‘Bottled: English Football’s Boozy Story” by Benjamin Roberts (2019)

For much of my adult life, football and booze have been very closely linked.  Pints after 5-a-side on a Friday night, watching matches in pubs when a student who couldn’t afford sky sports (yet could always somehow afford pints), pints on a Wednesday night watching the Champions League and cans in front of the TV watching Match of the Day.  Having given up booze 21 months ago, I rarely miss drinking apart from when surrounded by friends with a big match on the TV.   Given this, I was particularly interested to read Bottled by Benjamin Roberts outlining the relationship between my favourite thing and the thing I’ve vowed to give up for ever.

Bottled looks at the complicated relationship between football in England and alcohol.  Roberts traces the remarkable influence that breweries had on the formation and early years of many well known teams.  It’s a side of English football history I haven’t seen covered elsewhere and sets the scene well for the inter-connection of the beautiful game and the demon drink.

In addition to this history, Bottled book covers a wide range of more recent teams and players.  Roberts examines the drinking culture at Man Utd as Ferguson arrived and the steps he felt were necessary to turn the club around.  He also looks at a number of high profile players who have been public in their struggles with alcohol including George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams, Paul Merson and God himself, Paul McGrath.  Bottled also highlights the excellent work being done by many to help those players afflicted with addictions and the better steps being taken by clubs to encourage players to find help.  He also touches on the changes that helped to break the connection as Arsene Wenger et al. modernised football. 

It’s clear that alcohol (and recreational drugs) played a huge role in all professional sports in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond.   The state of Manchester United’s drinking culture when Ferguson joined is very similar to the state of the Chicago Bulls when they drafted Jordan in ’84.  It’s also hard to imagine any modern NFL team drinking or partying in the manner of John Madden’s Oakland Raiders.  I’d suspect English football’s relationship was likely much more widespread (every team drank a lot rather than just a few) and much more connected to the nation’s wider boozy culture.

As the book progresses, Roberts becomes a little bit more open about his own relationship with alcohol, seeing similarities in his own AA experiences and those of Merson, Adams and others.   This is a real strength of the book.  There is no judgement from Roberts, but he has clearly been inspired to write the book by his own love of football and troubled relationship with booze.

Overall, Boozed is a very interesting and readable examination of the relationship between English football and alcohol.

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‘Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction’ by Shaun Assael (2007)

Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA.  Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport.  The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.

This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true.   The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s.  At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source.   Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.

Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example.  What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids-  it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting.    Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial 

Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing.  These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.

I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out.  It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available.  If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.

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