No intro. Greg Theoharis has nailed this.
My heart stops every time I switch on the news and hear the phrase, “Ex-England star, Paul Gascoigne…” It happened again last Monday with reports that Gazza had been arrested once again for driving over the limit. It was an almost throwaway remark by the newsreader, coming as it did after the ongoing farce that Liverpool’s protracted sale had become and the increasingly frosty atmosphere that has been descending upon Old Trafford as Sir Alex and the wayward Wayne Rooney ratchet up their levels of public relations brinkmanship.
Gazza being drunk. Again.
It’s become such a regular occurrence that whenever it happens, the public raises its collective eyebrows and dismisses the story as yet another self-destructive incident in the life of a ‘national treasure’. One who has been sadly spiraling into a vortex of self-destruction for nigh-on two decades now. He is newsworthy, but only in the sense that we feel he deserves an honorary mention simply because we feel we owe it to him for all the years past.
I dread the moment when it comes. That moment when Gazza isn’t just a figure of fun. For us to mock on self-loathing panel shows for his ‘madcap’ friendship with the likes of Raoul Moat, or his sad attempts to forge a successful managerial career. Or when he transcends the pity we heap upon him with our lamentations for his squandered talent and inability to accept that he will never be the player he was. The moment I dread is the moment that tells us that Paul Gascoigne has been found dead, closely followed by graphic descriptions of the destituteness he found himself in his latter day incarnation as a public morality play.
We’ve seen it all before; George Best, Alex Higgins. But when it happens to Gazza, we’ll all have to look at ourselves and seriously question why we allowed someone who quite clearly has suffered from mental health issues throughout his life, go so long without forcefully being given the treatment and empathy he so clearly has always needed.
Yes, he’s a grown man and he should be allowed to be the master of his own destiny. But he is also a vulnerable, exceptionally talented individual who has provided so many of us with some of the most exquisite memories of our footballing childhoods. Gazza’s tears. Gazzamania. Gazza ‘getting his suit measured’. Gazza vs. Scotland. On and on it goes. So when we’re tempted to denigrate his present predicament with either shrugs or - more pathetically - chortles, let’s just think that this man has lived a life in the public eye, unprepared to internalise and articulate the pressures so foisted upon such unpredictable shoulders.
Gascoigne’s playing days straddled both eras of the modern game. He came to prominence in the late 1980’s when football was riddled by heavy-drinkers and overtly masculine players and fans that had no sentiment for anyone considered to be deviating from a template of hatchet men and working-class outlooks. With his tears at Italia ’90, Gazza inadvertently paved the way for the metrosexuality of David Beckham and made it acceptable for women and social commentators to show a passion for the game. But even with that, he was mocked and the seedily iconic image of his testicles being gripped in the vice of Vinnie Jones’ hands has become a metaphor for the japery of boys playing a man’s game rather than being interpreted as the actions of the proverbial school bully seeking to destroy and intimidate the natural, instinctive playing genius of someone blessed with infinitely more talent. It’s an easy step to imagine the same image being reproduced with the equally thuggish John Terry examining Cristiano Ronaldo’s nether regions with such scrutiny.
Gazza, was and always will be my childhood hero. Along with Gary Lineker, he represented everything that I found magical about the game. And whereas Lineker provided the model for how I wanted myself to be perceived on the football field or on the playground (urbane, respectful, unassuming), it was always Gazza who fired my schoolboy imagination.
Many players have delighted me with their talents in the intervening years but it is these two men who, even in my early thirties, envelope me in a childish warm glow whenever they appear on the screen. Match of the Day may have become a self-serving talking shop of bland clichés, but whenever Lineker gives a wry acknowledgment to Spurs’ progress after Alan Hansen’s cynical asides, I feel that he’s talking to me and every other manchild who grew up watching him play at White Hart Lane in the early ’90s. Similarly, whenever Gascoigne is wheeled out to be a guest pundit on MOTD2 or some such highlights package, all I want to do is reach out and give the man a huge hug because it’s clear that with every wistful reminiscence about his glory days from a well-meaning anchorman, a little piece of him is slowly lost. Unlike Lineker, this is a man who was born to do nothing other than play football. Beautifully.
As the years pass, Gascoigne’s decline becomes ever sadder to observe from this distance. I long to see him find some peace, whether that be through coaching youngsters, as an ambassador for the game in some capacity or just being offered the help he so clearly needs to be able to function with some semblance of normality. Surely all of us, having feasted on his talent and mishaps throughout the last twenty years owe him that?
The image that so clearly personifies the dichotomy of the two players I so fanatically idolised as a boy, is the shot of Lineker motioning to the bench after Gazza has received the fatal second yellow card against West Germany that would have kept him out of the Final. As the lip began to quiver, Lineker mouthed, “Have a word”. Before it’s too late, I hope that somebody, somewhere has the humanity to actually follow through with that sentiment. I can’t bear another one of those news reports.
If you would like to read more from Greg, please visit his excellent blog Dispatches from a football sofa.
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