FOR SHEFFIELD UNITED'S Jose Baxter the worst part of his failed drug test was having to confront close friends and ask if they were responsible for slipping a pill into his drink on a night out, perhaps as a prank gone wrong.
The conversations were tense and awkward. "I got a lot thrown back: 'Of course it wasn't me. Would I do that to you?'", admits Baxter. 'They were offended and hurt, I've been mates with some of them since we were 12. But I had to try and find out because I couldn't put my finger on what happened, and maybe I'll never know."
Baxter has been searching for answers since traces of ecstasy were found in a sample he gave during a routine visit from drug-testers to the Sheffield United training ground on May 7. After a terrible summer in which he feared his career might be over, Baxter was thrown a lifeline this week when the Football Association gave him a five-month ban, three of them suspended, and he can resume his career immediately.
He is as excited about playing in Sheffield United's first league game of the season against Gillingham on August 8 as he was making his Everton debut at 16 to become the youngest player in the club's history. Baxter has always maintained his drink was spiked. It is an argument he knows will provoke scepticism.
The midfielder's problems began on Sunday, April 19 when he went to Wembley with three friends to watch Liverpool's FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa, and then enjoyed a night out in London with a wider group of pals, some of whom he knew less well. "The following Wednesday, drug-testers came into training," says Baxter. "Obviously there was a lot of banter between the lads. 'Ooh, who's scared?', and all that. Everyone just joking about.
"My name got pulled out of the hat. I didn't think anything of it. I trained as normal, trained very well actually, and then did my test. Three weeks later, I was sitting in my flat waiting for our play-off semi-final and got a call from the assistant manager Gary Crosby.
"He asked if I could get in early so I went. I thought it might be to do with a tactical change for the game but when I got in, the gaffer (Nigel Clough) said I'd failed a drug test. It was absolutely shocking."
Baxter knew he was innocent of intentionally taking anything but was equally aware his explanation would sound lame to some peoplE. "Let's face it, if you had a pound every time someone said after failing a drug test that their drink had been spiked, you'd be a millionaire," he acknowledges.
"I probably wouldn't believe it myself if I heard someone else say it but there are actually some innocent people out there. A lot of people have told me about their daughters, their friends, family members who have been spiked and it's not nice.
"It is not just footballers it happens to, it is young kids, young girls. Some people might think it's a joke but it's not. My job was on the line, my career. It's sad to think there are people out there who do it but it is the world we live in nowadays. If you sip the wrong drink by accident, it's in your system."
Like all players who fail a test, Baxter was interviewed at the FA by various doctors, counsellors and psychiatrists who wanted to see if he had a drugs problem. He also spoke to those with him on the night in question when he visited three different bars and a nightclub.
"I asked my mates if I was acting weird at any time but they said no," he said. "For me it was a normal night. I got a bit drunk but that's it. The only thing is I was a bit dehydrated the next morning, and drank a bottle of water as soon as I got up. I ended up asking about everyone who was out with us that night. 'Is he all right, your mate?' In the end would anyone admit it was them?"
I'M NOT PARTY ANIMAL
Baxter is relieved he will not have to sit out the start of the new season with United targeting automatic promotion after last season's play- off disappointment. "I would like to think the FA believed me.
"They obviously do character references, people out there who would vouch I am not a party animal. I am not that type, I shout at my mum when she has a ciggy with her drink. The chief executive at Sheffield United gave me a reference, which was very kind and something he didn't have to do.
"I went to see a doctor, everyone in my position has to in case you are on drugs and need help. After 10 minutes of being in there, he sent me out and wrote a great letter about me, saying he didn't think I am on drugs or had used them before."
Baxter's agents Stellar, who also represent Gareth Bale and Joe Hart, also supported him, proving it's not lust about the superstar players for big player agencies. Baxter now makes sure he keeps his drink in view.
"I finish my drink before I go to the Ioo or take it with me," he says. "Not that I've felt like touching alcohol all summer. I went to Dubai and Miami over the summer with my girlfriend and our parents, and hardly touched a drop."
Baxter couldn't face watching either leg of the play-off semi-final against Swindon. United's defeat led to Clough's dismissal, though his replacement Nigel Adkins has been equally supportive and accompanyed Baxter at his hearing at Wembley last week.
Now the 23-year-old is determined to bounce back and show the form that earned comparisons with another young Evertonian, Wayne Rooney, when he first broke through at Goodison Park.
Raised in Bootle, like Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher, he joined Everton at the age of six and was always destined to be a footballer. This feels like a second chance. "Nigel Clough sent me a text wishing me the best of luck. I won't forget things like that," he says.
"It turned out to be the worst weekend of my life. Liverpool lost the semi and I nearly lost my career. A drug was found in my system, which I am guilty for. But I am not guilty of taking it."
JOSE BAXTER returned to action yesterday by helping Sheffield United beat Ilkeston 1-0 in a
pre-season friendly at The New Manor Ground.
Midfielder Baxter played in the second half in his first match since his failed drugs test In May. He was given the all clear by the Football Association on Monday and helped the Blades mark manager Nigel Adkins' first game in charge with a victory.
Their late winner came from 18-year-old midfielder Dominic Calvert-Lewin.