I have always been absolutely baffled when public figures die and people I know get really upset. I cannot understand why the death of someone you have never met would ever affect you personally. I remember being utterly bewildered as a fifteen year-old when the tidal wave of public tears and chest-beating greeted the death of Princess Diana. The thousands that lined the streets for her funeral, with their bloodshot eyes and quivering hands, none of them had ever met her, let alone formed any sort of personal relationship with her, so why did they get overtaken by these emotions? I remember being out one Saturday night and news got round the club that Layne Staley of Alice In Chains had been found dead after a massive heroin overdose. People were actually crying in the club. The man lived 4700 miles away in Seattle, and had probably never heard of Hull, yet people in Hull felt compelled to grieve openly about his demise. I didn’t understand.
The only time I’ve been slightly melancholy about the death of someone whom I’d never met came in 2009, with the death of former England manager Sir Bobby Robson. Robson had a reputation as the nicest man in football, commanded enormous respect on the world stage for his tactical knowledge and success all over Europe, and had been heavily involved in the development of some of the greatest talents of all time, figures such as Romario, Jose Mourinho and Ronaldo. He also gave me the definitive memory of my childhood, England’s barnstorming performance at Italia 90, and Italia 90 is my favourite thing of all time. He was a relentlessly positive man, and upon learning that he was suffering terminal cancer in 2008, having beaten the disease on three previous occasions, he said: “My condition is described as static and has not altered since my last bout of chemotherapy… I am going to die sooner rather than later. But then everyone has to go sometime and I have enjoyed every minute.” On the 26th Of July, 2009, a mere five days before his death, he made his last public appearance at a recreation of the Italia 90 semi-final against Germany, and almost all of the original players turned out in the name of The Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trust. Robson was scheduled to make an appearance in the director’s box but true to his persona, he insisted on being wheeled out onto the pitch to thank each player individually with a handshake. As he went down the line it was titilating to see the 1990 squad nearly twenty years later, broader of waistline (John Barnes,) higher of hairline (Mark Wright,) or both (David Platt,) but they were all instantly recognisable, apart from this one figure, a wiry, wizened man with a stringy neck and anaemic looking arms, who greeted Robson with an almost desperate enthusiasm, and as the Knight of the Realm released this man’s hand he looked on after him with hollow cheeks and the eyes of a puppy whose master had just abandoned him in the woods. This man had been the star of the show at Italia 90, and changed English football, and arguably world football, forever at that tournament. He was unrecognizable from the old pictures. It was Paul Gascoigne, England’s greatest ever professional footballer. And Paul Gascoigne is going to die soon.
This week we have seen him in the press yet again following another relapse into his alcohol addiction, which led to an arrest for affray. The desperation of the story was that he was not arrested at some trendy Soho nightclub or Mayfair hotel, places where the current breed of football superstars conduct their misdemeanours these days, but at Stevenage Railway Station on the platform. This followed an incident this February where he was taken into intensive care in a rehab clinic in Arizona, paid for by his great buddy, 1996’s Chris Evans. Gascoigne suffered such intense alcohol withdrawal that he had to be strapped to a bed, where he had to be revived three times after his heart stopped, and repeatedly injected with librium. A few months later he had made a public appearance at a sports event where he was due to give an after dinner speech during which, according to witnesses, he began rambling incoherently and frequently broke down into tears.
For those of you who are too young to have seen Gazza play, ignore the general comparison to Wayne Rooney that seems to get wheeled out by the press these days. It is unhelpful for many reasons; for a start Gascoigne was a far superior player, but the major difference is that Wayne Rooney is a brilliant player who can occasionally behave like an overgrown seven year-old. Gascoigne was an overgrown seven year old who occasionally behaved like a brilliant player. In many ways it is unhelpful to talk about his playing career at all as what we are dealing with here is a man who suffers from savage bi-polar disorder and OCD, and is also completely helpless in his battle against alcoholism, but his playing career is what defined him, made him, and will ultimately kill him.
Gascoigne was that rare breed of English player: The Entertainer. Driven by a child-like need to please people and be seen, there was an almost desperate air right from the start of his career, when put-downs from his Newcastle team-mates about his weight led to him behaving in increasingly bizarre ways, on one occasion stealing the groundsman’s tractor and driving it through the wall of the team’s changing room. In the build-up to the match that cemented his place in the Italia 90 squad, a friendly against Czechoslovakia, he was seen in the tunnel before the kick-off, wild-eyed and unapproachable, ferociously thrashing a ball against a wall, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. The night before the 1991 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, he had to have sedative injections to get to sleep, and in one very revealing incident from just after his career-changing turn in Turin, got leglessly drunk and marched into his old primary school to berate his old teacher who had, many years ago, told him he’d never make it as a footballer. He was the most famous person in the country at this point, and had cemented his reputation as one of the greatest players in the world on the biggest stage of all, yet his fragile self-esteem still prompted the need to go and say “I told you so.”
Gazza played his last professional game in 2004 for Boston United, yet it is the critical opinion that his career effectively ended in 1991 when he went rampaging around the Wembley turf like a pitbull with a needle full of amphetamines up its arse, nearly decapitating Gary Parker and then mangling his cruciate ligaments in an idiotic lunge at Gary Charles. He was out for nearly two years after that match, having behaved like a wild animal for the fifteen minutes he was on the field, and his decline, both on a professional and personal level, began here. He wouldn’t be picked regularly for England again as Taylor and later on, Hoddle, both had misgivings about his “re-fuelling habits.” Only Terry Venables put his trust in him, and he was rewarded with Gazza’s last three decent performances at the highest level, against Scotland and Germany at Euro 96, and, at the same tournament, as the ringmaster in the 4-1 evisceration of a very decent Holland side, his greatest match in an England shirt. Two years after that, Glenn Hoddle dropped him from the France 98 squad, he was both overweight and out of form, and stood and watched as Gascoigne trashed his office in a fit of temper.
You see, what wasn’t realised at the time, before the era of sports psychologists and the like, was that in order for Gascoigne to perform with such intensity on the pitch, his adrenalin levels had to be through the roof, and when you’re reaching those self-inflicted chemical highs 50 times a season, the volatility of mood swings would be utterly uncontrollable. Imagine the most wound-up you’ve ever been in your whole life, the biggest pressure situation you’ve ever endured, be it your wedding day, the birth of a child, a really important job interview, a medical emergency you’ve been involved in, whatever, now imagine being at that level of mental and physical intensity, twice a week, having 30,000 people staring and cheering at you in rapt adoration, and the press are camped on your front doorstep every day looking to see how you react to it. How can you possibly deal with those highs and lows, particularly if you’re a less-intelligent-than-average bloke who already has embryonic mental health issues and an addictive personality? You escape. You escape into whatever brings it down for you. And in this case, Paul Gascoigne escaped into alcohol.
For the people who are reading this that have no interest in football, I have tried to think of a public figure to compare Gazza to, so you can appreciate the tragedy of this situation. Initially I thought of someone like Kerry Katona, a relatively normal person who is just not bright enough to be famous and needs someone to look after her. Kerry Katona, however, has no discernible talent and is on the telly simply because the general public enjoy watching human car-crashes. Then I thought of Ozzy Osbourne, a man who has a talent, but is out-of-control and in thrall to his vices. But again no, because Osbourne is a very wealthy man who lives in a huge mansion in LA and is taken care of by his wife, who keeps him off the booze and makes him lots of money.
No, I had to think of someone who, like Gascoigne, was an absolute master of his stage, had millions of adoring, hysterical fans, and when he wasn’t on his stage, simply didn’t know how to make his way through life, and would pick up all manner of grotesque hangers-on who just wanted to fleece him of his money. He would develop an addiction to mind-numbing substances and would blow all of his wealth, another deeply-disturbed man-child who on some level, possessed that rare trait that we know as “genius.”
And as we choose to remember Michael Jackson for the video to Billie Jean rather than his squalid court cases and the horrific self-inflicted facial disfigurements, let us hark back to the 2nd most famous photograph in English football history, the photograph that documented how one brilliant player’s inability to control his emotions one night in Italy led to an irreversible change in the English game, how it was dragged out of the doldrums of hooliganism and right wing politics to be the billion-pound entertainment industry, that, for better or worse, we all subscribe to today. Look at the carved stomach muscles and tree-trunk thighs of a player who, for much of his career was derided for being fat; a player who, for much of his career, was the best on the planet.
It is difficult and heart-breaking to equate the gaunt and frail looking figure that is the Paul Gascoigne of today to that photo. And it is deeply upsetting to watch the perpetual chain of humiliations that his life has become, whether it be turning up at a police barrier to give a lunatic who’d gone beserk with a shotgun some fried chicken and a fishing rod, or cashing in by giving “confessional interviews” to parasitic vermin like Piers Morgan. His friend and former team-mate, Gary Lineker, recently spouted up on twitter with the following:
“Lots of you asking for my thoughts on Gazza’s plight. I can only hope he finds peace somehow, but fear those hopes maybe forlorn.”
And Lineker is right, Paul Gascoigne is going to die soon. Whether he commits suicide, poisons his liver beyond repair or drunkenly toddles out in front of a bus, unless he finds someone who can nail the thought into his brain that he has to stop drinking, he will end up dead. And when he dies, a big chunk of my childhood will die as well. This is the saddest story professional sport has to offer. If you don’t want to shed a tear, don’t look at the following video.
Allen Miles is 31 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 2 year-old daughter who is into Queens Of The Stone Age. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of 18 Days, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/8d2pysx