The modern athlete is expected to persevere through the toughest of mental challenges, to battle the restraints of the virtually impossible, and to test the limitations of their own body …but what happens when those limits become, well, limits. 

Those athletes faced with such issues of human reality, have often turned to the usage of performance-enhancing drugs, Erythropoietin (EPO), growth hormones, and testosterone are just a few of the labels that elite sport has become interlinked with over the past few decades. Substances that allow a sportsperson to breach their physical capabilities, once thought beyond their natural control. 

However, as of late, sleeping tablets have come to light as football’s preferred way to artificially improve a competitor’s efficiency. A far less intimidating prospect is the use of such medication, after all, many people reading this article may avail of the benefits of sleeping pills themselves. 

Players are usually prescribed sleeping medication before, and sometimes after, matches in order to counteract the built-up adrenaline that corresponds with the intensity of professional sport, and to ensure the retention of enough sleep. Team doctors are often the initial, and legal, source of sleeping tablets.

Where it becomes something of serious concern to athletes, is the overuse, abuse, and over-encouragement of sleeping medication usage.

Dele Alli’s sit-down interview with Gary Neville back in July, in which the former Tottenham star opened up on his battle with addiction, and the extent of the long-lasting effects of this battle, opened a sport-wide conversation pertaining to the presence of sleeping pill-abuse in football;

“I was taking a lot,” the 27-year-old said. “I don’t want to get into numbers but it was definitely way too much and I had some scary moments. [The abuse of sleeping pills is] “something going around more than people realise in football”.

Despite the recent spike in coverage of the topic, this unfortunate phenomenon is far from a new practice. Gary Neville, while speaking to Dele Alli, spoke of his own interaction with sleeping-aid medication;

“When I was a player, sleeping pills were not unusual in football. You’d be offered one before a game because of the build-up of adrenaline, and also sometimes after a game.”

Some of those who have stepped forward and revealed their own experience with the use of sleeping pills in professional football reside a bit closer to home, to us who view football on the island of Ireland. 

Former Republic of Ireland footballers Keith Treacy and Darron Gibson have both since revealed their exposure to sleep medication as professionals, during an interview with Off The Ball, Treacy told of the ease with which players received prescriptions from their teams;

OTB: “Nowadays, if you can’t sleep, what happens?”

KT: “You get sleeping pills… Before games on a Friday night in the hotel, you just knock on the doctor’s door, or the doctor would come down to dinner, and they’d just be handed out. No great deal, you would just say, ‘I’m struggling to sleep’, there you go, two sleeping tablets, no problem.”

Former Manchester United and Everton midfielder Darron Gibson’s addiction to sleeping pills persisted beyond his retirement, and very nearly forced the most extreme of consequences, as he suffered a life-threatening seizure in late 2022;

“They thought it was epilepsy but I knew it wasn’t. It was sleeping tablets, it had been going on for years by now… I don’t even think I was functioning at that point. Looking back at pictures, I was grey, if I had of kept going I would have died. I was taking 12 to 14 sleeping tablets a night.” – Darron Gibson, The42

By no means limited to the English Premier League level, sleep-related issues and the ensuing utilisation of medication amongst footballers trickles down into the foundations of the professional game, right down to collegiate sides.

An Irish university footballer with prominent standing, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke with the College Tribune on the topic, and how the nature of competition deprives players of sleep before and after games;

“It’s really difficult to get to sleep and have a good night’s sleep after a match because the adrenaline is so high, it’s difficult to come down in time because games aren’t over until about 10 pm. I first heard about [their usage] when I got to the senior level. Some of the lads say they don’t sleep at all. I’d be surprised if none of the boys on the team use them [sleeping pills].” 

The footballer further spoke of his concern towards the increasing popularity of ‘snus’ amongst players around matchday;

“I’m seeing a huge influx in the use of snus in football. A lot of players are using them to relax before, after, and even during training. Perhaps due to pressure or anxiety, but it’s definitely something I’m seeing a lot of, including here. 

“It could become an issue as players could become overly dependent. There’s different strengths too [of snus], and I’m seeing some players take a liking to the strong ones.”

Perhaps the most unsettling detail of this topic is the innocent facade of such substances and medication. 

Coupling this convenient solution, with the obsessively-driven mentality of elite athletes to succeed at all costs, results in misuse, misuse which is facilitated by the very nature of their passion.

The risks of addiction that come with the use of sleeping pills in elite football should prove enough to present its case as a dangerous practice for athletes, while the risk of reliance associated with ‘snus’ poses a new avenue for players who experience anxiety. It is a short-term fix for a team’s performance, but potentially, a long-term health concern for the individual. 

An unravelling, ugly epidemic within the beautiful game.

Dara Smith-Naughton – Sports Editor