In September 1996, Arsene Wenger was finally installed as manager of Arsenal following weeks of speculation, and famously embarked on a mission to single-handedly transform not only the famous North London club but also English football in its entirety.
Or so it seemed.
Inheriting more than a solid backline in Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Lee Dixon, Wenger also took on a multitude of cultural differences and player lifestyle choices that at first threatened to engulf him.
Taking one look around him, it was difficult for Wenger to believe his eyes. For instance, the famous Arsenal ‘Tuesday Drinking Club’, that had been established the better part of a decade earlier, was still in full swing even if it was missing its most notorious member, captain Tony Adams, who had just started his long recovery from alcoholism.
Setting about his task to improve the eating, drinking and lifestyle choices of his charges was never going to be easy, but within 18 months the proof of his influence was evident for all to see as Arsenal won the double of Premier League and FA Cup.
Seen as a footballing visionary back then, how ironic it was that when Wenger was finally practically shoe-horned out of the Emirates two decades later it was with the charge of being out-dated and behind the times being laid firmly at his feet.
Anyway, the landscape of English football was a very different beast back in the mid-nineties to what we see before us now, yet even then attitudes were beginning to slowly shift.
Drinking had always been an integral part of English football, or so it seemed, but by the time Wenger arrived at Arsenal, things were changing. Football had become more commercialised due to the advent of the Premier League and the Champions League and thus the financial stakes were higher than ever before. ‘Old School’ drinking habits were still around, but the winds of change were beginning to be felt.
In 1992, the world footballing authority, FIFA, instigated a new rule concerning the backpass. After more than 100 years of organised football, goalkeepers were now no longer allowed to pick the ball up directly from a backpass.
This had the immediate effect of making the game quicker and with the ball in active play a lot more than previously, fitness levels had to rise accordingly. This, combined with the amounts of money at stake, meant players could no longer afford to spend the proverbial four nights a week in the pub.
Footballers in the 1970s and ’80s and further back had often been known as much for their drinking abilities as for those displayed on the pitch. The so-called ‘drinking cultures’ of days gone past are legendary, with tales of woe aplenty.
Time was when players were seen to be very much men of the people, and back in the 1960s and into the ’70s it was not uncommon for players and fans to share a drink together. Some names back then were more synonymous with having a good time than others, but little was thought of it at the time.
Everyone knows the tragedy that George Best’s life became due to his problems with alcohol, and while he was an extreme case, he was far from alone in being affected. Perhaps due to the abundance of spare time and money, together with a natural fitness, footballers would sometimes find the temptations to overindulge too great to resist and performances would suffer on both an individual and team level.
While some players fell by the wayside, others were lucky enough to be able to pull themselves back from the abyss and get their lives, if not their careers, back on track.
If we study the cases of three clubs in particular – Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal – over the years, perhaps a common theme starts to emerge. In the 1980s these three sides had players who could not only play for their countries but seemingly could also drink for them.
All three clubs were known for collecting trophies and pint glasses in almost equal numbers, and yet a closer look shows some differences.
Under Ron Atkinson, Manchester United played some wonderful football and got very close to the Liverpool teams managed by Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish in terms of talent and ability without ever ‘knocking them off their perch’.
Why was that? What prevented United from taking that final step? There is a school of thought that alcohol played its part.
Frank Stapleton was an integral part of that Manchester United team, signing from Arsenal for almost a million pounds in 1981, and he is in no doubt that some of his teammates’ inabilities to give the pub a swerve cost the club the title on at least two occasions.
According to Stapleton, the 1984 and 1986 titles would have been secured had a little more decorum and professionalism been prevalent at the club at the time. Both seasons United made all the running before running out of steam and collapsing spectacularly with the finishing line in sight.
Ron Atkinson gave the United players their heads and trusted them not to go overboard, but in Stapleton’s view that is exactly what some players did and performances suffered as a result.
Meanwhile, at the same time as leading the chase for honours, Liverpool were reputedly amongst the league leaders in the drinking stakes also. Certain players, in particular, had reputations they did their very best to live up to over the years, and yet Liverpool kept winning.
So, what was the difference between them and United?
Stapleton, for one, is in no doubt that the difference was the Liverpool team knew when to stop, and also Messrs Paisley, Fagan and co didn’t show as much of a blind eye to any excesses as did their United counterparts.
Although it was never a secret that the likes of Souness et al enjoyed a tipple or two, it was perhaps never to the same extent as their M62 counterparts. Given a certain leeway by the Anfield ‘Bootroom Boys’, players who over-indulged on occasion were gently warned and told to watch their step.
Most, such as Souness himself, heeded this wise advice, while others such as Ray Kennedy, Jimmy Case, and Terry McDermott, were gently eased out of the door perhaps before their talents deserved.
At United, it wasn’t until well into the first few years of Sir Alex’s reign that such matters were truly and definitively addressed. By the close of the ‘eighties, Fergie had shipped out notorious hard drinkers such as Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside, and the focus at Old Trafford had changed.
Fast forward a few years, and arguably the roles and positions had been reversed between the clubs. In the mid-nineties, the sides were once again evenly matched on the field with bright young players and futures adorning the red shirts of both clubs, yet this time around it was United who cleaned up the honours while Liverpool won next to nothing.
Between the years of, say, 1995 and 1998, Liverpool had a wonderful team with a fantastic array of talents and yet had only a solitary League Cup won in 1995 under Roy Evans to show for their efforts.
United, meanwhile, won….ah, loads!
Again, why? The talents of Fowler, McManaman, and co matched the Old Trafford men, but once more it perhaps can down to off-field discipline and management.
Thoroughly good-egg and all-round Nice Guy that he was, Roy Evans was not Alex Ferguson. When the ‘Spice Boys’ started believing their own hype, missing training to go to model shows, and wearing naff suits at cup finals, Evans was unable or unwilling to stop the rot from setting in.
Liverpool weren’t helped by having a sprinkling of players at the time who seemed to revel in being ‘old school’ and for whom the mantra ‘win or lose, we’re on the booze’ was seemingly their guiding light.
Players like John Scales, Neil Ruddock, and Mark Wright won two FA Cups between them.
As United went from strength to strength, Liverpool flattered to deceive and Evans found himself out of a job while Fergie found himself knighted!
Arsenal are another case in point. In the early to mid-1980s, they were often challenging without ever really threatening to take the final step to title glory. Terry Neill and Don Howe came and went, and then in 1986, George Graham was appointed.
Known as a ‘sociable guy’ as a player, Graham went the other way, initially anyway, and cracked down on the senior players in the Arsenal ‘drinking club’. Players such as Graham Rix, Paul Mariner and Tony Woodcock didn’t last long under Graham, and like Fergie and Evans at United and Liverpool, he too went with youth.
The trouble was that some of these ‘youth’ ultimately showed they were more than capable of replacing the outgoing stalwarts not only on the pitch but also in the bars! It was, as mentioned before, to take another decade and a total cultural shift to finally nail down the changes required.
Nowadays, the current game sees demands being made on players like never before. As well as the physical necessities of staying out of the pub, the onset of social media and smartphones means there is no hiding place and the smallest indiscretion is magnified relentlessly for days, and sometimes weeks, on end.
While there are obviously exceptions to the rule, and there will likely always be so, football has become largely a ‘drink-free’ zone.