Gary Charles fought alcoholism throughout his career, but still managed to play for England and feature in Wembley cup finals.
If the former Nottingham Forest and Derby County defender had access to the sort of help and support he is now eager to offer young footballers, he may well have achieved a great deal more.
Now retraining as a counsellor, Charles – still best remembered for his innocent part in the infamous tackle that almost ended Paul Gascoigne’s career – is determined to give something back to the sport that gave him so much.
His journey has been far from smooth, with the low point a six-month prison sentence for dangerous driving and failing to give a breath sample that was brought about by his drinking.
Not a ‘typical alcoholic’
Following his time in the East Midlands Charles, who won two England caps, was forced to retire at the age of 32 after injury-plagued spells with Aston Villa, Benfica and West Ham. It was the injuries that led to the boozing.
“While I was playing I was disciplined,” Charles told BBC Inside Out. “As soon as I was injured – if it was for any length of time – I would maybe go out a little bit more than I would normally. But it wouldn’t be all the time.
“I am the first to admit that I have had my issues with drinking and I am a recovering alcoholic. But my drinking was very different from someone drinking every day. It wasn’t all the time, it would be the odd time that would last two or three days.
“I wasn’t a typical alcoholic. I could stop and go long periods of time without drinking.
“But toward the end of my football career it would last a little bit longer – definitely. As soon as I was nearly back to full fitness, I would go back in to my disciplined life again.”
Football’s stigma and avoiding ‘hell’
Charles has been sober for nine years. The 45-year-old is director of football at Nottingham University and is working with Priority Health – a specialist organisation to help young footballers.
And he really wants to help.
“If a lot more people were more honest and there wasn’t such a stigma around alcoholics or drug addicts then a lot of people would benefit from it,” Charles said.
“We need to encourage young players not to live with addictions and talk to people.
“I know it is hard for a young player to go to a coach or an assistant manager and say ‘listen I am struggling with drinking’ or gambling or whatever because they do think it could be detrimental to their careers and maybe they will not get the contract of their dreams.
“There are things away from football clubs and there are people you can speak to.
“I want people to know that if you are struggling with addiction, speak to somebody about it because it does help. You don’t have to go through hell when you can address your issues a lot earlier and go on and live a normal life.”
‘I just didn’t want to drink any more’
His time in prison was the real end of his “normal life” and helped set him on the way to sobriety. Charles was struggling to deal with the end of his career and it was at this point that he realised things needed to change.
“Prison was definitely something that opened my eyes to being somewhere I didn’t want to continue going,” Charles said.
“I just didn’t want to drink any more or feel the way I was feeling any more. I had just had enough.
“Football is very much a closed shop but I think it is something that needs to be talked about. Addiction does not pick a certain type.”
Finding my feet at Forest
Football life for London-born Charles began brilliantly as a youngster forcing his way in to Brian Clough’s Forest side at the end of the 1980s.
“It’s a big thing when you actually come in to a club and you are here every day and are watching the first team play,” Charles said.
“The Forest team had a lot of great players at the time. I still remember cleaning the boots of Johnny Metgod, Garry Birtles, Gary Mills and Gary Fleming; they were the four players I looked after.
“That was one of the biggest things I enjoyed because I got to go in to the first team dressing room and listen to what they spoke about.”
THAT Gazza tackle
Despite all Charles achieved, it was his part in the Gazza story that still triggers the memory banks when his name crops up.
Forest reached the 1991 FA Cup final where they played a Tottenham side featuring Gascoigne and Gary Lineker.
Despite going ahead through a trademark Stuart Pearce free-kick, Brian Clough’s Forest lost a thrilling match 2-1.
But the game – enthralling as it was – was overshadowed by two moments of Gazza madness. His first challenge on Garry Parker saw Gascoigne plant his foot in the Forest midfielder’s chest, the second saw the Lazio-bound superstar rupture a cruciate ligament in his right knee because of his ugly lunge on Charles.
“I remember the tackle on Parks,” Charles said. “I thought that was worse than my one to be honest. It was just a mis-timed tackle. It is something that every professional footballer has done.
“I didn’t think much of it. I know a lot was made of it but i was more disappointed with us losing the game. If you speak to a lot of the Forest lads that is one of our biggest regrets. It was a massive day for the club.”
Charles wants to ensure the young footballers he comes into contact with will only have reason to regret matters on the pitch.
Interview by BBC East Midlands Today’s Angela Rafferty.