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Fraser Franks: Ex-Newport captain striving to change people's relationships with alcohol

Ex-Luton, Stevenage and Newport defender Fraser Franks discusses the alcohol problems he suffered after enforced retirement at 28, his journey to sobriety and working with Alcohol Change UK to change people's attitudes to drinking

Image: Photo courtesy of Alcohol Change UK

Life looks a lot different for Fraser Franks these days.

Barely a day goes by where the ex-Newport captain is not up at the crack of dawn, heading to the gym or braving the chill of the Irish Sea close to his Lancashire home for a swim to invigorate himself for the day ahead.

He has just returned from a wellness retreat and former team-mates berate him for being in the best shape of his life - both mentally and physically - three years after retiring from football.

On the face of it, everything is rosy - and that is the truth. But the 31-year-old has had to fight hard to get to this point in his life.

The battle began one day in March 2019. Franks' world was turned upside down when he was forced to call time on a decade-long professional career due to a heart condition.

"I had no symptoms until that one sudden time," he said in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports' Dan Long.

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"I have a bicuspid valve, which was picked up when I was at Brentford at 16, but I've got an enlarged aorta, too, which I will have to have open heart surgery on eventually. I'll need a mechanical carbon fibre valve because my bicuspid valve has started leaking more than they thought and I'll then have to take blood thinners for the rest of my life.

"The thing that was a bigger frustration for me was that I've never really had a symptom since, which is an amazing thing.

"If I retired and my knee was killing me or my back was killing me, I could almost accept it more, but I physically feel like I can still jog and work out. Part of me still thinks I could still do this, I could still give it a go."

The profession he had worked so hard to break into since joining Chelsea as a nine-year-old in 1999 was suddenly ripped from beneath him with little warning - and he turned to alcohol to numb the heartache.

"Retiring was a bit of a traumatic experience. From the age of nine, my world revolved around a match day and performing on the football pitch. It was a shock and I just didn't know how to deal with it.

"I didn't know what I was going to do going forward and my wife was just about to give birth for the first time. I was worried, I was anxious and I couldn't sleep; I couldn't switch off that nagging, chatterbox voice in my head.

"I'd never drunk at home before, but one day, I realised I didn't have training the next day, so I could have a couple of beers. And I got into that sort of pattern. When I had a couple of beers, I felt that voice switched off a little bit more. I thought if I had two or three beers that would make me sleep better, I wouldn't worry as much, I wouldn't be as anxious.

"It became a bit of a medication. Eventually those two or three beers ended up being six or seven, getting drunk, doing things I regret, being sneaky and taking me away from the person that I wanted to be, but it was all because I was trying to escape my feelings and I couldn't."

Franks' drinking eventually reached a critical level around 18 months after he hung up his boots for good.

It was at this point he confessed to his closest confidantes that he had a problem that needed urgent rectification.

"I'd used alcohol as a bit of a coping mechanism before - for example, if I knew that the highlights programme was coming on and everyone was going to see me make a mistake - but in retirement I just I couldn't get out of it.

"I was just in a cycle of drinking, feeling ashamed, feeling terrible and drinking again. I was these two different characters, because during the day I'd be grafting and really trying to work on what I was going to do for a career and, from the outside, it looked like I was doing really well. In the evenings, I would almost self-destruct.

"I broke down to my mum and my wife and said that I'd been hiding how much I'd been drinking. Often my wife would go to bed and I'd sit up on my own drinking. She didn't know that. I could get up the next day, go for a jog and try and run it off and try to hide it from her.

"Sometimes, when I'd work away, I'd love going into a hotel room on my own, going to a supermarket, getting a load of drink and just sitting there drinking and obviously feeling terrible the next day. They didn't know that I was doing this, so I just unloaded on them. I said I wanted to stop drinking but I didn't see how I could function without it.

"I was probably in a depressive state. I just saw nothing to look forward to. I felt like my best days were behind me. I felt like I was just trudging along, that nothing was ever going to live up to what I'd done before."

Image: Fraser Franks had made 34 appearances for Newport when he was forced into retirement at the age of 28

It is often said that recognising an issue is the first step on the road to recovery, and talking about his problems eventually offered the catharsis Franks needed to change his life for the better.

On August 1, he will mark one year of sobriety - the most important milestone in his journey yet.

"I either had to continue pressing that self-destruct button and do what I was doing, which was going to damage me or take charge and stop drinking alcohol," he admitted.

"It took me a couple of goes. I would try it, last about two weeks and then give in. I got the help and support I needed; I spoke to the PFA and they appointed me a counsellor with Sporting Chance [mental health charity founded by Arsenal Tony Adams].

"I tried counselling when I first retired. I said I wanted a man who understood football and they gave me this guy who I didn't get on with, so I thought counselling was not for me.

"Then I tried it again with the alcohol and they gave me a woman in her 60s that used to drink quite a lot and I thought she was brilliant. She just changed my perception on counselling and I had someone that I could unload to. She had some really good advice in those early stages of stopping drinking."

So having not drunk a drop of alcohol in just shy of 12 months, what benefits has he discovered from being sober?

"What I have found is it has given me a new level of confidence. I was quite confident when I'd had a couple of drinks, but without it I was really shy and introverted, so I had to try and build that confidence without a drink, which I found quite quickly.

"I found that I understood myself more, I was more authentic because I was almost two different characters when I was sober and drunk. I found I slept much better, I ate much better, I wanted to go to the gym, I wanted to be a better dad. I was going to the park on a Sunday morning full of energy, whereas before I'd be going there out of pure guilt and feeling terrible and hungover.

"I felt much more consistent in my work, and I think probably the biggest benefit that I found is when I shared my own story, after about six months in, I started getting people resonating with me. I started getting people reaching out to me, asking for help and advice.

"Off the back of that, it was almost a purpose that I'd lost through playing football. That was my everything. Since I've come away from it, I've been helping people not just with alcohol but dealing with these emotions and dealing with these feelings, dealing with the need to run away and escape."

Those experiences led him to Alcohol Change UK, a charity that "work for a society that is free from the harm caused by alcohol."

In May, he became an ambassador.

"I got involved in it because I didn't define myself as an alcoholic - and I really don't like the term alcoholic," he added.

"A lot of people have unhealthy relationships with alcohol, but they don't see themselves as an alcoholic, so they don't do anything about it.

"Most people can't moderate their drinking. Most people make a lot of mistakes when they drink. They don't want to carry on, they want to stop, but they don't see a way out. There's that big chunk of most of us where we probably want to drink a bit less, but we get swept up and try again later.

"I have found community is really important. You want to find people that have been through what you've been through or that you can resonate with, and I found that quite a lot on social media and in podcasts. When I started sharing my story, people started getting in touch and people started sharing some of the stuff that I was posting and that struck up a conversation with Alcohol Change UK.

"I really wanted to give back and help as many people as I could. I had some conversations with them and I'm going to start going into businesses and giving talks because alcohol in the workplace is huge.

"Businesses want healthier and happier people working for them. There are some alarming stats on the amount of money lost in in the economy due to hangovers and sick days, so it's in their best interests, but it's also in their best interests to look after their people.

"I'm doing it currently with my consultancy firm - B5 Consultancy - within football, rugby and cricket, and so I'm going into work in talking to players and coaching staff about alcohol and about escapism.

"One of the big things I want to do is show people that being sober isn't boring. My life is much more exciting. I'm a much better person, a better dad, I'm better at everything, I'm healthier, I'm happier and a lot of people want to do that, but can't get over this hurdle of alcohol."

Image: Franks met Christian Eriksen during a recent visit to former club Brentford's Jersey Road training ground

The long-term goal? Education - in professional sport and beyond. Franks does not want to force people to change, just to make an informed decision of their own; to challenge what has become the norm.

"For me, it's not about banning alcohol or, in professional sport, banning players from drinking. It's about educating people, supporting people and then instead of banning someone from drinking alcohol, they might make their own mind up.

"My big thing is that I will never ever judge or preach to anyone. I never want to say 'you should stop drinking'. With anyone that goes sober or stops drinking or even cuts down drinking, it has to come from them. They have to want to do it and I simply share and talk about things and then people will come to me and say they feel like that or they want to do the same.

"Stan Collymore said recently that footballers should have in their contracts that they can't drink. It's just not the answer. Players need that autonomy. It has to be their choice. A lot of players don't drink during the season and then they'll binge in the summer. I've spoken to a lot of clubs and a lot of people in clubs. There's still a big drinking culture and it's just very much hidden away.

"If you look at someone like Jack Grealish, the minute he goes out, he gets pictured in a nightclub and he's front page news. Other players - for example someone under media scrutiny - then know they can't go out and do it so they will do it at home instead.

"I found in professional football especially, I'll give a presentation and I'll talk about how I felt on team nights out or how I bottled emotions or how I didn't feel comfortable or confident. Even things like getting criticism from fans or on social media. I batted that off, but that really hurt me - and that was at League Two level. I cannot imagine what it's like at Premier League level.

"I look at Premier League players and I wouldn't trade places. If you're having a tough time there, you're getting it from pundits, you're getting it in the media, on social media; you get it from your own fans. I saw Phil Jones do a piece with a newspaper saying he was getting abuse walking down the street with his daughter. I know that I would have needed a drink and alcohol would have been the thing that took me away from that.

"When you look at the comments on something like the recent Danny Drinkwater story, 99 per cent of people will say he's so lucky to be where he is, that they're living everyone else's dream, that everyone would give their right arm to be where he is, and he's got this money and this fame, so what right has he got to complain?

"This is why players keep a lot bottled up because you're made to feel guilty for actually feeling like a normal human being. Where do they go to unload or vent?

Image: The 31-year-old made 120 appearances during three seasons at Stevenage

"Most of these are normal lads that come from really humble beginnings, trucked into the limelight, given a load of money and they don't know how to cope with it, which is why I want to help so much with the emotional well-being of players and being a support service off the pitch.

"I'll leave my card or my number and then allow players to get in touch with me and speak to them on a one-to-one basis after that. I'm actually helping a few players and a few coaches out at the minute."

Throughout the interview, Franks refers back to the vow he made as a child, swearing off alcohol after growing up in a "toxic household" and in the knowledge of the way it affected performance levels.

He was asked whether he feels like this is a fresh start; a chance to become that determined teenager again, albeit facing the world with so much more life experience under his belt.

"I do feel like it's starting again, going back to that introverted lad experiencing things for the first time. Part of me does wish I had been strong enough to be myself and not feel like I had to drink to get accepted into a group.

"But part of me also knows I was a young lad, I've got so much life experience in such a short amount of time and I'm a big believer that what I'm doing now wouldn't have happened if I'd have never touched a drop of alcohol.

"I'm really fortunate that I recognised it [the drinking problem] early. I want to help people not get to rock bottom before they make a change. I don't want people to lose everything. So many lose homes, marriages and careers and then they go 'right, now I'm stopping'. Address the issue while you can, as early as you can.

"When I stopped drinking alcohol that all came back. It made me want to not neglect my body and fill it with rubbish. I wanted to eat well and that then led to me wanting to move around a bit more, exercise a little bit more and just had a big knock-on effect.

"I take pride in not necessarily what I look like, but what I feel like. I want energy, I want to be able to run around with my little girl. I didn't realise how important it was to me, but it's one of the biggest values I've got.

"I'm a big believer that some of our toughest times and biggest challenges can present the biggest opportunities. You can turn that pain into a purpose of what you're going to do next."

Fraser Franks is living proof that - whatever your circumstances - you can make a positive change for good.

If you are affected by issues related to mental wellbeing or want to talk, please contact the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123, or visit the website.

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