Doug Stenhouse reveals how Berwick Rangers midfielder Martin Neil's recent admission of drug binges has highlighted a worrying statistic in regard to the SFA's random drug testing policy
The headlines were all too sadly familiar. Once more a professional footballer had gone off the rails and was seeking help for his addiction. This time, the situation is different however, in that this is no superstar with plenty of money and free time. This is the story of Martin Neil, a part-time player in the Scottish Third Division who has admitted to taking a variety of illegal drugs for the past 12 years of his playing career.
Martin joined Berwick Rangers as a youngster in 1986. Born and raised in the town, he was a promising prospect who, after a brief spell at Dundee United, went on to make over 200 appearances for his local team, scoring 34 goals. He is a ball-playing midfielder who is regarded as one of the most creative talents in Scotland outside the Premier League. He did not look out of place when I saw him play as a trialist for Bolton Reserves against a Manchester United side that included David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Nevilles. Unfortunately, the then Bolton manager Bruce Rioch moved to Arsenal, the interest was lost and Neil never quite made it to the bigger stage.
For the past six years he has been a regular in the Berwick side and was one of the best players in the promotion side of 1993-94. In recent years, however, his disciplinary record has been dreadful. He was even shown the red card twice in one match as he carried on the argument with the referee as he left the field. An 11-game ban followed. His latest six-match suspension in April signalled the end of Berwick’s promotion push as the team stuttered to find any decent form without him. Drugs or not, he is still our best player. The club and the manager have stuck by him but his story generates a lot of questions.
Ten years ago, footballers would head out to the pubs and clubs for a few beers after a game. These days, even Third Division players in Scotland are required to keep extremely fit. Consuming large amounts of liquid produces a weight gain that has to be trained off, so as “social” drugs become easier to get hold of, it must be tempting for players to stick to soft drinks and pills when out on the town.
Martin’s addiction may be just the tip of the iceberg. In the 12 years that he says he regularly took drugs, he was never once subjected to a random drugs test. The Scottish Football Association say they carry out 40 random tests a year, but 18 out of the 20 lower division clubs said they had no idea a testing programme even existed. The reaction afterwards has also been puzzling: deafening silence from the SFA, most of the media, even the players’ union. The football authorities appear to prefer burying their heads in the sand rather than talk publicly about the need to educate young players on the dangers of taking drugs.
Martin is now being referred by his GP for counselling. Berwick Rangers will no doubt try to offer moral support but it will be down to Neil to break his addiction and get his life back. The manager and supporters of Berwick will want to see him back in the side for the beginning of next season. He is after all, the best player to come from the town since Trevor Steven. Unfortunately, that won’t be why he is remembered.
From WSC 148 June 1999. What was happening this month