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Why Arsene Wenger is an inspiration in the battle against alcohol

Posted on 7 June 2015 | 1:06pm

You see, even when I am writing about alcoholism, I have to get in something about sport. Did I tell you I had a book out? It is called WINNERS AND HOW THEY SUCCEED. Arsene Wenger is in it. So are lots of other great sports, business and political winners. And so is my pledge that the next big win I have on my own agenda is to change the way that Britain thinks, talks and acts about mental health and mental illness, especially depression and alcoholism. Best to stick to what I know.

What does that have to do with Arsene Wenger, I hear you ask? Isn’t he just that French guy who looks a bit miserable even when they win, and can’t do a zip up on his anorak? Well, that is part of the story. The other part is that he is one of the most intelligent men ever to have managed at the top flight in football, whatever Piers Morgan may try to tell you.

But his name popped up on my twitter feed over the past few days as I have been banging on – apologies but I always feel strongly about alcoholism, and especially when I have just lost another friend to this wretched illness – about changing the culture in our country, changing the awful relationship we have with alcohol.

We are, dare I say from my travels around the world, seen as the alcohol abuse capital of the world. And before anyone says ‘Russia,’ may I offer a rare word of praise for the Putin government who have taken some tough action on this and started to get the needle moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, in France, have you ever wondered why the Heineken Cup is called the H Cup – because rightly they have stopped the alcoholisation of sports sponsorship and I wish they would do the same here.

In the UK meanwhile, liver disease is the only major killer on the rise. It is a disaster and a scandal of epic proportions and we are all conspiring in it by failing to acknowledge the scale of the growth and the cost of it all; and the politicians – with the exception of the SNP government and a few down here – are fuelling it by failing to do what is needed to lead change.

Note that phrase. ‘Lead change.’ Change comes if you work for it and make it happen. The reason Arsene Wenger came to people’s minds as I talked of the need for cultural change was that when he came into English football, he was appalled at the drinking culture among men who were paid handsomely to be professional athletes. He was also appalled at the diet of many players. So what did he do? He led change. And what did that achieve? It led to greater success. And what impact did that have? It led others to study how he did it. And what did they conclude? Hey, you know what, if you don’t drink and you eat well, and you understand that rest is just as important as training, you play better.

Now, though there are plenty of stories of top footballers going off the rails, the ‘culture’ has changed. Wenger can take credit that goes well beyond the walls of The Emirates’ stadium.

It was particularly relevant today as I saw the papers at the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme, and a desperately sad story on the front of the Sunday Mirror about former Arsenal and England left back Kenny Sansom. He is clearly an alcoholic, and he is clearly in trouble And I know there will be plenty of readers who say, well, every time he picks up a glass or a bottle, that is his choice. That is true. But then they imply, and this implication has been in many of the questions I have faced about Charles Kennedy’s death, that it must therefore be the case that alcoholism is effectively a choice too, the result of too many wrong choices on the way.

But it is not. It is an illness and lots of us are suspectible to it. And until we face up to that, and do what is needed to change a culture where drinking is so embedded, so normalised, that you are considered weird if you don’t drink, and even weirder if you don’t get drunk, we are going to hell in a handcart.

So who has to lead the change? Well of course parents do. But ultimately leadership must come from politicians. That is why I admire what Alex Salmond did as First Minister, taking on the powerful alcohol lobby – in the home of Scotch whisky don’t forget – and bringing in measures on price and availability that over time will change the culture as they have where it has been tried elsewhere in the world, as we have done with smoking.

It is also why I feel such anger at the UK government under David Cameron, which brought forward an alcohol strategy full of good ideas and good intentions and then dropped it under pressure from his right wing and, above all, the alcohol lobby who found it easier to get in to see ministers than did any of the NHS, police, ambulance services, charities who are picking up the pieces day and night.

Charles’ death has merely fuelled my determination that we do something about it. I intend to keep on the backs of ministers on this. Also, one of the things I will be asking of the Labour leadership candidates is what their stance will be. Will they stand up and be brave? Or be scared to challenge the prevailing wisdom, and scared to stop people ‘having fun?’ Because leadership is about showing courage to change what needs to change, not pandering to powerful lobbies or people who think life is just about having a good time.

As so often, I think the public are ahead of the politicians. I have never had a bigger response than to the blog I wrote on Tuesday about Charles’ death the day before. Of course this was partly about the fact we were mourning a popular man. But it was also because people know the truth about this issue, that we are drowning in a sea of alcohol, and living in denial of the damage.

Is there any country in the world, apart from this one, where you can buy cheap booze as you pay for petrol? Do we actually have any soap operas that are not basically set in pubs, or in courts and hospitals filled with people driven there by drink and drugs? Have we actually reached the stage were we don’t even flicker now when we see stag parties and hen parties starting at airports at six in the morning with the booze flowing even then? Is it not time to listen to the kind of overseas students I met in Edinburgh yesterday who said they could not believe the drinking habits of their British counterparts, and they could not understand the pressure they felt under to drink, and to get drunk when they did so?

I know there is nothing worse than a convert. But maybe having seen over the edge of the personal precipice on this, I can see more clearly the national precipice coming nearer with every week, month, year that we fail to tackle this. Talk to the police. Like the British Transport chief talking to me on twitter yesterday. Talk to the Royal Free doctor who took me on a tour of the hospital and said there were alcohol related illnesses on display in every single ward, not just A and E or liver disease. Above all talk the the alcoholics themselves, and talk to their families. Then you’ll know.

To those ‘responsible drinkers’ (and what a nonsense that the industry is in charge of the education programme on this) who ask why they should pay a little more, or have availability restricted, because some cannot control themselves, I ask them to look around, and look outside their own little bubbles – you are paying already. In an NHS drowning in alcohol; in police stations, courts and prisons full of alcoholics and drug addicts.

In the Sunday Times today I have a piece in the News Review on my friendship with Charles and our relationship with alcohol. I mention a place in Peebleshire in Scotland I know, called Castle Craig. Many of the people there are Scottish alcoholics. But there are also a lot of Dutch alcoholics and drug addicts sent there at public expense by a more enlightened government than ours which understands addiction is an illness. Until we do the same, and until we treat it as such, until we educate young people properly about the dangers, until we stop seeing drink as a reward for good things and a commiseration for the bad, and until our leaders summon up the guts to do something as difficult and challenging as changing a culture that has gone horribly wrong, looking at price, availability, marketing and sponsorship, and education, then watch out for many more Charles Kennedys. The difference is you will never hear of them. You will never have politicians queuing to pay tribute to them. They will just be yet more victims of one of the biggest killers, the biggest destroyers of hope and humanity known to man.

That, Mr Cameron, and Mr, Mrs or Ms next leader of the Labour Party, is what leadership is about. Ask Mr Wenger. He changed a culture. In Arsene we trust, as the little flag behind the goal says. Would that we could say the same for a government too scared and too in hock to an industry lobby to do what it knows needs to be done, and more people will die as a result. Trust me too on this one.

Ps — I will put up the Sunday Times piece after a day or so. Not happy re the pay well either folks, but they did make four figure donations to Alcohol Concern, and also the MayTree suicide sanctuary, of which I am a patron. For which thanks

  • Steve

    I moved to Finland about 18 months ago. If you want to purchase wines or spirits these can only be purchased at a specialised off-licence. Shops can only sell beers, ciders or similar.

    After 9pm alcohol can only be sold in pubs or clubs, no shops or off-licences allowed to sell after this time.

    When I first arrived I found it a pain in the backside if I fancied popping out to grab a few cans. I did not drink much before, I drink even less now.

  • Maddie Casson

    New labour support of extended licensing hours in city centres was insane. The emergency services still dealing with the consequences.

    • Michele

      Pls show some numbers, have things actually got worse (not just shifted from one criteria’s column to another)?

  • ANM

    If we agree that there needs to be a change in culture, and I think we all do, then we are going to have to go way beyond minimum pricing of alcohol. Most people would pay the extra prices. Most people already do pay more than the 50p per unit proposed by the SNP. The culture of getting off your head is not going to be countered by putting up the cost of cheap cider. What we need is a change in attitude towards being pissed in general, not just if you are poor.

    In the Czech Republic, where I lived, beer is very very cheap, and yet the attitude is that being hammered is very low class. A policy idea from there. When someone is picked up by am ambulance for being drunk, they are taken not to A&E, but to a special drunk unit, where they can safely sleep off the booze under the eye of medical staff. In the morning, you are presented with a bill for the costs. Unlike the UK, this frees up emergency services and does have a stigma attached to it. A friend went through this, and stopped boozing immediately after the experience. Contrast this with the A&E departments in the UK who spend so much of their time mopping up the effects of excessive drinking.

    Creative thinking is needed to tackle this culture. Not just pricing, which only affects the poor, but the whole culture.

    • Michele

      The Czech idea is brilliant and fair.
      I don;t like hearing about our talented, trained, clever and caring ambulance and hospital crews being abused by anyone that’s just out of their head (nor to hear anything about the abusive boring victim that’s doing the abusing).

      That’s the trouble isn’t it …. wanting to spit on the wino but knowing they’re also victims……..

      Something has to be done about access to units, ration cards? :-s
      Accessibiity is too easy,
      M&S offering @ £10 for a 3 course meal for 2 people plus wine is just asking for trouble! It seems like largesse from the retailers but it must involve screwing suppliers as well as ‘talking down’ to customers.
      Their very design is asking for trouble.
      I buy them although I know they just can’t be legit ……. its time that suppliers were as protected as customers.

  • TC

    > Is there any country in the world, apart from
    > this one, where you can buy cheap booze as
    > you pay for petrol?

    there are drive-through daiquiri stands all over Louisiana

  • Ed

    Excellent article, I agree with your message but it is tainted somewhat by your own ambiguous drinking habits. Do you still put your own health at risk by drinking? Is that a good example for a role model?

  • Andy Cornell

    Superbly written and agree totally with all the points raised. We have a
    gargantuan and dangerous drinking culture in this country. Addiction can start at a young age with consumption of vast quantities of alcohol being considered a badge of honour. I would suggest the dangers of alcohol abuse being introduced in to the national curriculum like drug abuse was in the 1970`s when I was at school. I would suggest also restricting alcohol advertising from portraying the glamorous world of drinking. One area needs special attention; the dangerous rise in women’s drinking which is prevalent in student age and middle class communities. Having witnessed this change first hand its physical and emotional impact it need serious attention. Many women are now drinking several bottles of wine a week in the name of socialising ,often 1.5 to 2 bottles in one sitting. Greater emphasis needs to be placed also on parents as role models ,if children grow up witnessing their parents getting drunk regularly they are much more likely to copy them. To compound AC`s tribute to Arsene Wenger ,the excessive consumption of alcohol by professional footballers has been a contributing factor to underachievement on the international stage.
    The 1970s was probably the peak of such indulgence with players such as George Best Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood et al in the limelight. England failed to qualify for 2 world cups whilst other European countries were forging ahead with nutritional development.
    No coincidence that most lads my age were sat at home supporting Scotland in 1974 and 1978.Keep up the good work AC!

  • Jill

    It’s the difference between leadership and management. We have politicians who manage. And as for the very sad death of Charles Kennedy, I am afraid to say that Lembit Opik has said it best in (gulp) the Mail on Sunday. The pious language last week about us all having our “demons” or our “flaws” reveals that we still haven’t accepted, deep down, that alcoholism is a disease. Charles Kennedy died because there was no help available in a medical emergency.

  • Thank you for this. I always read your pieces about MH and addiction with a heavy heart.

  • Ehtch

    Have a cricketing friend who was an apprentice at Arsenal in the early 1980s, and he often talks about the drinking culture there at the time, which he fell into. As exemplified by a fellow apprentice, later, first team, captain, fell off the rails we could say. Man U were renowned too for off the fields. Leeds U with Revie had a bit of a drinking club too, reading the various autobiographies. “Carless Hands: The Forgotten Truth of Gary Sprake” is a brilliant read.