Gascoigne’s bid for acceptance

Simon Tyers on Jeff Stelling, Paul Gascoigne and the future of punditry

Jeff Stelling has a new book about Soccer Saturday, called Jelleyman’s Thrown A Wobbly. I’d have gone with What’s Been Happening, Charlie? as a more knowing title, but that may be why he’s on the television and I’m not. In his book, Jeff reminds the reader that in its first season after dropping the Sports Saturday title and starting to cover football at any great length, the pundits would leave the studio at ten to three and throughout the next two hours only be heard as disembodied voices over a still caption. We were supposed to think they were at the game they were covering even though they were clearly just in the VT suite, before coming back at ten past five as if nothing was untoward.

Would that the same was applied to Paul Gascoigne. Mick Jagger’s character in the film Performance was told “you’ll look funny when you’re 50”. Gascoigne is still nine years short of that milestone and at least he currently seems in decent health. However, the combination of sallow post-addiction face, ­receding blond crop and the familiar grin make him look like a photo montage combination of his old self and Max Headroom.

Gascoigne was on the promotional trail during the latter part of April, giving face time to Sky Sports News, Setanta Sports News, Soccer AM, Match of the Day 2 and even Loose Women. He is not promoting anything bar the opportunity to see that he’s still alive and in control of himself, having been dry for the whole of 2009 so far. He doesn’t come across at his best though, due to a combination of medication and the on-screen nervousness that blighted ITV’s attempt to sell him as the centrepiece of their 2002 World Cup coverage.

Often producers have been tempted to present him as some sort of living history of football, an old-style entertainment for the common man – ask him how he’s bearing up, show him the goal against Scotland, follow up with a couple of pictures of him gurning at a camera in the late 1980s and you’re home. Adrian Chiles at least took a broader view by asking him about what he’d learnt from the game, and Gascoigne in response bemoaned the lack of players willing to run at the defence and the way 14-year-olds are trained out of natural talent, a rare opportunity given to him to talk about something other than Italia 90 and how Alan Shearer “will do”. All the same you wonder what he is ever expected to add to a programme other than serve as a symbol of showbiz redemption. Unless, of course, it’s the element of surprise, given he nearly referred to Newcastle being “shit scared”.

It’s all very well worrying about where the next great British flair player is coming from, but where does the future of punditry lie? Recent ex-professionals turned studio ­analysts have done little to improve the overall standard, and Steven Gerrard certainly didn’t turn the world upside down when brought into Sky Sports’ box for Liverpool v Arsenal. Presumably hired to provide balance, just in case one or the other of Jamie Redknapp and Alan Smith completely flipped, Gerrard unwisely persisted with his theory that Arsenal’s first goal may have been offside when all graphics and replay angles were busy proving him wrong. After the game he looked like the most deflated man in the ground, repeating the same phrases about being disappointed with the defending and not underestimating Manchester United as if suffering mild shellshock.

He should have taken tips on distraction techniques from Ruud Gullit, who turned up at Stamford Bridge a night later in a suit jacket of indeterminate ­material. It could have been suede, it could have been some sort of patent leather; what it definitely was was unnecessarily shiny in a very untailored way.

Two-legged European ties have been with us for several decades now, so we’re pretty much all aware of the concept of away goals counting double in the event of an inseparable tie. It’s just Clive Tyldesley, a man we rely on to guide the way, who occasionally fares less well. At times during Chelsea v Liverpool he dwelled on the possibility of extra time even when those self same away goals meant it was now impossible. Conversely the constant score caption in the corner of the screen has been with us for a decade and a half now, so it’s time someone told Tyldesley that he doesn’t need to be constantly reminding us of the scoreline. How he gets through penalty shoot outs without a mental breakdown we may never know.

From WSC 268 June 2009