Stuart Doling: Tipped for stardom with Portsmouth and England but drinking put me in The Priory - and told I would die
There was a flicker of hesitation as modesty wrestled with stirred pride.
‘You would need to ask other people just how good I was,’ said Stuart Doling.
‘I remember in the old Today newspaper there was once a bit with Jim Smith He was talking about Darren Anderton, Kit Symons, Andy Awford and Darryl Powell.
‘Then he added: “There is one you haven’t heard of yet who is coming through. He is called Stuart Doling and will be better than all of them”.
‘It wasn’t to be, I messed up. I would often blame injuries for what happened, you are looking for any excuse.
‘But it was drink which ruined my career. In the end, I was warned it would kill me.’
Doling was an England youth international handed a five-year professional deal at the age of 17, such was Pompey’s regard for his prodigious talent.
The midfielder had quit Southampton’s youth set-up for Fratton Park. Troubled by Bob Higgins’ behaviour, he elected to switch clubs, rejecting Arsenal and Spurs in favour of working with Alan Ball.
Doling’s escalation into Pompey’s first-team was but a step behind others from that outstanding FA Youth Cup side which famously toppled Liverpool in March 1990.
Only suspension prevented him lining up alongside his youth-team colleagues in the opening match of the 1991-92 season against Blackburn, signifying Jim Smith’s maiden game in charge.
Nonetheless, he made his Blues debut in August 1991 against Port Vale as an 18-year-old, setting up Colin Clarke for the winner.
By the summer of 1995, Doling was featuring for Jewson Wessex League side AFC Lymington at the age of 22.
He told The News: ‘I didn’t like it at Southampton under Bob Higgins. I didn’t like the atmosphere, I didn’t like what was going on, so I signed schoolboy forms with Pompey.
‘I lost my dad, John, in a car crash when I was 13. Higgins turned around to me and said that, before he died, my dad told him I was going to sign longer for Saints.
‘My dad would never have said that, yet Higgins tried to use it to get his way. He even told me “I can be your new dad”. I didn’t stay at his house like others. He wanted me to, but I didn’t. What a disgusting man.
‘I was massively fortunate I didn’t end up at that club. At Pompey there were the likes of Dave Hurst, Peter Osgood and Graham Paddon involved in the youth set-up, while Bally, as first-team boss, also took us. Such wonderful people to look up to.
‘Bally picked me for our reserves against Saints when I was 14. I came on as a sub at The Dell and nutmegged Terry Hurlock. He made it known that if I ever did that again he would break every bone in my body.
‘When I turned 17, the newest manager, Frank Burrows, called my mum in and said they wanted me to sign pro – for five years! I went from £27.50 a week to £300, was given a £1,500 signing-on fee, and no longer had to clean the first-team’s boots.
‘Around the same time, I’d been called up to play for England under-17s at Wembley and, unconnected, had a bit of a set-to with the head of youth Dave Hurst. Being a bit hot-headed, as I left his Fratton Park office I swore, with the girls on reception overhearing.
‘Burrows suspended me for two weeks. There was no fine – but he’d be informing the FA that I was banned and shouldn’t be going off to play for England.
‘Thankfully, England still wanted me and I played against France before an England friendly with Uruguay in May 1990. I was centre midfield, Lee Clark was on the right and Garry Flitcroft was on the left. Jamie Redknapp was sub, he wasn’t good enough!
‘That was the start of it, though. I had no-one really to guide me in football, there was no role model after losing my dad. And I drove managers mad.
‘At 17, I thought I had made it, I was very full of myself. I’d signed a five-year contract, was earning stupid money, and walking around with cash in my pocket.
‘In the summer of 1990, I paid for two mates to come with me to Tenerife for two weeks and must have taken an extortionate amount of money. I blew the lot before the end, we didn’t have enough money for food or anything.
‘Luckily, I bumped into my Pompey team-mate Graeme Hogg out there, who gave me £50 and told me to pay it back when we returned for pre-season.
‘He also mentioned he was meeting West Ham’s George Parris that evening and invited us to join them, so we did. Afterwards, Hogg didn’t want the money: “We’ve had a good night”. There were a lot of those nights as a footballer.
‘Jim Smith had my respect, but I probably drove him around the bend. It was a love-hate relationship.
‘When he sold Martin Kuhl to Derby, he told me “You are the one to play there now, you need to knuckle down”. The problem was, I got involved with some people that I shouldn’t have done and found drink.
‘I didn’t look after myself, I let the gaffer down massively. I had a God-given talent and, without wishing to blow my own trumpet, was very good. Everyone said so.
‘At the time I thought football owed me a living and I could just turn up. The best players work at it and work at it and work at it, always trying to better themselves.
‘Me? We finished training about 1pm, would have a bite to eat and then it was “Where are we going to drink for the rest of the day?”. We’d been invited to HMS Ark Royal, invited onto the Royal Yacht Britannia, drinks all round.
‘I should have stayed after training and worked at my game, but I thought my talent would see me through. It never does.’
Doling would total 52 appearances and score five goals during his time at Fratton Park.
Youth-team colleagues Anderton, Symons and Powell earned Premier League moves and international recognition, while Awford remained on the south coast to warrant Hall of Fame inclusion and England under-21 duty.
In contrast, Doling’s professional career petered out as alcohol, injury and bust-ups with Blues managers Jim Smith and Terry Fenwick devastated a once dazzling destiny.
‘There was a time under Jim Smith when I disappeared for three or four weeks. I was a wreck,’ he added.
‘I’d got mixed up with some very bad people. I didn’t do drugs, but was drinking very heavily. I knew places in Pompey where you could knock on the front door and go in for a drink.
‘I needed to get away, I had to try to get myself off the drink. I thought the best thing to do was shut myself away for a time. It wasn’t.
‘Initially I was at home in Lymington. I wouldn’t answer the phone, people tried to come around and I wouldn’t open the door. I didn’t want to see anyone, I spoke to nobody.
‘Then I decided to stay at my mother’s in Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight as it would be more under the radar. I swore her to secrecy. People couldn’t come and get me because they didn’t know where she lived.
‘We have all, at some stage, gone through difficult times. I tried to do it myself, but you can’t, you need help.
‘I wanted to put my hand up, yet was embarrassed. Drinking was a bit of a taboo subject back then.
‘Then, as soon as I was out in the open again, I was back where I was, I jumped into the same routine. I still had demons inside, as everybody has. Struggling to cope? Okay, I’m going out for a drink.
‘Pompey fined me and, from that point, I had to report to Jim Smith after every training session. What are you doing now? Where are you going? I need you to go home.
‘I was instructed to live with the physio Neil Sillett at his Copnor Road home to make sure I turned up for training. He’d just got divorced – now Jim Smith was telling him I had to stay there.
‘Years later, Russ Perrett was invited by Terry Fenwick for a pre-season trial. The reason being, he wanted Russ to be my minder and drive me to work. Hence that’s how he came back to a club which had earlier released him.
‘Considering how much I was drinking, my body wasn’t fit enough, so I kept getting injuries. I had 10 hernia operations, but it was an easy option to blame it all on being injured.
‘You’d hide the drinking from people. I’d go to the bar, order a bottle of Smirnoff Ice and put six shots of vodka in it. I’d gun that and walk back with a pint, no-one knew. They just couldn’t understand why I was a bit tipsy.
‘You’re trying to climb that high to get to a certain place where you think you are merry, where you can blank things out. Yet I’d had no real tragedy in my life, the only tragedy was I couldn’t stop drinking.
‘I’m not an alcoholic. I was more like a binge drinker, so when you start, you can’t stop.
‘Sometimes I’d wake up the next morning not wanting a drink, I could go a day without having one. If I started, what’s the point of having 10 pints when I can have 15?
‘I remember being told by Dave Hurst not to drink a pint in the players’ lounge, instead have a half as it would look better. So I bought two halves, one in each hand, which made me look even worse.
‘Thankfully I am nothing like that now, otherwise I wouldn’t be around. It was that bad.’
After walking out on Pompey in the summer of 1995, Doling joined AFC Lymington, yet within four months was back in the Football League with Doncaster Rovers.
The Division Three club spent £70,000 on the midfielder, however, his 17-month stay consisted of six appearances, with persistent injuries devastating his availability.
He returned to the New Forest, seeing out his playing days at Brockenhurst and Lymington, although there were unsuccessful trials at Derby, Brighton, and a six-week spell at Pompey under Alan Ball in 1998.
Away from football, Doling eventually opened a fruit and veg shop in Lymington, a business model which has blossomed into two Shallowmead Farm Shops, serving local produce, particularly to schools and pubs.
Doling and his business partner employ 10 people, with wife Tracy also helping out, along with their children Jordan and Remy, who are presently back from Australia, where they had been living before the coronavirus outbreak.
Yet, 16 years earlier, he was warned he could die – and admitted to The Priory hospital in Marchwood.
He said: ‘I couldn’t continue the way I was going, it was self destruction. I thank my lucky stars I’m still here, living life to the full – in the right way now.
‘I was in such a state, I was referred to The Priory by the doctors. It was a case of “You need to go in, the rate you're going you won't last long”. I was told I would die.
‘My binge drinking had extended from 24 hours and gone to 2-3 days. You don’t realise, you’re in your own selfish bubble.
‘It was two weeks in The Priory on their detox programme, which hit home. I was drinking because I felt sorry for myself, yet there were soldiers in there who had real problems. I was actually taking up a space when others were more worthy of it. That was wrong of me.
‘My time in The Priory was so important – but the real turning point was years later upon discovering my wife, Tracy, had breast cancer. I had a choice in life.
‘I was drinking myself into a grave and my wife needed me. We spent every day in hospital for almost two years and I drove her to each appointment. I couldn’t drink, but then I didn’t want to.
‘Nowadays I have a drink, but know how to control it. I don’t want a hangover, I don’t want a headache, I just want to have a social and go out with my wife and have a glass of wine.
‘I know when it’s enough, like a normal person would. Sorry, I’m going home now, lads.
‘I want to see my kids, I want to see my grandkids – I want to see my wife. I have responsibilities, there are businesses to run.
‘That 17-year-old finally grew up.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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