Gazza’s troubles

Looking at the downward spiral of a controversial player, Harry Pearson reflects on the turbulent times of Paul Gascoigne

When Channel 4 broadcast their documentary Gazza’s Coming Home last month, it seemed it might herald a change in the media’s perception of Britain’s most written about footballer. Gascoigne, it appeared, had reached a crossroads in his life and for once hadn’t responded by dashing headlong down the route marked “Total Disaster – This Way”. He was fully fit, newly married, playing well for club and country. Most importantly of all he had become a Dad.

In the mythology of football the appearance of a baby in a player’s life is almost always the cue for an epiphany. Paul Ince, we are reminded, is a calmer, wiser, altogether more rounded fellow since the birth of his son four years ago; a late-night call from a weeping child marked the turning point for Paul Merson.

It is a touching notion, that of the burly wastrel redeemed by the innocent babe. It must be a believable one, too – after all, it is the cornerstone of Christianity. The image of Gazza wrestling with the pampers certainly struck a chord with the press. A flood of sympathetic articles appeared in its wake. We were assured that, while not exactly a New Man, Gazza was clearly a new man.

Childishness of a different stamp also loomed large in Gazza’s Coming Home, and while none of it came from Gascoigne junior it may well have an equal bearing on the events that were to follow. Before the 1988 Cup Final clash with Liverpool a Wimbledon player was asked about the atmosphere at Plough Lane. “It’s brilliant,” he responded, “It’s just like being at school with all your mates.”

A similarly gleeful affirmation was heard from Gazza when he was asked if being a footballer meant that you never had to grow up. Like the Edwardian gentlemen who wept over Peter Pan, it seems most players view adulthood with fear and loathing. Their ideal is a land of japes and banter. The dormitories of Billy Bunter and Winker Watson with the addition of sex and lager.

All of which wouldn’t matter a jot were it not for the fact that outside the comfy confines of footieworld certain players find themselves facing problems slightly more serious than running out of tuck during a midnight feast.

Sadly for Gascoigne, he is one of them. This having-a-child-teaches-a-player-responsibility theory is a convenient one for football since it requires no effort whatsoever on the part of the people who run the game and frankly very little from the player himself either. Within a week of the programme’s broadcast Gazza was back in the news again, this time for allegedly assaulting his wife and definitely kicking Winston Bogarde. It is hard to think of a figure in history who has pissed away as much public goodwill as Paul Gascoigne. Whenever things seem to be going swimmingly for him something always turns up and bursts his waterwings. At first it seemed like misfortune, but after a while you begin to wonder. People in football are fond of remarking that ‘you make your own luck in this game’. As someone once observed of the equally self-destructive Scott Fitzgerald, there were times when you suspected a fear of disaster had become a longing for it.

Gascoigne, it should be said, has often produced his best football in the most terrible circumstances and he did so again, scoring with a superb free kick against Aberdeen. While other talented players of the recent past have buckled under pressure, Gascoigne has thrived in the kind of emotional chaos that would have precluded most people from going into work at all.

It might be tempting, therefore,to see him as the footballing equivalent of the Nick Nolte character in New York Stories – an artist who needs turmoil to create his best work and so determinedly creates it – except that it’s hard to see Gascoigne as that skilful a manipulator of events. More it seems that when times are bad, Gascoigne retreats into football.

But why are times so often so bad for Gazza? Partly it seems to go back to his childhood. I have spoken to people who taught at his school, and while the libel laws prevent me from repeating much of what they said about him and his family it is safe to say that Gazza didn’t have an easy time of it.

The problem is compounded by the system in which British players operate. Team spirit and camaraderie are viewed as essentials and so the atmosphere does indeed become like a school: discipline comes from above, not from within; the judgement of the peer group becomes paramount; excessive behaviour is viewed as a good laugh; and if it gets out of hand the class groups together to protect the guilty. “This may well make them stronger as a unit,” the pundits comment after what is usually termed ‘an incident’. Often they are right. If it correspondingly weakens them as individuals no-one seems too bothered.

The biggest difference between a school and a football team is that teachers, unlike managers, aren’t reliant on the genius of one or two wayward pupils to keep them in a job. When faced with a brilliant player who is in psychological distress the thought must cross the manager’s mind that any treatment might result in the loss of the very spark that makes the player great. A lot of money is invested in top footballers. They tend to be indulged.

The worst fear for Gazza’s apologists is surely that he will end up like the British footballer with whom he is most frequently compared, George Best: writing an autobiography every few years and being held up as a beacon of fun and individualism from a happy, irresponsible age that has long since past. He will be a character, one whose comic misdeeds can be sniggeringly retold by sad middle-aged men on TV specials.

The worry for the rest of us is that he could finish his days like another mercurial Tyneside hero, the Scot, Hughie Gallacher, whose dazzling skills brightened an inner darkness which would, when his career ended, quickly engulf him.

At some point soon a lot of people within football should face up to the fact that there are far worse things that can happen to boys than merely growing up.

From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month