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Tuesday 21 August 2018

Stars like St Ledger jeopardising future with binge drinking

ON Wednesday, Sean St Ledger had a decision to make. And it wasn't which horses to pick on Queen Mother Champions Chase day.

It was whether he should excessively celebrate the winnings those horses brought.

And, as this paper reported yesterday, St Ledger did, indeed, decide to celebrate. With extreme prejudice. By Wednesday evening, he was dropping shots of Jagermeister into pints of lager before moving onto more drinks.

This isn't necessarily a criticism of St Ledger himself - he's a product of a binge-drinking culture (and one who has performed admirably for Ireland). Nor is it a typical lament for the effects of that culture on society.

Sacrifices

It is a discussion on the effects that culture may have on our elite footballers and whether they are making the sacrifices such a high-end career should entail.

To illustrate it more starkly, the vast majority of foreign players and coaches are shocked when they encounter the British/Irish practice of binge drinking for the first time. To them, it's unprofessionalism. Why undo so much carefully - and scientifically - regimented fitness work with the disproportionate effect of a night on the sauce?

You only had to listen to Giovanni Trapattoni back in August.

"For me it was impossible to understand ... it's about professionalism, about mentality.

"It's the rules, the life, the professional lives. This is important."

Then there was Fabio Capello's bemusement at Andy Carroll's lifestyle. The following words from the ex-England coach are frighteningly simple but it's illuminating that they even needed to be said.

"I think, if you want to be a good player and a good sportsman, you need to drink less than normal."

Tellingly, all of the Premier League's truly top-level performers over the past decade made sure to abstain from alcohol.

Cristiano Ronaldo used to spend Manchester United's team nights out dancing and preening but not drinking. He even successfully sued a paper who accused him of it, so seriously does he take being in peak athletic condition. Thierry Henry had the same attitude.

It wasn't their abstinence that made them the most sought-after players in the division. But both realised there was nothing to be gained by excessive drinking sessions.

That's the real point. In a game where a club like Barcelona obsessively control their players' diets in order to maintain a fitness programme that puts them in peak condition, why jeopardise your chances?

The science emphatically backs the argument for curbing binge drinking if not abstaining altogether. Many clubs and players conform to the "72-hour rule", as St Ledger insisted he was doing on Wednesday night. His alcohol consumption finished at least three and a half days before his Leicester City team play Chelsea in the FA Cup.

But players can still feel residual effects even after 72 hours: a slowed down central nervous system, decreased co-ordination and concentration as well as susceptibility to soft-tissue damage.

Secondly -- and perhaps more importantly -- all of these effects will be felt most acutely in the training sessions that involve the final preparations for games like those against Chelsea.

As with dieting and fitness, dealing with the opposition has become a serious -- occasionally scientific -- business. Moves are rehearsed, team shapes memorised. Even one morning lost to recovering from alcohol can damage plans.

Famously, Franco Baresi used to insist that the Milan defence come in on days off in order to maintain their level of organisation.

Sluggish

If this all seems like fussing over nothing, consider the following. At one point in the Trapattoni era, there was a particular qualifier where a handful of players seemed sluggish and off-form -- which came across in the eventual result.

When a question was put to one extended member of the Irish party about fitness levels, the response came back that, "Ah, we're fine on that, there was a bit of drinking earlier in the week."

Of course, the players probably stuck to the 72-hour rule. But it still clearly had an effect.

When players are defending their wages, they often say "it's a short career". The same should apply to their lifestyle.

To maximise your talent, why not make the sacrifices now and reap the rewards later? Ultimately, that's a bigger decision than any St Ledger faced on Wednesday.

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