It hasn’t been easy looking at those front-page photographs of Paul Gascoigne with his face bashed up, scabbed and seeping, and remembering the last time I saw him in the flesh and how – wishful thinking, perhaps – I came away with the impression that maybe a semblance of order was gradually returning to his life.
What really pains me is how frail he looks, and the way his clothes are hanging off him. Gascoigne once had the most formidable backside in the industry. He was curved and chunky, like somebody had pumped him up. Now, everything he is wearing suddenly seems to have outgrown him by a size or two. He is 48 but he has the stoop of a much older man. He is wearing the unmistakable look of someone who has drunk to excess, and then some more, and it is jarring to think that a younger generation know him as this troubled, gaunt shell, rather than the brilliant, pink-faced lunatic – chip-fat grin, hair shorn behind the ears, rattling with nervous energy – who used to do rare things on a football pitch.
More fool me, though, for assuming he might finally have cracked it on the basis of one lucid night in January when he was back entertaining an audience, reminiscing about happier times, and so assured it seemed that for the first time in a long time he might be on top of everything.
It was An Evening with Paul Gascoigne, at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, and if I am honest I did feel slightly apprehensive on the way to that event. Gascoigne has done other shows where he could barely string together a coherent sentence and on those occasions, if you had a single shred of human decency, you longed for someone to get him off stage.
His previous event was in Wolverhampton Civic Hall, where everything was fine, apparently, until he noticed a black security guard standing against a dark background. His attempt at a gag – “If you weren’t smiling, I wouldn’t be able to see you” – made it into the newspapers and, collecting my ticket in Nottingham, it was a peculiar mood. Nobody working there seemed to know what time he was on, or whether he would even turn up. “Expect anything,” one said.
As it turned out, he was on really good form, looking healthier than for a long while, sipping a glass of water, obviously enjoying being the centre of attention and laughing so hard he had to wipe the tears from his face during one story that, perhaps more than anything, summed up his impulsive streak.
It went back to the summer of 1988 when he was leaving Newcastle United and had promised Alex Ferguson over the phone that he would join Manchester United, only for Irving Scholar, the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, to try to hijack the deal by offering a house if he moved to London instead. “Well, what you are fucking waiting for,” Gascoigne recalled his dad excitedly telling him. Except Gascoigne Sr then decided he also wanted a car – a private-registration BMW – and persuaded him to ring Scholar back. Scholar said he would sort it. Then word got round the family and Gazza’s phone rang again. This time it was his sister. “She said: ‘Well, if my mam’s got a new house and my dad’s got a car, I want a sunbed.’ So I rang Irving Scholar back again and I said: ‘Listen, you’ll never believe this, but one more thing – if I sign, will you buy my sister a sunbed?’” And that, according to Gascoigne, was what swung it. “The entire deal, done on a fucking sunbed.”
What might have happened differently in his life, perhaps, if he had moved to Old Trafford instead? Ferguson was so aggrieved he wrote him a letter calling him a “silly boy” and has said more than once that if Gascoigne had come under his wing he would not have encountered the same problems.
Yet that strikes me as an easy line. Ferguson’s management did not stop Paul McGrath or Ralph Milne, both playing in his team that season, spiralling into alcoholism. The manager’s influence did not halt Keith Gillespie’s descent into a gambling addiction in later years. In fact, Gillespie used to be a runner for Ferguson, placing bets for his manager and then picking up a hefty tip if the right horse came in.
The truth is that none of us can say for certain what will happen next with Gascoigne but, equally, I hope that when the Sun printed those photographs he didn’t bother reading the expert diagnosis of its resident doctor, Carol Cooper – or, if he did, that he has enough people around him to remind him how pleasant it might be to disprove her verdict. “I fear he’s too far gone,” Cooper helpfully volunteers. “The final whistle can’t be far away.” An alcohol counsellor I know has snipped out that article for future reference; he intends to cite it as exactly the sort of thing a doctor should not say – especially when the patient might be reading it.
We are all entitled to be fearful, of course. “Where did it all go wrong?” George Best was famously once asked. Except, in Gazza’s case, there isn’t a scantily clad Miss World and hotel bed covered in banknotes to form the punchline. For now, it is a bottle of gin, a face filled with blood and the permanent knowledge that for every taxi he falls out of, every lost night and every lapse, there will always be someone clicking on a cameraphone to make a few quid.
But there is a network around him. There are qualified people trying to help and there are plenty of other ex-pros who have apparently hit rock bottom, drinking to the point where it was endangering their lives, but who have come out the other side.
I think of Gary Charles, another former England player, who went to prison and endured all the ravages of alcoholism before turning his life around so admirably, now working as the director of football at Nottingham University as well as devoting his career to helping sports people with addictions. It is coming up for 25 years since Gascoigne scythed down Charles in the 1991 FA Cup final and suffered the self-inflicted injury that put his career into descent. The two speak. Lots of people speak to Gascoigne. There is, if nothing else, no shortage of people who care and want to help. And it is not too late, no matter what some rent-a-quote doctor says.
What he doesn’t need is condemnation, or early obituaries, or something else I’ve noticed: the tendency of people to say that it is time to give up because of the way, every so often, he seems to slide back to square one in a real-life game of snakes and ladders. Nobody said it was going to be easy, or that there wouldn’t be setbacks. It doesn’t work that way with addictions.
It rankles that to a lot of these people Gascoigne is the messed-up bloke who, coked off his head, took chicken and a fishing rod to the Raoul Moat police manhunt rather than how you or I might recall him, as the kind of footballer who made you quicken your step on the way to the ground. Because what a player that lad was. “He could head the ball, pass it, dribble with it, shoot and he’d train all day,” Sir Bobby Robson once said. “He drove his managers mad, of course, because he never lost that precociousness, his cocky stupidity, his willingness to do anything in search of a quick laugh. But he remained so popular because he was such an innocent.”
His behaviour crossed the line more times than anyone can possibly remember but, even then, Gascoigne always had that uncommon quality that even a mention of his name could make people smile. Indeed, it is not easy to think there have been many more popular English footballers. “There is something strangely appealing about him,” Ferguson wrote in his 1999 autobiography. “Perhaps it is his vulnerability. You feel you might want to be an older brother or a father to him. You might want to shake him, or give him a cuddle, because there is certainly something infectious that gets you involved with him.”
This was the player who injured himself – and this never came out at the time – by falling from one of the stands at White Hart Lane. He always thought he was invincible, Gazza, and he had climbed up with an air-gun over his shoulder to take aim at a pigeon in the rafters. Gascoigne didn’t just want to shoot that pigeon, he wanted to blow its head off. He was right by it when his finger moved to the trigger. It flew away – and he got such a start he dropped 20ft to the floor.
The most expensive footballer in Britain missed the next match with a wrecked shoulder and, going back to that night in Nottingham, he told another story that is worth recounting, about a day trip to London Zoo on one of his first adventures after moving south. Gascoigne, the big kid, was so excited he could not sleep the night before. He ended up stealing an ostrich, putting it in a Tottenham shirt (the No8) and driving to the Spurs training ground in Cheshunt with it in the back seat. “Can you imagine the looks we were getting at traffic lights?,” he wanted to know, and he was heaving with laughter again. “There’s kids pointing. ‘Mam, is that Gazza? It’s Gazza!’ Then they’d look in the back seat. ‘It’s Gazza – and he’s got an ostrich!’”
You have to laugh, even if you are left wondering what happened to the poor ostrich. Gascoigne always wanted to make people smile, to entertain and spread fun, and though he often got it wrong it is one of the reasons why it is so hard watching someone with all that precious magic locked in an illness that is always trying to pull him beneath the surface.
“I’ve done really well for 11 months,” Gascoigne said, in comments that didn’t make any front pages. “I have one blip and I get hammered for it.” Eleven months for someone that vulnerable is worthy of acclaim and I haven’t seen too much, even before he lapsed into old ways. “I am back on track now,” he added, and let’s hope he means it. Gascoigne was 33 when he was diagnosed as an alcoholic and 15 years later, no matter how rough it gets, he is still ours. Don’t give up on him.
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