Paul Gascoigne: My Hero

Gazza reveals the full extent of his battle with alcohol on ITV tonight. But despite the arrests, the trips to clinics and the worrying behaviour he's still the man for me...
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Gazza reveals the full extent of his battle with alcohol on ITV tonight. But despite the arrests, the trips to clinics and the worrying behaviour he's still the man for me...

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A Newcastle United and England fan explains why Paul Gascoigne remains his hero despite the ongoing fears for his life

“I look upon myself as two people: Gazza and Paul Gascoigne.  Paul Gascoigne is the sensible, kind, generous, caring one, if a little bit boring.  Gazza has been daft as a brush, but could be entertaining.”

I can pick ‘em, can’t I?  It’s been tough enough defending Morrissey over the years never mind Gascoigne.  In fact if I’d been given £10 for every woman I’ve offended with my irrationally blinkered support for Gazza as one of the great British icons…I’d be standing knee-deep in racehorse excrement with Michael Owen.

Every week is eventful in Gazza’s turbulent tabloid life.  This time he was left hospitalised after a car crash; a passenger in a vehicle that smashed into a lamp-post outside Newcastle’s Guildhall on the Quayside.  Previous headlines have charted his problems with alcoholism and drugs, his arrest for drink-driving last February and his ongoing battle against depression.  Now 43, he’s been sectioned three times under the Mental Health Act.

Twenty years ago, the world was at Gascoigne’s feet.  Even before his tears flowed in Turin, as England slumped out of the World Cup semi-final against Germany, the stadiums of Italy and the pages of the international sporting press were purring with praise for a great young English footballer.

As a Newcastle United fan, I’d known about Gazza’s burgeoning brilliance for years.  From his debut against QPR in the Spring of 1985 through to his departure for Spurs in June 1988, he’d starred in a series of traditionally under-achieving Newcastle sides alongside Peter Beardsley, Glen Roeder and the maverick but fair-weathered Mirandinha.

Watching from the Gallowgate paddock, I’d only caught the bearded George Best playing for Manchester United towards the death of his career so, without doubt, Paul Gascoigne remains the best footballer I’ve ever seen.   Even if he didn’t look the part – fat lad, bad Eighties hair, perpetual daft grin – he was a rare individual talent; a fantastically confident and creative English midfield player who always always wanted the ball.

I first encountered Gazza in early 1986.  He’d arrived early for a Newcastle match and was messing about with a gang of kids opposite the Strawberry pub.  At 18, there was nothing ostentatious or other-worldly about him; the transition from the terraces to the turf of St James’ hadn’t altered him in any way.

Now 43, he’s been sectioned three times under the Mental Health Act.

I don’t usually bother with autographs; although I did once get Mick Mahoney’s (as in “Mick Mahoney, super goalie, la-la-la-la-lala”) and I really treasured Kevin Keegan’s signature when he first arrived as the new Toon messiah.   But Gazza was totally different.  There was a charismatic feel-good factor about him as a person and as a player; those of us who’d tried and failed to make the grade as Newcastle footballers felt that Gazza was somehow fulfilling all our dreams.

Even after his £2m transfer to Spurs, United fans still shared closely in Gascoigne’s successes, particularly following Italia 90 and his BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.  His heart and soul belonged to Newcastle and always would; we could even forgive him for revisiting and murdering ‘Fog On The Tyne’ with Lindisfarne.

Working as a researcher for the BBC, I bumped into him again in TV Centre reception in the late summer of 1990, in the manic midst of “Gazzamania”.  He’d just got back from the World Cup and was waiting to go on the Wogan chat show.   Fresh-faced, track-suited (or was it a shellsuit?!) with his hair slicked back and screaming girls waiting for his live appearance, he was quietly spoken and understandably nervous, like the small boy outside the headmaster’s office in Kes.  Almost overnight he’d become the most famous and bizarrely-desirable man in Britain.  He was still only 23 and surely destined to dominate English, if not World, football throughout the 1990s.

Of course, things first really started to go wrong for Gascoigne in the 1991 FA Cup Final.  He’d already been having problems off the pitch, but now on it – having infamously kissed Princess Diana’s hand before the game – the intense pressure of simply being Gazza got to him and he “knacked” (his word) his cruciate ligament in a mad challenge on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles.

Some would argue that he was never the same player again.  I’d disagree.  There were many moments at Lazio, at Rangers, and certainly for England during the 1996 European Championships, when he seemed to rediscover his appetite for the game.  Although he struggled for England under Graham Taylor, he thrived when his old Spurs boss Terry Venables managed the national side, and his goal against Scotland remains one of the classic moments of individual brilliance in English football history.

Having followed Gascoigne’s unsettled, injury-plagued career closely throughout the Nineties – he’d moved from Rome to Glasgow, where he became a firm favourite – I finally interviewed him at Middlesbrough in 1999, when his life on the pitch was increasingly being over-shadowed by events outside football.  His marriage had broken down, his parents had split up and there were plenty of rumours about his boozy lifestyle.

The encounter revealed a worrying portrait of a warm and friendly man – still something of the lovable big kid - trying to come to terms with both his past and his deeply-uncertain future.  Red-eyed unshaven and bloated, naked beneath his dressing gown, Gazza seemed mentally unprepared to face the end of a glorious footballing career.

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One Thursday morning, in the Spring of 1999, I visited Middlesbrough's state-of-the-art new training ground in North Yorkshire to film a rare interview with Paul Gascoigne for the BBC1 television documentary series Three Lions (A History Of The England Football Team 1960-2000).  As ever, it was a troubled time in the famous footballer's life.  But this was clearly towards the end of his roller-coaster career.

He was 32, fighting for fitness in the Premiership and struggling to regain his form under the management of fellow Geordie and ex-England midfield mentor Bryan Robson.  The previous summer Gascoigne had controversially been left out of the England Squad for the 1998 World Cup Finals by England manager Glenn Hoddle.

It had been a crushing personal blow and, although England reached the World Cup quarter finals, many felt the team lacked a player of his international quality, vision and creativity to unlock top class defences.  After all, he’d had been written off several times before, most memorably before Euro 96 following his drinking escapades in Singapore.  Perhaps, many pundits believed, England with Gazza only 75 per cent fit would have outwitted Argentina in 1998.

Two weekends before my journey over from Manchester, Gascoigne had been sent off for elbowing an opponent in a cup match.  But instead of knuckling down and training hard to win back his Middlesbrough place, he'd reportedly been seen drinking heavily in Newcastle's nightspots.

As ever with Gazza, you never knew what to expect.  Perhaps he wouldn't even turn up for training at all?

Driving into the training ground, I realised that the number plate of the Range Rover ahead of me featured the word "Regan", Gascoigne's son with Sheryl Kyle.  I followed the green vehicle up the drive until it stopped and the passenger door opened.

Two slippers appeared first, then bruised naked legs, followed by a dishevelled torso wrapped in a flapping dressing gown.  With thinning hair and stubbled jaw, Paul Gascoigne gave a tired smile towards me then shuffled off slowly towards the changing rooms, like an escaped patient returning to hospital.

I'd already interviewed the Middlesbrough boss Bryan Robson about his own extraordinary England career and he'd spoken warmly of Gascoigne as a great player and team-mate.  In Robson's opinion, that Spring of ‘99, if Gazza could focus and get fit again he still had a chance of making the England squad for Euro 2000 at the age of 33.

Earlier I’d also talked to Gazza's close friend, Middlesbrough and England team-mate Paul Ince, about Hoddle's decision to leave Gascoigne out of the 1998 World Cup squad.  Ince told us he'd been shocked by the decision and recalled hearing Gazza screaming, shouting and kicking doors when the news was first broken to him.  But Ince also believed that Gazza's England career was not yet over.

However, watching the training session from the touchline, near the changing rooms, it was clear that Gascoigne was really struggling. Overweight, breathing heavily, he seemed to be moving in slow motion compared to his colleagues.  The precision passing and the clever footwork were still in evidence, and he still wanted the ball all the time, but once he was in possession he lacked the speed to move away from opponents.

When training finished, I'd assumed Gazza would head straight for the showers and get cleaned up before sitting down for his television interview.  Instead, he disappeared into the canteen and, one hour later, had to be lured away from the pool table and the sausage rolls by one of Middlesbrough's Press Officers.  Still un-showered, but back in his striped dressing gown, Gazza strolled reluctantly into the room, sweating but smiling, and sat down in front of our camera.

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To paraphrase Edgar Allan-Poe, no man had changed more dramatically during the intervening years than Paul Gascoigne. Sitting opposite him I struggled to picture the cherub-faced, cheeky-grinning teenager I'd first seen from the terraces of St James' Park in the mid 1980s.  It wasn't simply a question of weight - he'd always struggled with that - more that his hair had receded, his face was heavily lined, and his eyes looked tired and sad; a completely different man from the 21-year-old pin-up who’d had the girls screaming on the Wogan show.

"Right, I'll give yous five minutes, no more," he laughs.  "I've got to be somewhere else and, anyways, I'm keeping everything for my book."

Typically, warming to company, he talked for over an hour and covered every aspect of his England career and a few very personal moments too.  But, perhaps because he spoke in broad Geordie to a Newcastle fan, less than five minutes of the interview were ever used in the final programme.  Even then, someone at the BBC recommended subtitles!

Listening back, over ten years after, it was a gentle, funny and rambling interview in which Gascoigne dealt with the genuine thrill of being picked to play for England and his first cap as a substitute: "an unbelievable feeling...it was against Denmark and I come on with 'R2D2', Tony Cottee, The Poison Dwarf, even for thirty seconds it was a fantastic feeling".

He talked about the World Cup of Italia 90 and his role as a practical joker in the England squad alongside fellow Geordie Chris Waddle, playing very loud music early in the morning to wind up Bryan Robson  - "he'd be next door shouting and screaming 'turn that down or I'll come through and kill yous'".

And he recalled key moments on the pitch including his pass for David Platt's goal against Belgium and the booking in the semi-final versus West Germany which promoted his tears in Turin: "I never touched the guy...I think he must have fallen...twisting, turning, diving, rolling around as if he'd just been shot...I was in another world after I got booked...I fought like hell right to the end but my head wasn't there to take a penalty".

After Italia 90 Gascoigne had returned home a hero, a household name, perhaps as famous, in tabloid terms, for the false tits and belly he wore on the England team bus as for his breath-taking football skills.

We talked about the Graham Taylor years during which England only won when the often-injured Gascoigne was in the team; Taylor's tenancy as England manager was effectively ended by the Dutch midfielder Jan Wouter's brutal attack on Gazza during Holland's victory for the 1994 World Cup qualifiers.  Gascoigne spoke warmly and emotionally about how he helped John Barnes beat the England boo boys and how, approaching Euro 1996, Terry Venables nearly gave him the England captaincy.

Let's not forget that, before Euro 96 (similar to the run-up to the World Cup in France 98) many critics argued that Gazza's incorrigible lifestyle meant he'd be too great a risk to play for England again.  His physical fitness was in question and, just prior to the tournament starting, he'd been branded a negative influence because of tabloid revelations about the "Dentist's Chair" drinking episode on tour in Singapore.

"[My first cap was] against Denmark and I come on with 'R2D2', Tony Cottee, The Poison Dwarf, even for thirty seconds it was a fantastic feeling".

"During that China trip we all went out to celebrate,” he grins.  “I don't know if the press know about team spirit and sticking together but that's what we did.  We went out. And you know, I was having a couple of cocktails, sitting in a dentist's chair...When the press blew up about it I just said to everyone 'right we go out there in Euro 96 and just be ourselves and stick together...whoever scores has got to do the dentist's chair, just lie down on your back and we'll pour the drink down'.  Trust me to score when I mentioned drink!"

Gascoigne's remarkable solo goal against Scotland (and against some of his Glasgow Rangers team-mates including goalkeeper Andy Goram) had been conclusive proof that even less-than-superfit he was still a genius with the ball.  The mood in Venables’ England camp had been fantastic, he recalled, but losing again to Germany on penalties in the ‘96 semi-final had been one of the biggest disappointments of his international football career.

I also reminded him of the Siege Of Rome in 1997 and how Gascoigne had played a vital role in getting England through to the World Cup Finals of 98 by drawing with Italy.  He really laughs about the good times: "I enjoyed that game, I went there, I just kept a cool head, tried to control the game and play at our pace.  Paul Ince got a gash on his head and, when he came back on with a bandage, I just said to him 'Paul, I don't believe this, but you look like a pint of Guinness'...And I remember, when we were nearly there, nearly through, how the last five minutes were very very long.  I just knew I shouldn't have had that kebab...it was a chicken kebab as well, can you believe it?"

Despite helping England reach the finals in France, when the squad was announced, Paul Gascoigne was dramatically dropped from the 22.  Some alleged he had been drinking when the selectors called him in to tell him, but many of his England team-mates argued that Gazza was fit enough to be picked.  It's safe to say Gazza took the disappointment badly, raging wildly at manager Glenn Hoddle.  When I asked him if this was his worst personal moment in football, he bitterly replied, "aye, getting shit on".

"I just knew I shouldn't have had that kebab...it was a chicken kebab as well, can you believe it?"

Although the interview painted a portrait of a falling hero, a man in crisis, still bitter at his rejection by England, there were some very moving moments too.  He spoke fondly of his friendships with Gary Lineker and Rangers' Alan McLaren in particular, and gave warm recollections of meeting up with his Mum and Dad after the 1990 World Cup semi-final defeat - "they just wanted to give us a kiss and cuddle, both of them" - before entering his favourite drinking haunt, the Dunston working mens' club: "the place just erupted, fantastic!"

Finally, he expressed the hope that his England career wasn't over and that if only he could keep his fitness....  But his last words, with the glorious benefit of hindsight, sounded like a final appraisal of a brilliant, maverick footballing career.

"I've had fifty four games for England and if I hadn't missed four years of English football through injury, I reckon I would have been touching onto a hundred caps.  That's not bad for a guy from somewhere in the North East.  I'm pleased with my career, I wouldn't change anything, no way, I've loved every single moment of it...

“People say 'his career's went downhill' but I've won medals, I've been at cup finals, I've been at the World Cup, I've been to Euro Championships...like everything else we do in England there are people who knock you down, and that's what they did to me."

With that, Paul Gascoigne stood up, gave me a hug, then walked out of the room.  Crossing reception, in his slippers and short dressing gown, he lifted the back up to flash his arse.  His manager Bryan Robson, standing at the door, looked shocked but then just shook his head.  That’s Gazza for you; daft as a brush, a funny but troubled bloke; an overgrown kid struggling to come to terms with a mad world, and clearly not the easiest man to manage.

“If I stay sober, will I turn into a boring person?  What if the penalty, the by-product, is to become a sensible, dreary, boring twat?”  Gazza, 2004

Newcastle’s not the ideal place to be a recovering alcoholic.  It’s not just the fantastic nightlife, the plethora of pubs and clubs and bars, it’s the generosity of the Geordie people too.  Even though we all know the great man shouldn’t be drinking – that alcohol might be the death of him – it’s hard not to bump into Paul Gascoigne, shake his hand and buy him a pint in gratitude for all those fantastic moments in a glittering career.

I spend a lot of time back in Newcastle.  My Dad’s 90 now, struggling with Alzheimer’s, and lives close to Gazza’s latest haunts in Jesmond.  Like me, Dad loved Gascoigne as a Newcastle player and defends him against his better judgement.  But once, after seeing Gazza drunk near Newcastle’s Central Station, I remember him telling me sadly, “he’ll end up just like Hughie Gallacher”.

As a small boy in the 1920s, my Dad travelled down from Coldstream (my birthplace) with his uncle to watch Gallacher from the terraces of St James’ Park when the diminutive and brilliant Scot captained Newcastle United to their last Championship trophy in the 1926/27 season.

Hughie Gallacher was one of the first geniuses of British twentieth century football.  But his great career with Newcastle and Chelsea (who broke the transfer record to sign him for £10,000 in 1930) began to fall apart after his move to Derby in 1932, followed by Notts County, Grimsby and Gateshead.  Having scored 463 goals in 624 total appearances, he was soon struggling against alcoholism and personal problems, particularly following the death of his third wife.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well…Gallacher, like Gazza, was first celebrated and later destroyed by the newspapers.  And, unfortunately, the similarities don’t end there.  Divorce, bad behaviour on and off the pitch, plagued by hangers-on, accused of domestic abuse, victims of depression and mental health problems, estrangement from their children, bankruptcy, conflict with the footballing authorities…

Here’s where we must pray that the parallels end.  In 1957, after being crucified in the press and before standing trial accused of violence towards his youngest son Matthew, Gallacher wrote “my life is finished, it’s no use fighting when you know you can’t win” before throwing himself under the York to Edinburgh express train at Dead Man’s Crossing in Gateshead on June 11 1957.  He was 54.

As with Gascoigne – born in Gateshead 10 years later - Gallacher’s genius came at a heavy price.  “Drink was my downfall,” he admitted in his final years.  As his 1989 biographer Paul Joannou noted, “the tenacious Scot had to start a new life without the constant roar of encouragement in his ears every match-day”.

Perhaps life after football is the greatest hurdle that the football genius has to overcome; the vacuum in the day, the sense of emptiness once the cheering stops, the darkness when the floodlights go out.

Let’s all hope that, in the 21st Century - with help from his true friends and proper support from the wealthy world of professional football - Paul Gascoigne can defeat his demons and live a contented new life.

As many understandably-unsympathetic women will always tell you, Gazza’s made a lot of bad mistakes in the past.  But believe me, in his prime, with the ball at his feet…  The magic was beyond words.

Copyright Len Brown 2010