THE champagne will be flowing if League One giantkillers Doncaster knock Arsenal out of the Carling Cup tonight but, for once, former Sunderland midfielder Sean Thornton will not be partaking.

Not so long ago, the Irishman would have been the first to get to the bar in the aftermath of a game and, invariably, also the last to leave.

Few Black Cats fans will forget the exuberant rap that marked the club's promotion to the Premiership but, while the diamond ear-rings and bleached blonde hair remain, the refuelling methods that blighted the latter stages of his Sunderland career have vanished.

More than a stone of weight has also disappeared as Thornton has set about resurrecting a career that seemed destined to end in glory when Peter Reid prised him from Tranmere in July 2002.

"I have quit drinking," revealed the 22-year-old, who has spearheaded Doncaster's push towards the Championship with a series of eye-catching displays this season. "I have been off the drink for about six weeks now.

"I didn't drink because I felt I needed a drink. It was just that, like most footballers, you would go out on a Saturday night and get drunk.

"I might have also gone out during the week but I felt that, if I knocked that on the head, I would give myself every opportunity of getting back to the top level. Since I've done that, I've felt like a different person.

"I was fed up before. It seemed that, every time I went out with the lads, probably because of my dyed blonde hair, I was always the one who ended up in the manager's office.

"I was sick of it. Now I don't have the gaffer having a go at me when I come in for training. If I was going to be slack, I wouldn't have a chance of getting away from here. I want to progress - that's what I want to do."

The plight of both George Best and Paul Gascoigne has been front-page news in recent weeks, with football's difficult relationship with alcohol increasingly coming under the microscope.

Clubs are being urged to do more to warn young players about the dangers of excessive drinking, with the authorities recommending counselling for those who struggle to cope without a drink.

Thornton was initially sceptical about seeking outside help but, after experiencing the benefits of such a move, the midfielder is quick to recommend professional help.

"I spoke to the gaffer and spoke to my family about drinking," said a brutally honest Thornton. "I didn't go to a clinic, but I spoke to people who try to help, counsellers, that kind of thing.

"I was willing to give it (counselling) a chance but, even as I went to speak to them, I was thinking 'I'll speak to them - but I'm not going to stop drinking, I'm still going to go out'.

"But when they told me about how alcohol affects your football and your body, I changed my mind. It suddenly dawned on me. You'd come into training on a Monday not feeling too bright and that was why.

"Since I quit, I've been flying. I'm a better person, a better family man and a better footballer.

"It hasn't been easy, and the biggest test came when we beat Aston Villa in the last round of the cup. I was on a massive high and all the lads went out.

"I said to myself 'I'll go out and see how I handle it when the whole town is jumping and buzzing'.

"I didn't touch a drop and I felt that I had the willpower. I was drinking orange and cranberry juice - the only trouble was that I had to go to the toilet every five minutes."

Sadly, the change in outlook has come too late to save his Sunderland career. McCarthy is not one for dishing out second chances and, having sanctioned the midfielder's sale last summer, the Black Cats boss is unlikely to offer a reprieve.

Both parties have lost out - an on-song Thornton would offer McCarthy the kind of incisive attacking option he lacks - and, with a touch of the old bravado, the midfielder insists he could improve Sunderland's position at the foot of the table.

"I don't want Sunderland to regret letting me go," he said. "But I do want to show them what I am capable of. I don't think there is anyone in Sunderland's midfield that can pull the strings and make things happen.

"Am I surprised that Sunderland are doing so badly? To be honest, no. That's because he (McCarthy) has gone for quantity signings instead of quality.

"I am not being disrespectful to any of the players, but he should have recruited some big players instead.

"Sunderland say they don't have the money, but it's not too expensive to get a good quality player these days.

"At the end of the day, that player needs to play for him. But, when you see the team on a Saturday, you can't see them getting a victory."