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Ex-Aston Villa star Gary Charles on battling alcoholism and pressure facing footballers today

By Sutton Coldfield Observer  |  Posted: May 16, 2017

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Gary Charles, centre, and Lorna McLelland launched GCSportsCare this week, which was supported by Darius Vassell and Marlon Harewood.

Gary Charles, centre, and Lorna McLelland launched GCSportsCare this week, which was supported by Darius Vassell and Marlon Harewood.

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GARY Charles was not your run-of-the-mill alcoholic.

He wouldn't drink himself to sleep on a daily basis, he'd rather spend months off it before hitting the bottle hard if he picked up an injury or became disillusioned.

The full-back, who spent four seasons with Aston Villa in the 90s, battled with his inner demons for much of his career. He was ill and was, to his own admission, seriously in denial.

Gary, who also spent time inside due to his alcoholism, even admitted he could sometimes get away with it and could shamelessly paper up the cracks.

"I could go in and train as well and still do okay in training," Gary said, who was twice capped by England.

"I was in denial for a long time, even when I went into my last treatment centre they did checks on my liver and it was like a non-drinker's… the bloke before me had chronic sclerosis of the liver.

"All the time you end up telling yourself, 'You're not as bad as him' so you can play mind games with yourself."

Gary was speaking at The Belfry Hotel and Golf Resort on Monday (May 15) to launch his new GCSportsCare business, working alongside ex-Villa player liaison officer Lorna McLelland to help guide sports stars – young and old – throughout their careers, both before and after their playing days.

"GCSportsCare is a service which provides advice and support for sports people and their families," added Lorna, who was the first club liaison officer in the country having been appointed by the late Graham Taylor in 2002.

"We offer support and care for people who need a haven sometimes and a place to go to discuss any problems that they may be having in their lives – anything from relationship problems to depression, on and off the pitch, and things they don't necessarily want to discuss with their manager and co-players.

"Sometimes they just need to get out and have a chat with somebody that understands the world of sport which Gary and I both do. Gary, as a player, and myself, as the role of a welfare officer.

"We spend time with our clients and assess their individual needs, sometimes he may need clinical treatment but a lot of the time people just need a place to go, a place to be, someone to listen and someone who understands the life of a sports person and the pressures involved in that.

"We do have an office in central Birmingham which is in a discreet location. People can come into the office and they're not recognised. Discretion is very, very important to us.

"We can also go to players' homes if they prefer."

Gary also opened up about his time as a young footballer, growing up on a council estate in London before being signed by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, a dressing room full of hard-nosed egos.

Gary revealed: "For me, personally, my own admission is to encourage people to talk about their problems.

"I know from my own personal experiences as a 21-year-old professional footballer, I was frightened.

"I didn't know who to talk to and, for me, if I had something like this available when I was younger would I have had to go through what I went through? Maybe not.

"I speak to young players today and they are genuinely scared because they feel it could be detrimental to their football careers if they talk about their problems and, in some cases, it is.

"I know what it's like to be a young player struggling with alcoholism and trying to play and trying to juggle the two together.

"I saw a young player only last week. He was lost. He was like a lost little puppy and didn't know where to turn. He's got a quite big football agent as well and he doesn't understand it.

"I spoke to one player, he has been at a Championship club for 10 years and he didn't even know who the welfare officer was!

"A lot gets spoken but not a lot gets done. To have something else outside of the football club will benefit players."

Most recently, Everton's Aaron Lennon, 30, was detained under the Mental Health Act by police and is now "receiving care and treatment for a stress-related illness".

And Gary believes a lot of the players in the game today are "suffering in silence".

"For Aaron, I'm not actually sure what he's going through but I'm sure he's in good hands.

"I think there are a lot of players out there who are suffering in silence and I just feel, if there were more people that were honest with what they're going through on a daily basis, I think it would ease the stigma around addiction. That's why I'm so open about it.

"I don't think we'll ever know about the scale of it.

"I do know that the mind-set has shifted in the sense that the lads aren't drinking so much because of the testing and strict sports science departments now."

Another issue Gary discussed was the endless amounts of money surrounding football nowadays, with teenagers earning thousands of pounds a week.

Responding to whether money is an issue for young footballers, Gary said: "Yes, definitely.

"I went into a Premier League club last week and did a presentation to their under-23s and it was one of the things we covered that with money comes problems as well.

"It's difficult for a kid of 18 to be given £20,000 a week when he's growing up on a council estate and that's me talking from my own experiences as well.

"I was actually embarrassed about the money side of football when I played.

"I grew up on a council estate myself so I just feel that something needs to be in place that could cap young players' wages – maybe put it into a trust fund or something like that so they're not given too much money too soon because common sense tells you that if you give a young kid £20,000-a-week it's going to cause problems for them."

Asked whether football clubs are doing enough to help youngsters, Gary added: "I speak to a lot of captains and it was quite a closed shop.

"The way to move forward, for me, is about getting into the dressing rooms.

"There is help out there and I think the boys are scared to go for it.

"I know that the lads can come to us, there's only me and Lorna and it doesn't go further and we respect everyone's privacy and that's a massive part of it."

Gary has been sober for a decade since quitting alcohol all together, but still gets asked by his close friends if he'd like a drink, to which he always declines.

To find out more about the services Gary and Lorna provide, go to the GCSportsCare website on www.gcsportscare.co.uk

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