Drugs in football – part one

By Jack Deacon

Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary The Truth About Drugs in Football, aired on September 12 2011, has sparked much controversy over the influence of drugs in English football.

Garry O'Connor
Photo used under Creative Commons from Fraser P.


The Dispatches documentary named and shamed, as promised, a multimillion pound footballer whose drug habits had been hidden from new employers.

Scottish international Garry O’Connor is now playing his football for Hibernian in the Scottish Premier League. O’Connor had tested positive for cocaine while playing for Birmingham City in the 2009-10 season, and the documentary questioned the validity of the club’s claims that an injury sustained at the time had coincided with his ban. They instead proposed that it had been a cover-up.

The very nature of the problem means that it can be difficult to find any definitive evidence of drug use in professional football, but there have been a number of high-profile incidences in recent years.

Romanian international Adrian Mutu’s promising start to a career at Chelsea was cut short when he failed a test for cocaine in September 2004 and was banned from playing professionally for seven months. Chelsea decided to sack him a month later, just 14 months after paying nearly £16 million to sign him.

The striker, who in 2010 served another ban for using an appetite suppressant containing illegal substances, has since been ordered by FIFA to pay millions of Euros in compensation to Chelsea for the unjustified breach of contract, despite several court appeals.

While Chelsea’s stance on drugs was backed by most people within sport at the time, their haste in punishing Mutu was not met with support by all corners of the sporting world. For some, there is a feeling that the dealing of footballers who’ve failed drug tests is inconsistent; it sometimes seems as though transgressors’ identities are exposed to the public when it suits a club, and are kept secret when it doesn’t.

The exposure of Mutu’s misconduct wouldn’t have posed a problem for Chelsea because they were keen to get this high-earning player, unavailable for selection until the next season, off their books. In addition to costing clubs money through wages, a drug user damages a club’s reputation and is hard to sell for a substantial fee.

O’Connor had performed well enough in his debut season with Birmingham, when not struggling with fitness, to suggest that he could establish himself as a valuable member of their team, or at least command a decent transfer fee from a club interested in signing him.

The club could forget about the latter situation coming to surface if O’Connor’s failed drug test was out in the open – not many managers are looking for an injury-prone cocaine-user. Thus, it will have suited the club to claim that the player was out with an injury, rather than a serving a ban. Birmingham loaned O’Connor to Barnsley the following year, with his drug history unbeknownst to the Championship side.

It would be unjust to heap criticism on Birmingham though, as they’re not alone in carrying out such actions: there have been 21 cases of cocaine use in the Football League since 2003, all but two of which were covered up. The FA maintains that footballers’ identities should be hidden to protect the reputations of clubs and players, particularly as many of the players found to have taken drugs are young ones who are trying to establish themselves, and whose careers would potentially be ruined by a drug scandal.

Some established voices in the anti-doping community believe that the use of cocaine, or other recreational drugs, isn’t the main issue at hand anyway. They argue that going after those who may have taken drugs socially should surely play second fiddle to the war on systematic cheating through doping. The advantage of tackling the use of drugs like cocaine and cannabis is that it’s more clear-cut – the ingredients are known and can be traced readily – but do drugs taken socially jeopardise the integrity of football to the same degree that performance-enhancers do?

Part 2 of this feature will be posted later this week. Follow Brighton Lite on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss it.

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One thought on “Drugs in football – part one

  1. Pingback: The Truth About Drugs In Football Part Two «

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