It comes as no news that Scotland has a drinking problem. Recent legislation passed by the Scottish Government has largely focused on curbing the nation’s drinking. Coming into affect on the first of October, tighter laws regarding the marketing and pricing of alcohol will aim to curtail a nation for whom alcoholism is as ingrained as the rolling of an R.
But has the national obsession with booze been cultivated over the past century, in part, by the drinking antics of a nation’s sporting heroes? As a country devoted to sport, be it football, rugby, boxing or shinty, Scotland is never slow to propel those who do well to iconic status. So, when these icons, watched admiringly for their sporting finesse, are then seen to be hitting the bottle the stigma of drink is eased, and such behaviour becomes anecdotal and imitable.
Given it’s status as the nation’s sport, it is not surprising that Scotland’s football stars come under the most scrutiny. Rangers and Scotland stalwarts Alan McGregor and Barry Ferguson were the most recent to be held to account. In 2009 the pair not only ran up a four figure bar tab, leading to them being benched in the following international game, they then exacerbated their situation by a touchline indiscretion which would lead to their life time international ban and would land them in hot water at their club.
But as then Rangers manager, Walter Smith, said, they were not the first group of Scottish players to get drunk. In what is now recalled as a whimsical anecdote, Celtic legend Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone got himself into bother a matter of days before a match against England where the high spirited player set himself adrift in a leaking boat out into the Irish sea without any oars whilst singing ‘Scotland the Brave’. A patriotic story, perhaps, but not exactly a good moral lesson for the fans. What perhaps makes the story worse is that he only received a slap on the wrist and was still permitted to play. The lesson learnt there?
But these players were minnows compared to other heavy drinkers of Scottish football. While playing for Hibernian, George Best was sacked after he went on a drinking session with the French rugby team, who were in Edinburgh to play Scotland. He was brought back a week later. By this point Best had already risen and fallen in dramatic fashion and had returned to British football from America when Hibs were fighting relegation. Whilst Hibs were still relegated Best’s arrival at the club saw ticket sales quadruple, such was the man’s standing. Alcohol would play as much a part of his public life as his skill on the pitch, and would sadly claim his life.
A similarly gifted yet troubled player, Paul Gascoigne, would etch out such a name for himself at Rangers that he is now in their hall of fame. But again his skill on the pitch is marred by the on going farcical nature of his alcoholism, having been admitted to rehabilitation a dozen times now the player’s troubles are well documented.
Yet in Scotland the drinking culture among athletes is far from limited to footballers. Ken Buchanan, a boxing hall of famer, was once one of the top billed fighters in the world and a force to be reckoned with in the lightweight division. But as with Benny Lynch before him and as Scott Harrison would go on to suffer, Buchanan would demonstrate the Scottish athlete’s ability to be laid low by the drink, “I tried Alcoholics Anonymous but couldn’t take it. It has played a big part in my life and caused the break up of my second marriage.”
And even in the less physically trying sports Scotland’s competitors adhere to our national stereotype. In darts, former world champion John ‘Jocky’ Wilson’s heavy drinking would lead to onset diabetes and his candour – for which his fans loved him – has left him a recluse in a tenement flat.
Again and again Scottish athlete’s compete among the world’s best but all too often their glory is cut short by being far to familiar with their local. Whatever the reason they themselves are the roll models for a nation that perceives heavy drinking as a common occurrence, and they do little to deter imitation.