Drugs in football – part two

By Jack Deacon

This is the second part of an article published earlier this week.

A BBC One Real Story documentary broadcast in 2003 showed the results of a survey carried out with professional footballers. One of the key findings was that 5.6% of players knew of a colleague who used performance-enhancers.

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


Another notable finding was that 4% of the players admitted to receiving injections of an unknown substance. Many of the injections given to the 4% bracket probably only contained legal substances, but it is alarming that players are unaware of the ingredients surging into their bloodstreams, and it would be naïve to have no reservations.

With so much pressure to succeed, clubs naturally try to ensure that their players are in peak condition, and as such, will try any methods within reason, to give their squad an edge over opponents. There is but a thin line between using unconventional, but legal, methods to enhance players’ fitness levels, and breaching the doping law enforced by the UK Anti-doping Agency, whose budget the coalition government has cut by 3%.

During his spell as Chelsea manager, Claudio Ranieri instructed club doctors to give players sessions attached to an iron supplement drip, presumably to replenish their bodies with the iron lost during exercise. Chelsea’s medical team were uneasy with adopting these methods and refused to comply, so the Italian manager got his own team of coaches, countrymen who had performed the procedure for him at previous clubs, to carry out the sessions. This routine is clearly dubious, yet his medical team have maintained that the practice is entirely within regulations. It’s a case that highlights the ambiguity surrounding what can and cannot be done by clubs.

It’s obvious that the iron drip is intended to improve performances, but it seems that their are more covert, yet seemingly harmless practices that are punished harshly.

Manchester City’s Ivorian defender Kolo Toure was earlier this year given a six-month ban for taking a diet pill containing an illegal ingredient, apparently because of body image issues. Some football fans believed the ban to be too severe for such a small offence, but there may have been a subtext to his swallowing of the pill. Drug authorities have claimed that some diet pills can be used to cover up other substances so, although perhaps a touch sensational, it’s not completely unreasonable to wonder if his claims of being insecure about his body were a pretense.

Goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, now at QPR, received a nine-month ban in a similar case two years ago. The suspension came after he tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine after a play-off semi-final against Preston. He would have been banned for two years in normal circumstances but the FA believed his claim that he had taken the tablet for a chest infection. His then-manager, Kevin Blackwell, suggested that Kenny had been made a martyr by the FA and warned that the rules would only become more stringent as the 2012 Olympics approaches.

The Truth About Drugs in Football raised an issue with how infrequently players are tested for drugs in England – apparently only once every three years, while other sports test professionals several times a year – and proposed that a player from each team should be tested after every game, as is standard practice in Italy. They also lamented how many tests are abandoned, arguing that it’s too easy to steer clear of a test.

Perhaps the FA is ignorant of the problem at hand. The point is backed up by another stat published in the 2003 BBC Real Story documentary about drugs where it was revealed that 5.8% of the footballers questioned testified to have been given prior warning of an upcoming drug test.

The implied menace was rejected by the Secret Footballer columnist who writes for the Guardian, who dismissed the claims as “laughable”. He explained that “anyone who knows anything about the daily life of a football player will tell you that training can be moved at the drop of a hat, depending on anything from a good or bad result to the weather”.

While a certain degree of doubt surrounds how prominent the involvement of drugs in the English game is, there is no doubt that the issue lingers on.

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