I lost my identity as a footballer but now sobriety is my superpower

Fraser Franks | May 2022 | 10 minutes

Ex-professional footballer, Fraser Franks, talks about his complicated relationship with alcohol, which started even before he’d touched a drop.

Growing up on a South London council estate, I was exposed to alcohol from an early age but never liked it. I didn’t like the boozy smell of pubs or seeing people become unrecognisable after becoming intoxicated. I witnessed violence and lots of arguments at home from an early age and alcohol was a major part of that and I remember making a vow that I would never ever drink alcohol when I grew up. I was fortunate that my mum was brave enough to take us away from that relationship when I was 10 years old, but there are lots of elements that stayed with me over the years.

My escape and my passion at that point was football. I was absolutely obsessed, desperate to become a professional footballer. At the age of nine, I signed for the club that I had always supported, Chelsea FC.

When I left school at 16, I went straight into the world of professional football, and my new social group became my teammates. We began to go to parties together and socialise away from football. I noticed that a lot of these lads were much more confident around girls than I was. They were all aspiring professional footballers like me, but they would drink at these parties and I’d be the only one who wouldn't. They’d dance and let themselves go a little, but I felt so wooden and awkward.

I witnessed violence and lots of arguments at home from an early age and alcohol was a major part of that and I remember making a vow that I would never ever drink alcohol when I grew up.

After a few occasions I began to feel really boring. I lacked confidence and self-belief and felt I couldn’t converse very well. At the age of 18, I finally gave in. I had a drink and remember the big cheer from friends as I did. I was now one of the gang. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t work for me. I instantly felt more confident and more fun. The next day, however, I felt tremendous guilt that I’d given in and broken that vow I’d made as a child.

As the years went on, that feeling of guilt stayed around and lingered. I felt I couldn’t cope in social situations without alcohol. I became more confident on a night out when drinking but felt even more naked and less confident than before when I was sober. As I grew older, I met my wife who accepted me for me.

But in 2019, everything changed. I was forced to retire from professional football due to suffering a cardiac issue and later I was diagnosed with a heart condition that would end my career instantly. Everything I’d ever known since being that child on the council estate was gone. The routine, the focus, the discipline – all out of the window. I was extremely anxious. I was fearful. I worried about the future and how I would provide for my family. My wife was seven months pregnant when I retired and alcohol became my crutch.

I was diagnosed with a heart condition that would end my career instantly. Everything I’d ever known since being that child on the council estate was gone. The routine, the focus, the discipline – all out of the window. Alcohol became my crutch.

It felt nice being able to ‘unwind’ with a few beers at home or not to have to be the one that had to get up for training the next day. Those few beers in the evening became six or seven. My social drinking got heavier. I found that I had no off button. Drinking at home would stop the worried thoughts in my head. It would quieten that internal chatterbox. I had some dark thoughts at that time and could not see a way forward. I’d lost my identity. But the shame and guilt the morning after a binge would be horrendous.

One day, things just became too much, and I broke down to my wife and my mum and told them that I needed help and felt I had a problem. I instantly felt like a weight had been lifted. I didn’t want to stop drinking. I had a preconceived idea in my head that that was a boring and lesser life. I took a break from alcohol and saw a counsellor. I then introduced a ‘three drink rule’… which lasted two weeks. I had let myself down when out with friends and saw the disappointment on my wife’s face as I did. The guilt and shame was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The morning after, I listened to a podcast that changed my life. It was a former cricketer who was opening up about his issues with alcohol and it was as if he was telling my life story. This is why I feel so passionately about sharing my own story. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol since. We can all help each other through this.

I have found that friendships in sobriety are much stronger. We talk about deeper issues and our problems rather than just being typical lads that suppress them.

The initial months in sobriety were difficult. I craved alcohol. I was left with my own thoughts instead of running away from them. After two or three months, I began to see huge benefits. I felt my mood lifting. I felt my body coming back. I felt healthy. I felt a much better dad and husband and the biggest thing for me was I began liking the person that I saw in the mirror, rather than the self-loathing I’d been used to.

I always felt I needed a drink to become confident, but I found that I became so much more confident and comfortable in my own skin when I removed the alcohol. I was finally being me. My friends supported me immensely. I made up excuses not to drink at first but felt comfortable to share my issues with them after a little while.

I have found that friendships are much stronger. We talk about deeper issues and our problems rather than just being typical lads that suppress them. I want to show people that sobriety doesn’t have to be boring. That you can socialise and have fun more than ever. That it can be a superpower. I want people to feel comfortable being themselves.

Fraser Franks is 31 and lives in Lancashire with his wife and daughter. He has an MSc in Sports Directorship from the University of Salford. You can follow him here.