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David James piece on smoking

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As the face of Portsmouth's anti-smoking campaign last week, I would be a hypocrite if I didn't confess my own 15-year 20-a-day habit. As ludicrous as it now seems, I spent most of my career puffing away on fags: after training, before matches and even on the team coach. It makes me feel ill just thinking about it.


I never meant to start smoking - as a kid I'd always been vehemently against it. I never understood how my friends could fancy a girl who smoked, let alone take up the habit themselves. All that changed at 15 when I broke my fi nger making a save at Garston Leisure Centre on a Thursday night. I remember that moment very clearly. Participating in any kind of sport after that was not an option while I had a large metal pin sticking out of my finger. Frustrated and bored, I succumbed to peer pressure and joined the smokers' gang. Before I knew it I was on 20 a day of some of the strongest fags around. Predictably, it became one of my obsessions and I stuck religiously to one brand. If someone turned up with a packet of 'light' fags we'd paper the holes over or rip the fi lter off . 'Light' fags were soft.


When I joined Watford as an apprentice, I had to hide my addiction. It was made very clear that smoking was frowned upon and you could be thrown out for it. I remember sneaking out of my digs in the middle of the night to sit in a bush and have a smoke, terrifi ed that someone would fi nd out. But nobody ever did and, so long as I was beating people at sprints in training, I felt happy with myself - never mind that I couldn't run anything over a lap.


I knew some of the senior players smoked and, cleaning out the changing rooms one day after Manchester United had come to Vicarage Road, I found cigarettes stubbed out on the floor. I still don't know which player it was, but the fact that they'd got away with it fuelled my addiction. I thought : ' Strewth, if a Man United player can smoke, it can't be all that bad.' And there were stories of Ossie Ardiles, one of the best players in the country, smoking 40 a day.


By the time I joined Liverpool, I was quite open about my habit. I'd sit on a step with team-mates after training and puff away. I smoked in the players' lounge and on the team bus - I got away with it because the chairman did. If my team-mates complained, I argued that they visited nightclubs without a problem so what was the difference? According to the Zeitgeist , smoking was acceptable, so I told them to like it or lump it. In hindsight it was disgraceful behaviour on my part.


These days it is hard to fathom how one of the best teams in the country allowed their players to smoke. But so long as you could do the job, that's all they were worried about: be the best or get the best - that was their motto. When I struggled to run anything over 800 metres - and I had to walk to the fi nish line - nobody said anything.


As time went on, attitudes toward smoking began to change and my ex-wife urged me to give up. But I didn't want to give up, I loved smoking. Still, football was going through a period of modernisation and with that came more intense training regimes. It was getting harder to perform and I made a conscious eff ort to cut down.


I made up rules to stop me smoking so much. My fi rst rule was not to smoke in the morning - although that went out of the window if we had an early kickoff , because I needed a fag for my prematch ritual. I decided the best thing was to become a social smoker - and I quickly became the most sociable guy in the world. I'd invite people round to the house on a Tuesday afternoon just so I could have a fag. Eventually I had to ban smoking from the house.


Society started ganging up on smokers; suddenly there were bans and government health warnings everywhere. Part of me wanted to be the stalwart and hang on, the other part wanted to give up. So I decided to quit for the new millennium. Problem was we had a game on New Year's Day and there was my pre-match ritual to think of. Sod it, I thought, I always have a cigarette before a match. Well, that was it, 12 hours into what I'd thought would be me giving up and I'd scuppered it. I gave up a couple of weeks later and the change it made to my life was incredible. For the first time I started endurance running - and enjoyed it. At Villa they told me I had acquired the stamina of a midfield player. I discovered a whole new body at 30.


Now I'm 37 and talking about hanging on for the World Cup in 2010. None of that would have been possible if I'd kept smoking. Whereas I used to struggle with training, now I actually enjoy it. People praise my fitness, but there's no way I would be in this condition if I hadn't kicked the habit. There are still plenty of players who smoke. Some of them have been photographed, like Zinedine Zidane before a World Cup semi-final in 2006 and Dimitar Berbatov. And there are plenty of others around the country, arriving at training stinking of smoke or enjoying a puff on a night out. I look at them and wonder how much fitter could they be if they gave up.


The problem is smoking is still not a taboo for clubs. There are no clauses in players' contracts, only an ambiguous line about maintaining good health. It might seem a bigger hassle for clubs to help them quit - and risking weight gain and loss of form - than to just let them get on with it. In some ways football remains a very archaic world. But the fact is that the game is in a great position to promote healthier living. If Premier League bosses were to adopt a zero-tolerance approach, it would send out a strong message to everyone.


Players wouldn't want to be photographed in the street with a cigarette, and kids wouldn't think they could keep smoking and still play like Zidane.


David James has donated his fee for this column to Cancer Research



Pretty shocking stuff. I knew Hamann used to smoke a couple but 20 a day pro footballer!

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