Alas, poor Gazza!

Gazza (middle, in pic) arrives at the North Allerton Magistrates court to appear for a drink driving offence.-Gazza (middle, in pic) arrives at the North Allerton Magistrates court to appear for a drink driving offence.

Without football, Paul Gascoigne was a lost soul, increasingly involved in drunken episodes. “Sectioning” him for short spells, meaning committing him to Mental Health Act custody, was futile, as was expensive treatment in The Priory, where celebrities went in the hope of resolving their alcoholic and other psychological problems, writes Brian Glanville.

The scene: a takeaway shop in a Yorkshire village. The protagonist: Gazza, alias Paul Gascoigne, arguably one of the finest playmakers, inside forwards if you like, produced by English football. Certainly the best since Glenn Hoddle, who kicked him out of the 1998 World Cup finals in France, to his uncontainable rage, when Gazza was found drunk on a golf course. At the takeaway there was some kind of an argument involving Gazza and a companion. After which Gazza got into his car, was stopped by the police, breath-analysed and found guilty not only of drink driving but of the cardinal sins of driving without a licence and without insurance. Which meant an appearance in the local North Allerton magistrates' court.

Where is it all going to end? We know that Gazza is an alcoholic. We know that he has gone through hundreds of thousands of pounds in his time. We know that even his patient wife, whom he was known to beat up, had eventually abandoned the marriage in despair.

A Geordie, from North-East England, born close to Newcastle at Gateshead, Gazza naturally, as a boy, joined the local club, the black and white striped Magpies where he made a colossal impression on as demanding a critic as Jackie Charlton, once the England centre half, himself a North Easterner, then managing Newcastle United. I remember Jackie, years later, telling me almost in awe about the technical feats the young Gazza could accomplish.

Perhaps Gascoigne was never very fast, but the blond virtuoso had every other quality you could imagine. Physical strength, exceptional skill, a ferocious right-footed shot, not least from free kicks, and an astonishing capacity, in the Italian phrase, to “invent the game.” To do the supremely unexpected, as though before he received a ball he had somehow photographed the field in his mind, instantly producing the inspired pass. One which could hardly have been anticipated even from the Press Box.

Perhaps however it was not surprising, given the deep, almost traditional, mistrust in English soccer of the talented maverick — Charlie Buchan, Len Shackeleton, Hoddle, now Gazza — that his path to the national team should be anything but smooth. His fellow Geordie, Bobby Robson, when manager of England, called him “daft as a brush,” and in the season which concluded with the World Cup in Italy, ludicrously misused him on the left wing for the England B team. Then, at the end of the season, picking him in a Wembley friendly versus the Czechs and ineptly, insensitively, warning him — almost so fragile psychologically — that this was his last chance.

He took it so badly that in the tunnel of the dressing rooms before the game, he was compulsively booting a ball against its wall. Then he went out to play superbly, ripping the Czech defence to pieces, scoring and making goals in a 4-2 success.

The World Cup itself, literally ended in tears. This because, in the Turin semifinals against Germany, he was booked, meaning that he'd be ineligible to play in the World Cup final. As it transpired, England did not get there.

It would have been better for him to have stayed with The Magpies, rather than move South to Spurs and the temptations of London. His new manager, Terry Venables, seemed to indulge him rather than restrain him.

Devastatingly but typically, he smashed up his knee in the FA Cup final of 1991 at Wembley against Nottingham Forest, plunging into a suicidal tackle on Forest right back Garry Charles; in which he himself became the sufferer. The injury put him out for a year.

When he recovered, he left London, after tortuous negotiations, to join Lazio of Rome. At the time I wrote, as one who knew Rome so well, “Wrong city, wrong player, wrong club”. But everybody loved him and his excesses — the ghastly, though sometimes inventive, practical jokes — the ribald side of him, which appealed to the equally ribald and rebellious fans. The Lazio President, Sergio Cragnotti, must have had a pretty good impression of who and what he was buying when Gazza sat opposite him in his office, and casually flicked pellets at him.

Yet his streak of irresponsibility cost him another broken leg when, in a mere training match, he ludicrously tried to tackle from behind Alessandro Nesta, then a mere junior but later to become a major defensive star, shoving his leg between Nesta's foot and the ball. Unaware of what was happening, Nesta kicked, and broke Gazza's intervening leg.

Sometimes, his japes went too far. Such as the time, outside the Olympic Stadium before a Lazio match, when a TV reporter tries to interview him and Gazza belched into his microphone. “To understand why Gascoigne did that,” orated Walter Zenga, Italy's much capped but ever pompous goalkeeper, “we would have to get inside Gascoigne's head.” Where, I wrote, they would discover on one side a superb football brain, and on the other, what Groucho Marx, the ever subversive filmstar, said in one of his movies to his brother Chicaol, “Barabelli, you've got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it!”

Should Hoddle have dropped him from the 1998 World Cup? When only a day or so before, he had publicly eulogised Gascoigne for his physical condition? Given Gazza's fragile psychological condition, it could almost have reduced him to a suicidal depression though in the event he limited himself to smashing up Hoddle's hotel room. Back in England, he would variously play with differing success for Everton and Middlesbrough, before making a predictably hopeless attempt at management. A spell with non-League Kettering ended very quickly, with recriminations from the Chairman.

Without football, he was a lost soul, increasingly involved in drunken episodes. “Sectioning” him for short spells, meaning committing him to Mental Health Act custody, was futile, as was expensive treatment in The Priory, where celebrities went in the hope of resolving their alcoholic and other psychological problems.