If you want to understand the football business, in almost any context, it is often useful to employ the model of drug addiction. From players and coaches, through commercial management and administration to the fans themselves, the model of addiction runs through the game like the name in a seaside stick of rock.
Amongst players, it’s obvious for all to see. The behaviour patterns of addiction are everywhere. As players will tell you, there’s nothing like the ‘rush’ of playing the game, but they’re habituated to a hit they won’t always be able to get. By the time they’re turning their early thirties, they know (both literally and figuratively) they won’t be able to ‘score’ any more; no matter how much money or power you have, you can’t buy this kind of dope.
Many almost immediately move on to the methadone of media work or, if they’re lucky, to a role in coaching and developing young players, or even as kit man. In reality, anything which keeps you close, within touching distance of the real deal, will do. Throwing bags into the hold of a team bus is better than cold turkey in the world outside.
Then there are the fanatics (fans for short) who are drug-dependent on watching the game and supporting a team. If you want a model of addictive behaviour, here it is. All we need to know is that, for a hundred years or so, millions of these dope fiends fought (often literally) and struggled to get to a game where they gladly paid for the privilege of standing in two inches of piss for the afternoon. Nuff said?
Even the owners and commercial managers of the clubs, often quite unexpectedly, can find themselves, regardless of their original motivations, mainlining on the game. Innocent souls who imagine it’s ‘just another form of business’ soon learn it ain’t. It has all the en-trappings addiction requires: huge highs and desperate lows; paranoid delusions of power and significance; all lived on the knife-edge of not knowing what the hell is going to happen next.
Just recently a new book has been published which provides an unforgettably vivid account of a life in football in which real drug addiction collided with the game itself. It’s an autobiography by Paul James; a two-time member of the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame, and involved in the North American soccer industry for the past twenty six years as a player, coach, television pundit, and writer.
Despite the CV, James was born a Brit; Welsh to be exact. He was raised in Cardiff – went to the same school as Gareth Bale – and trained with Arsenal in 1985. He moved to Canada and ended up with 47 caps for the national team, playing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and 1986 FIFA World Cup finals in Mexico. At the young age of 26, he became player/coach of the Ottawa Intrepid Club.
James was appointed coach of the Canadian National U20 team in 1998 and led the Canadian team to the CONCACAF Group title and their subsequent appearance at a FIFA World Youth Championship. From 2004 to 2009, he was the Director of Soccer and Head Coach of York University in Canada, and Assistant coach with the highly successful Canadian national U20 women’s team that won the 2008 CONCACAF Championship. Throughout this whole period and more, he was addicted to crack cocaine, and nobody knew.
Reading James’ accounts of the crazy, often bloody, nights, bingeing on crack in some of the worst and most dangerous, semi-derelict, districts of great cities, you find it amazing that he could get away with it for so long. He was often in a state of complete terror at the prospect of being unmasked. His book is a highly personal account of a modern descent into hell, undertaken almost in full view of public scrutiny, yet he just about held it together for over a decade.
His world did, of course, eventually collapse. Paul James is now two years into re-hab – much of it spent reconstructing the narrative of his long journey into addiction, from which this publication derives. It’s called, appropriately enough, ‘Cracked Open’.
On reflection, Paul sees his life to date as like one, long, spectacular crash. It isn’t just about drugs. He’s been standing at the crossroads of a collision of no less than four addictions:
“My addiction to the sport of soccer, which was the first and most pleasing; my addiction to work, which I made sustainable for many years, my addiction to crack cocaine, which realistically should have cost me my life; and finally my addiction to excessive stress.”
Three of these are common currency in the game of football, and the fourth may be more common than we think.
You can find out more about Paul James by clicking here.
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Football.