WHEN nature bestows the gift of football ability upon a fortunate few, no consideration is given to character, class or creed.
So as humble devotees of the game, we can only accept the full spectrum of humanity that wear our sacred colours as they troop over the white line; from the honourable, honest family men to the criminal and immoral lowlifes- all walks of life can represent us on the pitch. There was certainly no rhyme, reason or logic when fate landed true greatness at the feet of a tragic and flawed character who would spend most of his life in the grip of addiction and mental illness.
At Stoke we only ever got to witness Paul Gascoigne tread our home turf during the latter stages of his career with Everton, when Gudjon Thordarson’s Potters were drawn against the Toffeemen in the FA Cup Third Round. Gazza was thirty-four at the time and experiencing a brief and tenuous spell of sobriety between a drink-sodden two-year stretch at Middlesborough and the lurching shambles that made up the dying embers of his playing career. Gascoigne was never free of his demons for long, but for ninety minutes he illuminated a cold January afternoon at the Britannia with an imperious display in the centre of the pitch – controlling the midfield at little more than walking pace.
Both the vulnerability and marketability of Gazza were obvious from the moment he burst onto the scene as a chubby young starlet on Tyneside, with a daft grin and the nervous energy of an excitable child. By the time he was 23, Gazza was a national icon following his tears in Turin, and a series of displays that already had him marked as the best English midfielder since Bobby Charlton. Dancing around on an open-top bus wearing plastic breasts and gurning at the cameras during the England team’s return from Italia 90, Gazza had single-handedly transformed English football from a dead horse way beyond its last flogging, to a marketable form of entertainment for a new breed of fan. The seminal seeds of SKY’s glossy Premiership product were arguably planted during those weeks, when a re-invigorated fervour for the national game was nurtured, with the tear-stained face of Gazza as its new figurehead.
The novelty pop single cash-ins, computer game endorsements and appearances on Wogan were all very well, but the doubts were already present as to whether Gascoigne was mentally robust enough to cope with the kind of attention and scrutiny that he was now under. There were a number of alleged off-field misdemeanours and constant issues with Gazza’s fluctuating weight, but a young footballer getting into scrapes and tucking into a sausage roll didn’t attract the interest that it would eventually garner in the age of the rolling news channel and ubiquitous gossip magazine. The nervous tics and obsessions were present though, and could be traced back to Gascoigne’s childhood. In the Hunter Davis penned ‘autobiography’, Gazza recalls the moment when he witnessed the death of Stephen Spraggon- a younger friend who was knocked over by a car as the two boys were out playing in the street. Gascoigne stated that he felt responsible for the youngster’s death and was unable to ever come to terms with the resultant feelings of guilt.
The ugliness really began to take hold in the mid nineties, with the admission from Gascoigne that he had beaten his wife, Sheryl, and his battle with alcohol became a constant source of news for the Tabloid press. Around the time of Euro 96, he was often portrayed as the personification of the irresponsible footballer on yet another late-night bender; gulping back spirits while strapped into ‘the dentists chair’ in Singapore being a memorable indiscretion, immortalised during the celebration of Gazza’s stunning strike in the 2-0 victory over Scotland.
It doesn’t take a qualification in Psychiatry to conclude that football itself was the ultimate anti-depressant for Gazza, and as his ability to perform at the top level began to wane, the safety blanket that the sport provided began to slip away with it, exposing Gazza to his own demons. This couldn’t be more starkly illustrated than in the moments after Glenn Hoddle had denied Gazza a place in his England squad heading to France for the 1998 World Cup. When Gazza was summoned into the manager’s office to learn his fate, his reported reaction was a fit of uncontrollable rage that resulted in Hoddle’s room being trashed and Gazza being restrained by the coaching staff.
From that moment on, Gascoigne drifted through the remainder of his career like a man who knew his purpose in life was ebbing slowly away. Appearing bloated, but still fleetingly brilliant, Gazza combined his football with numerous stints in rehab, but by the time he had reached the lows of Boston United and his bizarre stint in the Chinese Second Division, the alcohol and illness had truly taken hold.
The years that followed Gazza’s retirement seemed only to be a heartbreaking prologue for a seemingly inevitable headline and obituary, announcing Gazza’s early demise. Clearly in the grip of chronic mental illness and alcoholism, Gascoigne cut a hopeless figure in ‘Surviving Gazza’, a TV documentary that chronicled the effect of his condition and behaviour on his ex-wife and her two children. He was eventually sectioned under the Mental health Act following an incident in a Newcastle hotel in 2008 and by the time of the infamous and awkwardly comical Raoul Moat incident in 2010, public opinion of Gascoigne was incredulous and increasingly unsympathetic.
At the time of writing, Gascoigne’s condition is much improved following a successful stint in the Providence Rehab Project in Bournemouth. (The fragility of his recovery from alcohol addiction and mental illness can not be emphasised any more than by my need to cautiously preface that previous sentence.) Thankfully, Gazza is once again being seen in a more positive light on television, appearing vulnerable but possessing a self-deprecating charm on Piers Morgan’s ‘Life Stories’ show, and once again being offered advertising work. The years of abuse that his brain and body have taken have aged Gazza beyond his years, his speech still occasionally slurred and uncertain, but he still possesses the faint aura of innocent likeability that captured the heart of a nation over twenty years ago.
This article appeared in Issue 526 of The Oatcake on 28th November 2012