Other than football, my teenage years were troubled. I was a very shy and insecure boy. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin other than when I was playing football. I had the worst attendance of my school. You couldn’t get me into a classroom. I wasn’t good at it so I ran away. I didn’t face my fears. The first time I turned up at the school gates I cried. That was the last time I cried until I sobered up aged 29. My mum took me home and it was a repeating pattern. She took me in, by 10am I was in the sick room making out I was ill, she came to get me and by 11am I was in the park playing footy.
At five I knew I wanted to be a footballer. My first addiction was football. It took me away from thoughts and feelings, just like alcohol did later. I felt assertive on the football pitch, which was in complete contrast to the real me, who was scared and introverted. As a kid going through pain, I had football. But there is only so much time you can be on the football pitch – sooner or later you have to look in that mirror.
I was emotionally and mentally crippled when I sobered up at 29
I don’t want to come across as arrogant, but football was the easy bit. I was gifted. My playing success wouldn’t have surprised my younger self. It was perfectly normal for me to win. Our under-nines team at Dagenham United won five years on the trot, then Essex County, on to Arsenal where we won the FA Youth Cup, Reserve League, and after four years I was in the team. There were a couple of setbacks, I broke my metatarsal, which started me drinking because I didn’t have football. But I was always confident.
Turning 16 is a strange time for a footballer and their family. My football completely took over. I have two sisters, but I was the focal point of the family. It was all-consuming. And it is an even more anxious time now. When I joined Arsenal there were only three centre-backs to go past. It was about quality, not quantity. Now 99 per cent of EPL players taken on at 16 fall out of the system by 21. The trawler goes out for Man City and washes up the sardines.
I go into football clubs to talk to players who are 16 or 17. I set up Sporting Chance so it would be different for today’s young players. Every one of the England team at the World Cup would have had access to my seminars, so they all have a bit of education around drink, drugs, fear, anxiety, depression. I don’t know if I would have listened, but we didn’t have that. I was dragged, and I didn’t need much dragging, to the pub by the old pros, talking about team spirit. Kenny Sansom and David O’Leary were the role models. Big drinkers, big entertainers, funny men. Go home to my thoughts and feelings? No thanks, I’ll go to the pub on another bender.
I really had to work at being a drunk. That is the madness. I started on shandy and never liked the taste. Anyone in their right mind would have a Coke. Why was I trying to be a good drinker? It was for effect and to quieten those thoughts and feelings. It was one hell of a drug. Win or lose, hit the booze.