‘I knew it was the last chance for me – I had to get clean’
He played with greats like Gazza but Paul Stewart said drugs, booze and Souness ruined his career. The former Sunderland player has penned a new book, Damaged, and in this excerpt he tells how childhood abuse led him down a dark path
TO millions of football fans, it must have looked like I had it all.
Playing alongside legends like Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne, and Chris Waddle, I had just been picked for England.
Scoring a goal in an FA Cup final to cap a man-of-the-match display was the stuff dreams are made of.
Yet I was starting to self-destruct due to the pain of childhood abuse, taking drink and drugs to block out the past.
Liverpool forked out £2.5million to buy me. At 27, they should have been getting a man at the peak of his powers. An international with a proven track record; a midfielder with a boundless work-rate and an eye for goals.
At current prices, the transfer value would be in the region of £19m. But I sold them short. I sold myself short.
At Spurs, you were not supposed to be on the booze 48 hours before a game – I never quite managed to abide by that.
By the time Liverpool manager Graeme Souness came in with an offer which Spurs could not refuse, drugs had become a regular habit. Even the weekend I agreed the deal, the temptation of another bender proved too much.
We were on tour when Terry Venables told me Liverpool’s bid had been accepted. I already knew – word reached you back then, as it so often does now.
Liverpool were one of the biggest clubs in the world and I would have crawled over broken glass to play in that red shirt.
I met Souness in an airport hotel and, because I did not have an agent, did all the negotiations myself. When I’d got to Heathrow, I’d gone straight to the hotel bar. By the time Graeme turned up, I had a table full of empty Holsten Pils bottles.
Many months later he told me: “You have a reputation as a bit of a drinker.” I was thinking: “When you signed me I had about 10 empty lager bottles on the table. Didn’t you notice?”
They eventually agreed to pay me £10,000 a week with a £100,000 signing-on fee spread over 12 months, though Souness was as tough in negotiations as he had been in the tackle during his playing days.
Spurs were making a clear £800,000 profit – big money in those days. As I had not asked for a transfer they agreed to pay up my contract, which amounted to about £200,000 after tax.
Instead of heading home to Blackpool after meeting Souness, I went straight into old London town. A few drinks turned into yet another all-night bender – I was boozing heavily until the early hours, and taking Ecstasy and cocaine.
I remember falling out of a club as dawn broke, the first light hitting my eyes as I emerged from the darkness of yet another cavernous dance-floor.
Drink and drugs left me staggering through the West End, past Covent Garden, past Charing Cross Station, right in the heart of London.
It was as quiet as you are ever likely to see it, its taxi ranks empty save for a few pigeons, no-one around the entrance to the station or the hotel.
It wasn’t long after 5am when I saw a tramp who said to me: “Aren’t you Paul Stewart?” News of the £2.5m move to Liverpool was already out. I recall a London billboard proclaiming: ‘Stewart set for Liverpool.’
There was a second’s hesitation but there was no point in denying it so I answered: “Yes I am, mate.” Perhaps the newspaper hoarding had made him wonder if it really could be me.
It was a far better story than the transfer – the down-and-out on the streets of London. The England footballer, the cup-final hero, high on drugs and booze, wandering around at dawn in the midst of a £2.5m transfer. Even the tramp must have thought: “Why is he still out drinking at this hour of the morning?”
But beyond that look of astonishment he never said another word. I can still see him there, shaking his head.
It was not a great start to the biggest move of my footballing career, but a sign of things to come. I should have known better but I was becoming gripped by addiction and I hadn’t learned lessons from all those near-misses in the past.
Like the cops finding me in a club with cocaine but letting me go. Like the PFA dinner when the England coach pulled up as we fell out of a cab. And like numerous random drug tests at the Spurs training ground when my name did not come out of the hat. I was pushing my luck. I knew that when I was asked to travel north for the medical. It all went fine until they asked for a urine sample. In a panic about the drugs in my system, I had to say to the Liverpool club doctor: “I’m really sorry but I cannot seem to pee.” Suddenly it hit home. I could get caught. The drugs will show up. What have I done? It was a rare moment of doubt for me. I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck as I thought I was finally going to get caught. To my astonishment, the doctor said ‘no trouble at all’ and just asked me to come back at a later date. There followed two hard days of training back in Blackpool to sweat as much out of my system as possible before I returned to Anfield. I lost about seven or eight pounds in a couple of days, working like a slave with long runs on the beach. Even 48 hours later, there was still that nagging worry something might show up. A positive drugs test could mean an all-out ban from football. When I returned to Anfield, they dipped a couple of sticks into the urine sample. The Liverpool doctor explained they were looking for diabetes and testing kidney function. And nothing else. I am not a fan of Souness because of the way he was with me. I found him arrogant, ignorant even. I did not think he was a very good man-manager. But there is no-one but myself to blame for my lack of success at Liverpool. It remains the biggest regret of my footballing career. After watching the great Liverpool teams in the past, I knew nothing but constant struggle with Souness. We had a thing called ‘weigh-in day’ when he used to check players were not over-eating.
There were some characters in the squad and players like Ian Rush, Steve Nicol, and John Barnes did not always take too kindly to being treated like schoolboys. Graeme did not seem to get that at times. Neither he, nor any of the players, knew about my drugs habit. When I look back, I was taking so many risks, even after what I thought was a close call when I signed for Liverpool.
I never took drugs in front of anyone but I could not stop. I was addicted. I managed just one league goal for Liverpool, against Sheffield United on my dream Anfield debut.
The roar of the Kop as it went in stays with me still, as does the noise as you lined up in the tunnel with that famous ‘This is Anfield’ sign right in front of you. You could see fear in the eyes of the opposition.
Liverpool of course had been in their pomp in the late 80s, dominating the league, winning the Double.
But that debut goal was to be my last for 24 league games.
When Souness clashed with me in front of all the players, I knew the writing was on the wall in big letters.
It was around 1993, about a year into my time at the club, and it was already becoming clear that I was not in the manager’s plans.
There was no coaching for me. There were some brilliant young players coming through, the so-called Spice Boys of Robbie Fowler, Don Hutchison, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp.
The staff all knew they had a big future and so they would be working on their game all the time. With me, they just used to throw me a shirt.
I played for the reserves at Southport on a regular basis, and there would be a crowd of 500 shouting all kinds of abuse. Unlike in the big games at Anfield with the buzz from the stands, you could hear every word of criticism.
It was the lowest point of my football career. The only release was going out, drinking and taking more drugs. It was a vicious spiral. I came off the coke and I was more depressed than ever.
Come the 1995-96 season, when Peter Reid came in for me at Sunderland, I could not wait to get away from Anfield. I knew it was the last chance for me.
I had to get clean, stay fit, and stop taking drugs.
This first appeared on www.mirror.co.uk
Paul Stewart during his time at Sunderland
Paul Stewart during his time at Liverpool FC