what can we do? Well, my dear old dad was a big cycling buff. He lived for the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and all that. He’d tell me stories of cyclists like Tom Simpson, a great English man, whose desire to win was so great he died during the race. A post-mortem showed Simpson had a belly full of amphetamines and whiskey on Mont Ventoux. Yet cycling didn’t crawl into a ball and weep. No, recent years have shown us that cycling has made huge leaps forward. Now the drugs are almost undetectable to the point where a bloke with only ball (and no, the other’s not in the Albert Hall!) can win in time and time again.
Cycling has the right idea. Let the performers get hopped up on goofballs and just go for it. Times are faster, races are more exciting, they climb the mountains quicker than ever and, even if you don’t like it, you have to admit they’re pushing the boundaries of science forward, creating ever more crafty ways to stop the drugs being detected.
So, let the same thing apply to football. Theo Walcott could play for Arsenal this weekend if he was injected with some kind of synthetic painkiller which also helped cure strained ligaments faster. Spurs will be without Jermaine Defoe for 8 weeks. Don’t you think they’d like to get him some good, good stuff and back out on the pitch quicker? Would Michael Owen be the pathetic wreck of a player he is these days if he had fresh stem cells mixed with quaaludes injected into his hamstrings for the last few years? Of course not and it’s to the detriment of football that we maintain this medieval attitude towards drugs.
Look, I’m not talking about players who do lines of charlie. They all do it. It was common in my day and from what I hear it’s common now. You can hardly call it performance enhancing though, can you? Standing around talking shite as if you’re the most important person in the world will hardly win you cup finals. And if a player wants to have a joint or a bit of heroin during his summer holidays then by all means punish him because that’s no example to set to youngster. They’re not sophisticated drugs like coke. You must have some standards.
I just can’t believe though that clubs aren’t following the lead of cycling. Where are the secret dope labs? Why aren’t players taking steroids which are designed so they don’t show up in the random dope tests? They would be bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic and more resistant to injury. When you’re paying a guy £100,000 to see him go off with a girly sprained ankle must be immensely frustrating. Why shouldn’t clubs insist their players are better able to cope with the rigors of professional football?
Sure, you might increase the risk of the occasional heart attack on the pitch and very few of us enjoy seeing that, but isn’t the odd death a reasonable price to pay to see the best players week in, week out? Fans deserve to see the best possible quality when you consider how much their tickets cost. The clubs have a duty to them to find their way around these antiquated rules and ensure the rise of the super-athlete. A sprained ankle will no longer mean six weeks out, it means you might miss the rest of the game, at most. Who’s to say these treatments can’t be applied on the sly on the pitch?
I would prefer to see a fit Theo Walcott than the spindly, breakable one we have now. What do any of us care what he takes to make himself better? In the end it wouldn’t replace training and working hard, it’d just give him a little help along the way.
And heaven knows we all need that from time to time.