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The making of Chris Armstrong and the unique obstacles athletes face

The name Chris Armstrong likely means very little to you, unless you happened to follow Crystal Palace or Tottenham Hotspur during the mid to late 90’s. However, the former Striker holds an unwanted record that highlights the obstacles young men have to negotiate as professional athletes; as well as raising further questions about how the game is governed.

Armstrong was born in Newcastle but spent his formative years growing up with foster parents in North Wales. While there, he played as a goalkeeper until the age of 16, during this time he considered walking away from playing football until a friend convinced Armstrong otherwise. Playing in the Welsh National league, he was converted to a striker; after thriving in the new role, the Englishman managed to attract the attention of Wrexham and signed his first professional contract.

Plying his trade in the Fourth Division, the equivalent of EFL League Two, came as a surprise as Armstrong was quoted to have later said: “A professional career never crossed my mind”. His career path would drastically change when Wrexham won the Welsh Cup, which previously secured the winner entry to the European Cup Winners Cup. The now obsolete knockout competition’s title is fairly self-explanatory, and that year’s incarnation pitched the lowly Welsh club within the same draw as Juventus, Manchester United and Barcelona. A daunting task for most.

A favourable first-round draw meant Lyngby BK of Denmark would be Wrexham’s opening opponents. Little was expected of the Fourth division side, especially after the first leg in Wales finished goalless. Although, the resulting Scandinavian voyage had enormous implications on Armstrong’s career; he scored the sole goal that evening to upset the odds and earn Wrexham a lucrative second round encounter with Manchester United.

Despite losing the tie 5-0 on aggregate, Armstrong’s performances, coupled with the exposure he would never have otherwise received, caught the attention of future Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch. Then managing Millwall, who played in the second tier of English football, Rioch decided to take a punt on Armstrong, splashing £500,000 on the 20-year-old.

A single successful season at The Den was enough to entice promoted Crystal Palace to part with £1 million, making the English striker their marquee signing for the inaugural Premier League season. On a personal level, the move was a great success. Armstrong’s adaptation was instant, finishing as The Eagles top scorer with 15 goals. Unfortunately, however, the Englishman’s output wasn’t enough to save Palace from being relegated on goal difference by a meagre two goals.

Armstrong’s return to the second tier was brief, and his 25 league goals meant Crystal Palace returned immediately as Champions.

Nevertheless, Palace once again were relegated from the Premier League in 1995 by the narrowest margin. Due to a restructuring of the football pyramid, the top flight was reduced to a 20-team league; meaning Armstrong’s side were one of four to face the drop, also becoming the first club ever to go down finishing 19th.

Although, both domestic cups provided salvation for The Eagles; they were unfortunate to lose 2-0 to Liverpool in the League Cup semi-finals. At the same stage of the FA Cup, the South London side held Manchester United 2-2, forcing a replay. Sadly, that replay would finish in United’s favour. Unfortunately, this encounter with Alex Ferguson’s side will always remain overshadowed by Eric Cantona’s infamous outburst during their league fixture.

Individually the campaign was mixed for Armstrong; once again he finished as top scorer with 18 in all competitions. Though only eight of those came in the Premier League, virtually a quarter of Palace’s paltry total of 34. Over Armstrong’s two combined top-flight seasons he managed 23 goals, a record at Selhurst Park that stood until it was broken by Wilfred Zaha this August.

In yet another bizarre instalment of Crystal Palace’s 1994/95 campaign, the Geordie striker became the first Premier League player to receive a doping ban after testing positive for the consumption of Cannabis. A four-match ban followed.

This unsolicited record highlighted the pressures imposed upon professional athletes from such a young age, as Glenn Moore of the Independent proclaimed in 1995 “if Armstrong were caught using it by police in South London, he would receive no more than a caution”. Somehow the FA thought a ban was necessary, despite Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise both escaping punishment for assault-related incidents occurring at a similar time.

In the time that has elapsed since multiple other incidents of Premier League players caught using recreational drugs have occurred; most notoriously Adrian Mutu of Chelsea in 2004, and more recently Jake Livermore while with Hull, both for cocaine.

While the FA’s sympathetic handling of Livermore’s unique case was widely commended; each instance exposes the brutal professionalism required to become a modern athlete. The contemporary elite footballer is unable to make the same mistakes as their non-professional counterparts regularly do, often errors off the pitch can prove even more costly than those off it.

However, this also begs further questioning. Why is it that footballers are caught taking recreational drugs, yet during the entirety of the Premier League only one player has ever been found guilty of taking performance-enhancing drugs?

Greg Moon, a former employee of UK Sport, who handled drug testing for the FA, shed light on the matter by revealing that in many cases tests undertaken during the season are only analysed for recreational substances. Either the FA has undivided faith that doping isn’t prevalent throughout the sport, or this is just another example of footballs prehistoric attitude to the modernisation of its methods.

It’s difficult to believe, based on the cases uncovered in cycling, athletics and multiple other professional sports, that all 518 players currently participating in the Premier League are clean. Its equally difficult to believe this was the case at the time Armstrong received his ban, but still he was vilified.

Fortunately, the incident didn’t bear significance to Armstrong’s footballing career. That summer he was sold to Tottenham Hotspur, in a club record £4.5m deal to replace the departing Jurgen Klinsmann.

After a stuttering start to life at White Hart Lane, the striker – at least to some degree – managed to fill the void left by his German predecessor. 22 goals, including the winner in a North London derby, was a great way to endear himself to his new supporters. As is the way in football, fans are fickle and disciplinary issues rapidly become forgotten memories when replaced with success; ask Luis Suarez.

As well as this, Armstrong formed a reliable partnership with Teddy Sheringham, the Geordies ruthless pace providing the perfect compliment to Sheringham’s poacher’s touch. The pair combined to devastate Manchester United 4-1 during the 1995/96 campaign and they managed 23 goals between them in the two years spent together.

In 1999 Armstrong featured heavily en route to the League Cup final with Spurs; the stand out performance coming once again against The Red Devils, where he managed a brace as part of a 3-1 quarter-final victory.

The Englishman was an unused substitute in the final, as Tottenham held on with ten men to score a 90th-minute winner at the old Wembley Stadium. The only piece of silverware he would collect in his career.

Serial groin injuries robbed Armstrong of consistent Premier League action after that triumph.  Further to this, repeat ankle operations caused the striker to miss the entire 2001/02 campaign, and Tottenham lost patience, failing to renew his contract.

A slot warming the bench, due to deteriorating fitness, at Bolton followed, Armstrong was unable to make a single Premier League appearance in his season under Sam Allardyce.

Thus, followed a two-year farewell where it all began at Wrexham, before the ex-Premier League striker slipped into relative obscurity, scarcely to be heard from again.

One such reappearance occurred in July 2016, Armstrong was arrested for the possession of Cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy after a raid on his home. He pleaded guilty to possession and was fined £375, while in his statement he denied having any form of drugs problem.

Armstrong’s career was fascinating for more than just his contribution to football, as much as he should be remembered for his achievements within the game, it provokes questions over the issue of doping in football, is the sport as clean as it appears or a contaminated cover up? And once finished, is the correct care, if any, afforded to ex-professionals during their arduous retirement once they’ve escaped public interest?

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