London: Danny Mills has revealed the extent of the culture of injections and pill-taking that he experienced during his career. The former England international, who retired in 2009, says players would do “anything to get an edge” on team-mates, including trips to doctors abroad to get illegal treatment, and he has warned of the dangers of getting sucked into the win-at-all-costs world of English football.
“The game now is of such high intensity that you have to be able to compete as a top athlete at the highest level so you’ll do almost anything,” said Mills, who reached a Champions League semi-final with Leeds and a World Cup quarter-final with England in a 14-year career ending in 2009.
“Everyone is getting fitter, stronger, trying to prevent injuries, looking for that new idea, that miracle cure to get them back from injury quicker. If you play Saturday, Wednesday, Sunday and can reduce the effects by legal means or otherwise then there will be players who will be tempted.”
Mills’ experience of the influence of medicine in football was most marked with England. “Before the lead-up to the 2002 World Cup, we had six months of saliva tests, urine tests, blood tests, so when we turned up, we were given pills of what we were deficient in. I’d come down to breakfast and there’d be a cup of pills with my name on it. I had six in the morning, six at night. I didn’t ask what was in it. You trust what you are given. It was legal. It was magnesium, a bit of ginseng. “
I wanted to be the best. I looked round and thought everyone else is doing it. It doesn’t make it right but I’m not going to fall behind. Effect on the body later on? Let’s worry about that in 10-15 years. Clubs weren’t worried. If you had a good tournament with England, they could sell you for a bigger fee. I don’t think I’ve ever felt in better shape.”
Mills believes that an onset of post-tournament lethargy was connected to the discontinuing of these legal treatments as well as the usual emotional dip after such a major event. “The week after the World Cup, I was in Spain on holiday and came down with a massive crash. I’ve never felt so bad in all my life,” he said. “The body was used to getting all this stuff and was now deprived so it shut down. I was fluey, lethargic, feeling low. When I woke up, I couldn’t breathe properly. My body ached all over. It lasted a week. The players should know to wean themselves off it.”
Players will do anything to get on the pitch. “This was the era of big bonuses; I could almost double my money by playing and winning. I’ve had hundreds of injections in my career. It’s probably worse now as science gets better, testing for deficiencies. At Leeds in the Champions League, we had vitamin B12 injections a week before a game and it would give you that perk up. “When I was at Middlesbrough, I had pain-killing injections for six months in a really bad toe before games and at half-time just to get through games. I’d wake up at midnight in agony, toe an absolute balloon, throbbing. “I played when I shouldn’t have done. I had injections to numb the pain, cortisone to get me fit for games. It was rife. Cortisone was good but only if injected into pockets of fluid. If injected direct into a tendon or muscle you had to have 10 days of doing nothing. That wasn’t understood in the early days. It was a quick fix. That muscle would start to break down because you were hiding the problem. It was abused.
“I had four cortisone injections. I took a lot of advice. I took an interest in what I was putting into my body. Lots of players didn’t question it. It wasn’t illegal but it was pushing your body to the limit and past it for the sake of the team. Lads would pop anti-inflammatories religiously. If you have a bad back or bad knee, it’s a fantastic drug but you’re just hiding the issue.
“Players would do anything to get an edge on team-mates or opponents. People said: ‘Creatine’s bad for you, people are dying’. Taken in wrong amounts yes. But it allows you to build lean muscle quicker. I took it.
“Night Nurse was banned for a while. Night Nurse is fantastic. If you’re struggling to get to sleep, Night Nurse knocks you out. I took it. That could possibly have cost me my career. There was a period when I had five doping tests in a row! It got to the point where I said: ‘If you do me again, I’m not turning up’.
“I’ve had PRP [platelet rich plasma] injections. If you have a muscle injury, you take out blood and spin it. It separates white and red cells and the plasma. The plasma has all the antibodies so that is injected into an injury and aids healing time by a third. It was undetectable. I was offered it in the States after having some physio there. A guy came up to me with his business card, saying: ‘This is what we do, PRP injections’. It was illegal at the time. I started to think: ‘This could help me. What harm does it do? It’s not going to enhance my performance. All it will do is help aid my injury’. I was a bit concerned so I went through the official channels, got letters from the FA. But there are guys in Spain, Germany and America where you could book an appointment. Players went off and had it done. “
Why do players always go abroad for treatment? Is it because they trust that physio or because other treatments are available that doctors in this country won’t do? Players would go to Spain and Germany and get all sorts of different injections like calf serum, animal products.”
Mills knows that expediency rules in football. “Every player cheats at some point. Whether appealing for a throw-in that you knows isn’t yours. It’s your livelihood, you’re a natural-born winner and morals go out of the window. Michael Owen admitted he dived for the Argentina penalty [in ’98]. If England win the next World Cup from someone taking a dive is that player not going to get knighted with all the others? Ronaldinho fouled me in the World Cup. I went down. The players came round me and said: ‘The ref’s getting a card out, stay down’. I stayed down. He got sent off. “It’s happened hundreds of times to me the other way. Players exaggerated stuff and I got booked. Alan Shearer was fantastic at it. I’d give him a little nudge in the back, the referee doesn’t see it but he had collapsible knees, down he goes, big strong lad, free-kick.”