The footballer Dele Alli was applauded recently after he spoke of his sleeping pill abuse. ‘It’s a problem not only I have. It’s going around more than people realise in football,’ he said during a filmed interview with Manchester United’s former captain Gary Neville.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard this. Footballers are ‘taking too many sleeping tablets and painkillers’ and addiction is becoming a ‘big issue’, former pro Ryan Cresswell warned last year. (He said his own addiction left him ‘gripping on for dear life’.) He claimed the problem is affecting stars at the very top level: ‘For me, it started with one after every game… to one a day to two a day and then I knew I was addicted.’ Former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland also revealed his addiction battle earlier this year and warned that many players were hooked on painkillers. He confronted his own problem in 2016, but relapsed during lockdown.
During his interview with Alli, Neville sympathetically admitted it was ‘not unusual’ to be offered sleeping tablets during his playing career (he retired in 2011): ‘You’d be offered one the night before the game, always, because a player might not sleep because of the build-up and the adrenaline, and also sometimes after a game.’
The problem is growing. In 2020, the Professional Footballers’ Association released the concerning results of a survey of mental health problems in the game. Nine per cent of respondents were experiencing difficulties with damaging addictive habits. ‘[It’s] much wider than people realise,’ Oxford United’s former psychotherapist Gary Bloom told the BBC earlier this month.
When you look at the lives of professional footballers, is it any wonder they sometimes come unstuck? They have usually been focused on the game since childhood, sacrificing much of their social and personal lives, before being thrust into the limelight, often while barely adults.