THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Sarah Gilmore and John Williams explain why Paul Gascoigne had an easy time of it following allegations of wife beating

Who could doubt the awfulness of the daily existence of Paul Gascoigne, given the culture of the ‘tabloid celebrity’ shaped for us by the popular press over the past decade? A goldfish bowl nightmare if ever there was one. But the precarious PR profile being created of Gazza as ‘new-ish’ man fell apart at Gleneagles. The subsequent press mêlée which focused on his inclusion or exclusion from the England squad revealed some extremely unpleasant and morally suspect views so prevalent in the game and in the liberal media.

The argument used to justify his place in the England squad varied from the shamelessly pragmatic: he’s a midfield genius who had a wonderful Euro ’96; to the indignant assertion that football should not be the scapegoat for social and individual problems as advocated by Johnny Giles. “Wife beating is a despicable activity,” he wrote in the Express, “But I do not see how Glenn Hoddle could have excluded Paul Gascoigne from the England team on this. Hoddle is a manager not a judge of morals.” Oh really? The thirteenth apostle said that we had to forgive. He had obviously forgiven Gascoigne (he did pick him after all), and he urged us to follow his Christian example of tolerance. Not a moral judge? Bah, humbug.

Finally, Gascoigne himself said that he could understand the views of women’s’ rights groups who were condemning his actions and he got a nice little ovation from the press corps assembled for his unscheduled announcement of penance at Bisham Abbey. Even broadsheet reporters present at the press conference claimed that it was one of the press pack’s most inglorious days.

Paul Gascoigne should not be playing for England. He should not be playing because he should be punished for unacceptable behaviour. It is as simple as that and it has nothing to do with Hoddle’s arrogant assertions that he has spoken to ‘the lad’ – he’s a bloody man for God’s sake – and feels that it is better for him and his family for him to play for England than to leave him out (did Glenn speak to Sheryl about this, then, or are we missing something?).

There seem to be some very fluid moral arguments being asserted here. What do you have to do these days to get excluded, even temporarily, from the national team? Does there come a point when the player actually needs to be left out because his conduct is unacceptable, and if ‘yes’, then where exactly should that line be drawn?

The truth is harsh, but it is this: that notwithstanding the outrage expressed over Gascoigne’s offence, the culture of the British game still feels more at ease with a man, any man who likes a drink and a laff with the lads, belches and farts for TV and who, OK, publicly rows with and beats his wife every now and again than with one who because of his quiet interest in the arts is viewed with suspicion, as was Graeme Le Saux. Or with a quixotic Buddhist like the puzzling and madly-talented Roberto Baggio; or even a British Asian player, a prospect still so patently distant for all sorts of reasons (blimey, he might even go to the mosque rather than the pub). There is some exaggeration here, of course, but the old fears still reside among many English footballers: fears of thinking and theorizing, of talking, of not being a ‘lad’ and the association of all of these with ‘the feminine’.

No wonder top players from abroad, including the new unsettled Brazilians, are beginning to question the qualities of British coaching, man management and the leadership currently available in some dressing rooms. Ask yourself this: if you really knew, would you come half way round the world to be coached in the narrow English tradition of ‘playing from the heart’ and sometimes crass, schoolmasterly discipline?

You don’t have to admire the muscular sterility of the current Norwegian national side to know that there is much to what their coach, Egil Olsen, said recently about the “shocking” lack of feedback or analyses of player performance from managers and coaches in the British game, and his view that Scandinavian players in England are less developed now in terms of skill, and an understanding of the sport and of themselves, than if they had stayed at home in part-time football. They would also be more likely to get a sensible dressing room conversation about politics, relationships, the family, or virtually anything else nominally off limits to most British footballers until, as David Platt and others found, you get a move abroad.

As Harry Pearson said in WSC No 118, football clubs prefer the arrested state of development, the Peter Pan state of existence where you never have to grow up and thereby take responsibility for your actions because there is always the forgiving womb of the club to protect, nurture and forgive you whilst they lie on your behalf, explaining away any transgression.

All of which is so damaging because the culture that footballers become a part of in their mid-teens is far more pervasive than the normal workplace environment. A crucial part of that culture depends on women – women as carers, mothers and wives. It is usually a woman who picks up the pieces or feels the brunt of any difficulties as many players are encouraged to marry young and to marry family-minded, ‘ordinary’ women who will take up where Mummy left off.

It was left to women’s rights groups, of course, to make the obvious points about players as role models; that playing for the national team was not actually a ‘job’ and that sidelining Gascoigne may have carried an important message for boys and girls. Interestingly, the ‘radical’ supporters’ organization was thunderously silent, as usual, on the matter of gender politics; what if Gascoigne had been involved in a racist assault? We might have seen some action then. Who speaks for supporters on sexism in football? Or do ‘women’ here translate into ‘middle class’, and are therefore anathema?

Incidentally, don’t go looking for a discussion about football, gender and ‘politics’ – or any kind of politics – in the new football glossies, even with their proud female editorial boards. Walter Hale in FourFourTwo – presumably with editorial consent – recently warned that as soon as the sex of the editor or writer affected the content they would be out on their ear, and quite right too. It is obviously only men, like Walter himself, who are able to write in a gender-neutral mode. Anyway, who wants female football writers if they write the same kinds of tired rubbish that most of the men do?

The message which came over to women from those at the highest level of the game, the liberal media; supporters’ organizations et al is that domestic violence is not very nice, but sometimes men shouldn’t be punished for their brutal treatment of women. Wrong. Domestic violence is much more wrong than snorting coke, being an alcoholic or having a ruck on the plane with your mates. It is about fundamental abuse of power, of hurting someone weaker than you. It is behaviour which is at the logical, extreme end of bullying and is a physical way of reminding women of their inequalities.

What people like Glenn Hoddle are doing is using their Christian principles of forgiveness to reinforce discrimination which women are less tolerant of than ever before. Women want men to be themselves but women also want men to behave. For most men that is not an issue. Some, however, do not need an excuse to behave badly: give them one and they’ll probably behave even worse. When that happens, when it goes too far, you need to say so, you need – sometimes – to punish.

Hoddle might be staking all on Gascoigne undergoing a Saul-like conversion, but, deep down, we all know the harder, and the right, thing to do was to leave him out. Not cast him aside, or reject him, or jettison him or anything else. Just get him some counsel and leave him out; even if only for one match. A sign that some events – that do actually say important things about sport itself – are just more important than having your preferred football side. Even, or perhaps especially, if you manage England.

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month

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