It was intriguing to see the reaction the other day when Arsène Wenger talked about his suspicions that football teams were being doped and made it clear, not for the first time, that drug-taking within the sport was far more prevalent than most people want to believe.
It was not greatly dissimilar from the time, in early 2013, when Arsenal’s manager came out with the line that football was “full of legends who are, in fact, cheats” and the sport nervously shuffled on its feet and decided to look the other way. There was no sense of uproar. His latest claims didn’t receive a mention on the television news, even at a time when the revelations about Russia were leading the national headlines, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine some of Wenger’s peers rolling their eyes and wishing he would keep his nose out of it.
Arsène Wenger: Arsenal have ‘played many teams’ that were guilty of doping
In football, we often apply the rule that something cannot be true simply because we do not want it to be true. It is one of the reasons, no doubt, why high up at the World Anti-Doping Agency they think the sport smacks of complacency.
At least this time the Football Association is planning to arrange talks with Wenger to ask what he meant when he talked about having “never injected my players to make them better” but playing “against many teams that weren’t in that frame of mind”. This, however, is what the FA should have done years back, when Wenger first started beating this drum.
It is difficult to think there has ever been a modern-day manager to make such a statement, let alone one of Wenger’s standing, and it is strange the relevant people have left it until now before trying to find out whether it is merely industry gossip or he has heard something that should be looked at properly.
Can it be true? Wenger has also said he cannot believe the World Cup was clean as well as complaining that Uefa’s testing procedures after Champions League matches drastically need to be beefed up. A recent study, commissioned by Uefa, showed that 68 out of 879 professional players taking part in the Champions League, the Europa League and two European Championships, from 2008 to 2013, recorded drug tests that flashed up possible steroid abuse and, however much we might not want to contemplate it, it would be foolish to think the temptation is not there when there is so much money swilling around the game.
There is doping in athletics. Cycling is riddled with it. Other sports suffer. But not football, the biggest of all? Wenger might not be able to produce hard evidence but, with the tapes off, he is not the only high-profile manager, among them Sir Alex Ferguson, I have heard expressing reservations about what might be discovered one day.
Some people clearly don’t even want to think about it. Others seem to be labouring under the belief that there is no real history of teams being doped and, on the whole, it is certainly true that only a tiny percentage of all the drugs tests come back positive. All the same, it is strange that so many people think football has always been clean when the lesson of history should be something completely different.
Did you know, for example, the story about the former Arsenal manager who had a chapter in his autobiography entitled “I Dope Arsenal For a Cup Tie” and openly admitted keeping it quiet out of fears about the public reaction?
It’s some story. Leslie Knighton was manager in 1925 when the team were drawn against a superior and physically intimidating West Ham side in the FA Cup. He recalls being alone in his office “with my head in my hands wondering how on earth we could make sure of putting West Ham out of the Cup” when he was visited by “a distinguished West End doctor”. The doctor offered the team what he called “courage pills” – almost certainly amphetamines – and Knighton was assured they would give the players “hearts as big as bullocks”.
An agreement was made to keep it confidential because they presumably knew, deep down, how it would be seen and when Knighton tried one for good measure he felt a sudden urge to “run, jump, shout … there was something in those pills, I felt I could push down a wall with my fist.”
The problem was that soon after the players swallowed those silver tablets the game was called off because of fog and, as Knighton writes in his 1948 memoir, “getting the players back to Highbury that afternoon was like trying to drive a flock of lively young lions, impossibly restless and desperate for food and water” (in today’s parlance: the munchies). When the game was replayed his players “seemed like giants suddenly supercharged”. They “tore away with the ball and put in shots that looked like leather thunderbolts”. West Ham, he says, had “no defence against the pluck-pills”. Yet it ended 0-0 and West Ham eventually went through after a second replay when the Arsenal players refused to take the pills because of the way it left them with a chronic thirst. “I often wonder if we would have won if the boys had been doped for that game,” Knight says. “We did not lose when we took those pills, and did not win when we rejected them.”
A few days ago, the Liverpool Echo reminded its readers about the Sunday People exposé in 1964 when Everton’s goalkeeper, Albert Dunlop, alleged he and many of his team-mates regularly took amphetamines, in the form of pills called Purple Hearts, over a two-year period in which they won the First Division title. Everton’s board denied being complicit and Dunlop was discredited as an unreliable witness but there was an acceptance that pills had been popped. One report of a 4-0 win against Chelsea details how Everton “ran them into the ground”.
Then there is the story of the Wolverhampton Wanderers side in the late 1930s whose manager, Frank Buckley, became convinced that the best way to increase his players’ physical strength was through injections of monkey-gland extracts. Other clubs heard about the treatment and Portsmouth’s manager, Jack Tinn, put his players on it for the rest of the season. Fulham, Preston North End and Tottenham Hotspur soon became enthusiasts. Some of the more famous names in English football have, in effect, been involved with some fairly dubious practices.
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The point is that if clubs were doping then, is it outlandish to think that somewhere in the world it could be happening now? The events in Russia make it difficult to know if we can even trust laboratory results these days. Dick Pound, the chairman of the Wada commission that has exposed a state-sponsored doping regime, has already said: “It is probably the tip of the iceberg.” Russia, he says, is not the only country involved and athletics is not the only sport.
Football? Let’s hope Wenger is wrong, but it is an unnerving coincidence that Vitaly Mutko, the Russian sports minister who has been directly accused of being complicit in creating the conveyor belt of systematic drugs cheats, was previously the president of Zenit St Petersburg and the Russian football federation.
Likewise, it is certainly unusual that all 23 players in Russia’s squad for the last World Cup played in the Russian league, where there are apparently financial incentives to stay in the country. Perhaps there is a simple explanation but, for now, it is probably better to keep an open mind.
All that really can be said for certain is that Wenger needs to explain in more detail and when someone in his position says these things it is not good enough for everyone else to dismiss it with the wave of a hand.
Costa can be effective without macho act
Something rather unusual happened during England’s game in Alicante on Friday. Diego Costa did not play the entire 90 minutes but he still had more than an hour to pick a scrap, leave his scratch marks on an opponent’s neck or do that thing where he accidentally on purpose backs into a defender and manages to tread on their toes.
Yet there was nothing. No jabbering in the centre-half’s ear, no gesturing that someone was suffering from body odour, no theatrical attempts to win free-kicks or running up to the referee to demand imaginary fouls. This, perhaps, is what happens when a manager, in this case Vicente del Bosque, criticises the player’s behaviour and makes it clear he does not want to win matches that way.
Costa did not have his best game in the Estadio José Rico Pérez but he has not looked the same since his hamstring injury last season and at least he seemed more interested on this occasion in trying to play football, the orthodox way, rather than going through that wearying, macho routine when he is in Chelsea’s colours.
Del Bosque seems to have cracked it; perhaps José Mourinho should try something similar. If, that is, Chelsea’s manager wants Costa to change.
Mortensen is the real man to beat
Jamie Vardy has proved many of us wrong since his first England call-up and that raw, energetic style, combined with a stark improvement in his penalty-area finishing, makes it easy to understand why Roy Hodgson was planning to start him against Spain until an injury temporarily disrupted the Leicester City striker’s progress.
Vardy is on a scoring run of nine successive Premier League games and closing in on Ruud van Nistelrooy’s achievement for Manchester United of hitting the back of the net in 10 consecutive matches. One small thing, though: football, despite the Sky propaganda, was not invented when the satellite dishes went up in 1992. The more relevant record belongs to Stan Mortensen, who scored in 11 consecutive matches for Blackpool during the 1950-51 season.