Former Leeds United and Reading manager Brian McDermott suffered from alcoholism for much of his adult life, but thankfully it’s something he’s managed to get under control with the help and support of loved ones.
As a youngster, McDermott progressed through the Arsenal academy before making his first-team debut in 1979. When he came on the team to play alongside Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, David O’Leary, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton, McDermott explains to FourFourTwo how drinking was encouraged at football clubs.
“The first time I grabbed a drink I got drunk and that was it — once I grabbed a drink, I couldn’t stop,” McDermott tells me. FourFourTwo. “I could go without a drink for a long time because I was playing, but in the ’70s and ’80s it was a badge of honor to be able to drink.
“All the best teams, all the best players could drink. It was always about going out, having fun. The staff encouraged you to go out as a group, and if you didn’t continue, a night out you got fined. It was all about alcohol .
“Alcohol solves a problem like a short-term solution. Like any addiction, it’s a solution to your problem, and alcohol works until it stops working. It took me a long time to realize I couldn’t do it anymore.” don’t do it anymore. I could function: I didn’t drink in the morning, I didn’t drink at work, I functioned as a footballer, as a manager or whatever I did… until I stopped.”
Eventually, the drinking took its toll, though he didn’t fully acknowledge this until he rejoined his boyhood club as a scout for the past seven years.
“It was February 15, 2015 and I just felt I had to do something,” he explains. “I had had enough and couldn’t go on. I had tried many times to stop drinking on my own, but I never succeeded. Drinking was a way for me to numb feelings, but the problem is that it numbs everything: happiness, joy, sadness… Eventually you become a little numb to everything.
“I’d finished managing at Leeds and working as a scout for Arsenal, and eventually I got to the point where I woke up one morning and decided I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d had a moment the night before – I was drunk – where I felt down, anxious, and depressed, and I thought, “I have to say it out loud.” It was the best thing I’ve ever done.
“I went to our study where my wife worked and contacted her for help. We weren’t really together at the time and hadn’t been for a year, but we were staying in the same house. I asked if she could call someone for me , and then she made the phone call that changed my life.”
McDermott continues, suggesting that the conversation with his wife that day was a life-changing moment for him.
“I drank to numb my feelings and finally I asked my wife for help. I’m so thankful she was there because if I had waited another two or three hours I probably wouldn’t have said anything. She called someone and they called me. It was a group thing and I got involved with other people who understood. I haven’t had a drink since.
“I started to get my feelings back, good and bad. You get the good ones, which is great, but you also get the feelings you don’t like and you have to deal with them on life’s terms, without medication or addiction. It could get pretty hard but it’s been great to have the tools and all these people to talk to Even now if I don’t start a day in a good place I can pick up the phone or tell my wife and not only does it take hours, even if it makes me feel a little uncomfortable.”
At the time, McDermott was still working as a scout at Arsenal, although he did not tell anyone what he was going through. Now the director of football for Scottish side Hibernian, the 62-year-old has found peace in being sober.
“While I got support and help, I was still working for Arsenal. People around me knew I had stopped drinking, but I didn’t have to tell people – I just did my job and did my job. I flew to different parts of the world, and I would find my hotel and there would be a meeting down the road that I could go to, it was incredible.
“I was in Florence and there was a meeting just around the corner; the match started at 7:45 pm and the meeting was at 5:00 pm, so I walked to the meeting and then to the match. I also went to a meeting in Seville. I “I found peace today and that’s it for me. I’m eight years sober. I have my wife back, I have my children, I am a grandpa and I am very peaceful. Just having that feeling of calmness and being able to get a good night’s sleep is incredible to me.”
In addition to his work with Hibs, McDermott has spoken openly about his struggles with alcoholism at football clubs in the UK and Ireland, as well as companies not involved in the game.
“I’m now doing talks and presentations about my story. I only started a year ago, but I speak in all sorts of different places: I did one in Dublin recently; I was at a Premier League club last week; I do Championship- clubs, non-competitive clubs, private companies…
“I don’t give advice – I’m not a counselor or a psychiatrist – but I have an experience and I talk about what I’ve done. If someone somewhere needs a signpost to help, I point them in that direction. I have to maintain that balance in my life I can’t go on a tangent.
“I still have feelings of imposter syndrome sometimes, but I can just let them go. I don’t fight them because they’re just feelings and everyone has those feelings – it’s how you deal with them that matters.”
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