Football and doping. A conversation

My eyes did a cartoonish double-take when I read about Jonjo Shelvey having a painkilling injection to enable him to play for Newcastle United recently. I surely can’t be the only person to wonder what was in that syringe. If it was a legal substance there’s no harm in revealing what it was. If it was a substance permitted after an application for a Therapeutic Use Exemption why is there not the same level of scrutiny as there is of Bradley Wiggins’s TUEs?

Considering the number of thundering editorials about cycling lately (and athletics in the past), the lack of any conversation about the medication used in professional football is peculiar.

Last November, Phil Jones had six anaesthetic injections in order to play in England’s friendly against Germany. Jose Mourinho, the manager of Jones’s club, Manchester United, is quoted on the BBC’s website saying, ‘I am not an angel and I had players injected to play official matches, crucial matches, but a friendly... to get six local anaesthetic injections to play a friendly, I've never heard of that.’

Anecdotal evidence suggests cortisone use was rife from the 1960s to the 1980s but it’s hard to say if or when that practice died out because there’s been next to no coverage of it. Eighteen years ago, the former Liverpool player Tommy Smith said that cortisone use had been routine and that he was suffering the long-term effects. Did that spark a debate about doping in football and the price players pay?

In 2013, it was reported that Gareth Bale, then at Tottenham, had used a legal blood-spinning technique to recover from injury. Did that spark pages of debate about the ‘grey areas’ about where precisely legal treatments to aid recovery cross into the unethical?

Former Arsenal and Manchester City player Samir Nasri has recently been banned for six months after posing for a photograph at a Los Angeles clinic where he underwent a banned intravenous rehydration procedure. This is perhaps the clearest indication of the culture within football. The fact Nasri thought it would be fine to pose for a photo that was put out on social media suggests that there’s not enough awareness within the game of what is and isn’t permitted.

Pep Guardiola, coach of the current Premier League leaders Manchester City, twice tested positive for nandrolone in 2001. He was banned for four months and given a seven-month suspended prison sentence. He protested his innocence and the prison sentence was overturned. In 2009 he finally won his appeal against the positive test too. Everyone accepts that and moves past it. But, as one of the best coaches in the world, Guardiola is not asked about his knowledge of whether there's any doping in Spanish, Italian, German or English football. Instead the issue du jour is whether he should be allowed to keep wearing his yellow ribbon in support of Catalan independence.

In the past year and a bit, three Premier League clubs have been charged with anti-doping rule violations concerning filing information to comply with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s whereabouts requirements. Bournemouth, Manchester City and West Ham were all given small fines equivalent to a week's salary for a reserve team left-back.

If three World Tour cycling teams – including the best of them all – had been found guilty of similar offences and handed small slap-on-the-wrist type fines what would the coverage be like? West Ham’s excuse that there was a fault with the computer system might well be absolutely true but would a cycling team get such an easy ride?

Three anti-doping rule violations in the Premier League in little over a year and instead of the thundering columns the majority in the media have reached for the tumbleweed emoji.

Instead of these stories opening the door for a sensible, mature debate about doping in football there’s a desire to shut down discussion at the earliest opportunity. The debate about Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Team Sky has been about the grey areas, about whether legal medication is in reality legalised doping, about whether the TUE system is too easy to abuse and about what constitutes performance-enhancement – and rightly so.

This is not a call for anyone to go easier on cycling, far from it, but if these are the frames of reference for the debate let’s have that debate across all sports, starting with the richest, most opaque one.

Footnote: Since posting this blog, my attention was drawn to this piece written by Miguel Delaney which was published two years ago. It's well worth a read.