“I don’t think I am going to be alright, definitely not” – Paul Gascoigne.
It was the simplicity of the line that caught you off guard, immediately forcing a lump into your throat. Almost every second of the 2013 documentary ‘Being Paul Gascoigne’ was horrific, recording a man’s battle to climb up the sides of a deep well with greased walls, but this simple admission made your heart pang with pure regret. This was Gazza, the wacky clown and eternal optimist, staring into the abyss of his own future.
All spectators of football – supporters, writers, journalists – are to some extent guilty of the same crime: We treat football as a face-value sport. Footballers are there when we need or want them, then cast aside until interest is piqued once more.
That’s entirely natural, but we are too guilty of ignoring the human element of sportspeople, treating them as commodities. Perhaps the best analogy is with the circus animal, who we pay money to watch only while they are of use or entertainment value. With football, the excitement of the contest is enough to sate our interest without the human element, the stream of talent too bountiful to dwell on the ‘what happens next?’. Never has that caused more damage than in the case of Paul Gascoigne.
Gascoigne was undoubtedly the most talented English player of his generation, perhaps even of all time. His dribbling ability was the stuff of comic book heroes, his burst into space, drop of the shoulder and swagger distinctly un-English. Gascoigne also had a coolness in front of goal, a capacity to disguise where he was shooting or passing that made every one of his moments on the ball eminently watchable. You didn’t know what Gazza would do next, but you knew it would be good.
Importantly, there was also a rawness to Gascoigne’s play that was immensely endearing. Not only could you admire the finished product, but you could see the workings too. Add to that an apparently joyful disposition, and there were few more exciting players in the world in the early 1990s. Gascoigne was the type of footballer you’d pay to watch warm up with a tennis ball.
“He was the crackerjack of British football,” says Stuart Pearce. “The most talented individual I’ve played alongside. Even when he got into the England side, he was not fazed by anyone he played against. He had a real arrogance on the pitch, and loved football.” Brian Laudrup describes him as one of the best players in the world in that era, and it’s a compliment endorsed by just about every teammate and opponent.
“Part of his genius, part of his magnificence, is the fact that he was so vulnerable,” says Gary Lineker. “Without that vulnerable side, without that carefree side, without all the things that come with Gazza, I don’t think Paul Gascoigne would have been the player that he was.” Lineker is right, and that quote hints at Gascoigne’s personal problems. That vulnerability reflected an emotional immaturity that allowed him to play without a handbrake. It also meant there was no coping mechanism to deal with the rigours of life.
Gascoigne’s early career was extraordinarily successful. He made his first-team debut at 17, was a regular at 18, had been named PFA Young Player of the Year at 21 and made his England debut at the same age, scoring his first goal in April 1989. He would play 57 times for his country. By the time of his international debut he had already moved to Tottenham for £2.2m.
Yet Gazza-mania only truly became a phenomenon after Italia ‘90, perhaps still the most culturally significant tournament in the history of English sport, with the obvious exception of the 1966 victory. Gascoigne’s supreme ability (he was named in the official teams of the tournament in 1990 and 1996), combined with his eventual weeping exit made him a global star.
It is hard to describe to younger fans just how famous Gascoigne was post-Italia ’90, and then again after his era-defining goal against Scotland at Wembley in Euro 96. His was the rarer strand of cultural significance, appreciated far more at the time than in hindsight. T-shirts, posters, pop singles, toys, teddy bears; this was David Beckham to the power of ten and in a much shorter, and thus more concentrated burst.
Gascoigne possessed none of the tools to deal with such stardom and was never likely to come through unscathed, but his playing career was in no danger of petering out. Despite a host of fitness issues (not least his weight problems), Gascoigne is fondly remembered in Serie A, and scored perhaps the greatest goal of his career for Lazio against Pescara; Colin Hendry would certainly give it his vote. It was not until he reached his 30s and the Premier League – via a wonderful three years in Glasgow – that the polish had begun to wear off, leaving Gascoigne’s scars open to the world. By then it was too late.
There is an argument that Gascoigne was too talented. Like Alex Higgins in snooker, his natural ability was so great that practice or training were rendered virtually useless. Gascoigne’s splendour, his magic, lay in the moments that seemed heaven-sent, not rehearsed. The dink over Hendry, the free-kick against Arsenal; these were moments that only Gazza could manage, and more fool those who tried to replicate them.
Yet because Gascoigne had such ability without hard work, it seemingly caused a subconscious complacency in his psyche. His battles in later life were an indirect result of being taught and told to act on impulse. Having retired, that impulsive talent counted for nothing. You cannot underestimate the psychological blow of moving in a moment from the top to the bottom of the utility ladder.
The most devastating conflict of Gascoigne’s career is that it was his natural talent that facilitated his descent into addiction, because it afforded him extra chances and allowed managers to turn a blind eye. “He ate ice cream for breakfast, drank beer for lunch and when injured he blew up like a whale,” said Dino Zoff, his manager at Lazio. “But as a player? Oh, beautiful, beautiful. I loved that boy. He was a genius.”
Therein lies the potentially crippling lot of the artist: We’re more interested in the ‘wow’ than the ‘why?’ By the time Gascoigne had entered rehab for the first time in 1998 (signed in by Bryan Robson after drinking 32 shots of scotch), his alcoholism was already entrenched. Every slide into ill-repute was met with the same roll of the eyes and same six words: “Oh Gazza, what is he like?” Mentally ill, that’s what.
If football was Gascoigne’s passion, his success only exacerbated the decline. The reason for a comparatively high rate of addiction among footballers is the game’s capacity for extremes. From being adored by millions on a Saturday to an evening spent alone, and from a morning spent training with your mates to just another empty afternoon; the errant mind soon wanders. Gascoigne’s low concentration span, lack of professionalism and high income created a toxic combination.
English football’s great what if – would Gazza have been better if Fergie had signed him? – also completely misunderstands the situation. Gascoigne’s biggest enemies were free time and money. The omniscient gaze of Alex Ferguson could not have prevented his demons from taking over, even if they may have temporarily stymied their rise.
Emotional immaturity then kicked in. Gascoigne was a famous footballer without protection, constantly surrounded by people on and off the pitch who benefited from his existence while simultaneously damaging it. Being wealthy, vulnerable and badly advised is a damaging blend for someone who is also achingly eager to please. Gascoigne was the man with a thousand mates but no friends. His mates drank with him; friends would have done anything but.
“I never refused an autograph, never refused to buy someone a drink,” Gascoigne said. “Now I’m learning to say I’ve got other things on, instead of doing it and wondering why.” All he ever wanted was to be loved.
The anecdotes about Gascoigne are innumerable, but we can mention a few: Stealing the Middlesbrough team coach and causing thousands of pounds worth of damage; taking an ostrich to Tottenham training; playing a game with Paul Merson on away trips where the pair would take as many sleeping pills as possible while still staying awake; playing tennis with two drunk Americans in the middle of the night before the World Cup semi-final; putting a dead snake in Roberto Di Matteo’s pocket; diving in a lobster tank in a restaurant to fish out his desired meal; making his ‘friend’ Jimmy Five Bellies a mince pie full of cat shit; turning up to provide support to a murderer on the run from police. One of these things is not like the other, but all are strains of the same imbalance.
Each one is often re-told to paint a farcical picture, but this is no comedy. Gascoigne was English football’s clown prince, but the paint covered up the face of a barely-functioning alcoholic.
‘It is easy to forget just what a talent he was before the wheels fell off,’ read one tabloid article on Gascoigne’s career, written last year. That entirely misdiagnoses the problem. The wheels had already fallen off long before the end of Gascoigne’s career; we were just too busy watching him standing on the roof of the car doing kick-ups to notice. Football was masking his mental illness, not curing it.
Perhaps if Gascoigne had been born 20 years later, we may have been able to enjoy him into his footballing old age. Society’s treatment of mental illness is vastly improved, as has sport’s support network for its troubled stars. If Gascoigne had been born 20 years earlier, we’d call him George Best.
I should enjoy watching old clips of Gascoigne. The goal against Scotland, the hat-trick against Aberdeen and the waltz against Pescara should be fond nostalgia of my youth. But I can’t. To remember that Gascoigne is to be punched by the realisation that, rather than adoration and fame, he needed help. This piece is not intended to be derogatory, quite the opposite, but to highlight that our appreciation of a breathtakingly good player is now tempered by what was hidden – something people knew about for a long time but chose to ignore.
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot,” as Charlie Chaplin once said. It’s a line that frames Paul Gascoigne perfectly. The most talented English footballer of his generation has become its most devastating mistake. He is our Peter Pan, the player who never grew up.
Daniel has been nominated as Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters’ Federation. Please go here and vote for him.