THERE IS a sad air of inevitability about Paul Gascoigne’s haunted descent into a bleak life of broken dreams and self-destruction. His recent public meltdown has led to the troubled clown prince of football being sectioned for up to three months to get the treatment he so urgently needs but the seeds of his current painful and very public predicament were sown years ago and only his incredible talents and the chance to express them kept the encroaching darkness at arms length for so long.
Many – the hard-hearted, the unforgiving and those ignorant of the corrosive powers on those not emotionally or socially equipped to handle the pernicious and debilitating drug alcohol – will feel his disintegration is largely self inflicted and have little sympathy for his current crisis.
But putting the sanctimonious moralising aside, you can’t help but have real fears for the future of a sad man who was briefly the best footballer in the world.
Gascoigne was a shimmering talent for a short spell. He was a Boro player for a short spell too. Unfortunately the two periods didn’t overlap but nevertheless he made a colourful and controversial contribution to one of the most dramatic chapters in the club’s history.
He played at Wembley for Boro. He won a promotion to the top flight for Boro. In the old money that should make him a hero – but he was never quite accepted as one of us. It was a muted and reluctant welcome. He arrived as damaged goods, a deeply flawed individual who was capable of moments of genius on the pitch and moments of madness off it; a self confessed wife-beating boozer beloved as “a joker” and just “daft as a brush” by the game. The dual nature of his dysfunctional personality and his inability to reconcile that conflict was to be the theme of his troubled time at the Riverside.
By his own admission Gazza’s private life was in turmoil for most of the time he was at Boro.
Bryan Robson signed his ex-England team-mate for ÃÂ£4.5m from Rangers just days before the 1998 Coca-Cola Cup final in a bid to beef-up the stuttering push for promotion back to the Premiership. Robbo made the mistake of thinking Gazza’s refuelling issues were somehow similar to his own thirsty social life as a player, that he could sweat it out in training and that his professionalism and will to win would overcome the debilitating effects of the booze.
But Gazza had gone beyond just liking a pint with the lads. His life had been unravelling at Ibrox. He had won trophies, lapped up the plaudits after his Euro 96 wondergoal and picked up the Scottish player of the year gong in the previous season but his domestic life was in a mess. He was on a binge that started in London and ended in the Bigg Market when his son Regan was born as his marriage crumbled, then struggled to deal with the barrage of deserved tabloid condemnation over an unsavoury incident in which he beat wife Sheryl in a drunken rage. Meanwhile he had stumbled into the heated Old Firm sectarian crossfire after what to hime probably seemed harmless fun, miming a loyalist piper in a bitter Glasgow derby clash.
Leaving Scotland took him out of the heat for a while but it could only delay the inevitable meltdown. It must be said that sharing a house with serial addict Paul Merson and playing for a club that was fast acquiring a reputation as having a “drink culture” was probably not the ideal move yet Gazza initially responded to the new challenge in a positive manner.
He made his Boro debut at Wembley, coming on as a second half sub for Hamilton Ricard in the Carling Cup final against Chelsea. Boro lost – he handed his losers medal to Craig Hignett, whose place in the squad he had taken – but back in Division One, he played a leading role in galvanising the promotion campaign, making seven starts in eight games and showing flashes of brilliance, excellent vision and some effective trickery. Off the field he was trying hard to control his life, spending his time fishing in the Tees rather than drinking in Yarm and putting in extra training, often working with the kids in the afternoon, relaxed and laughing.
But before Gazza could build on that hint of stability, and before Boro could harness that potential, his world caved in. In the build-up to Euro 96 he had been pilloried in the press for the infamous ‘dentist’s chair’ extreme drinking activities, this time round it was ‘Kebabgate’ as he was spotted swanning around London with celebrity hangers on Chris “I’m a Boro fan now me” Evans and Daz salesman and pet quiz show host Danny Baker (and where are his friends now when he really needs them you may well ask?).
The front-page pictures of the tipsy trio and subsequent lacklustre displays in the warm-up games led Glenn Hoddle to axe talismanic Gazza from the 1998 World Cup squad, a move that saw his fragile self-confidence implode and led to an ugly late night incident in the manager’s La Manga hotel room. When the bad news was broken Gazza went ballistic, smashing up furniture and unleashing a semi-coherent four letter blast at the boss, an incident that was quickly made public as Hoddle published a controversial diary of the tournament that betrayed the dressing room secrets and dished the dirt as well as sowing the seeds of his own dismissal shortly after.
Volatile Gazza was by now was an erratic figure barely in control of his emotions, a giggling schoolboy clown one day at training and a morose and unapproachable figure the next. At a pre-season friendly he skipped the half-time team-talk and went up to the players lounge in his full kit for a swift half and a quick fag. A close friend died suddenly just before the start of the 1998/99 season, his marriage was in tatters, his international career was over and he was being ridiculed by the press. It was a combination of event she was not equipped to handle and he started drinking heavily and taking a variety of tablets to, in his own words, “numb the pain”.
Despite that, Gazza’s first full season with Boro was a success. On the pitch was the only time he had any control over his life and he made it count. He struggled for pace but his control and passing was at times sublime, his Opta figures were astounding and he was always available for the ball giving the team time and space. Boro finished the season a creditable ninth and Gazza topped the Gazette star man ratings.
But off the field things were getting worse. He caused ÃÂ£14,000 of damage after taking the team coach for a joy ride, astounding the elderly public-transport using population of sleepy Hurworth as he halted at bus-stops to offer them a lift before crashing to a half just outside the training ground, a jape that caused internal ructions high up in a club now increasing worried about his conduct. It even angered the usually supportive Bryan Robson.
Gazza hit rock bottom in October when he made a rambling drunken phone call from a deserted railway platform to Robbo in which he said he was contemplating suicide. He admitted his problems had spiralled completely out of control and, for the first time, that he was an alcoholic. Robson dropped everything to drive to the rescue and whisked his distraught friend off to the Priory clinic (he was to become a regular there) where he agreed to counselling and long spells of treatment, yet incredibly he never missed a match during this turbulent spell as he attempted to use the pitch as a theraputic tool for rehabilitation and redemption.
The following season however he was denied even that release as the lack of fitness told, niggling injuries mounted and he played only sporadically. His final game in a Boro shirt came in the infamous 4-0 St Valentine’s Day massacre at the hands of Aston Villa live on Sky in February 2000 when he huffed and puffed and became increasingly frustrated during an ineffective 44 minutes before being stretchered off in tears after his attempt to land a forearm smash on George Boateng left him with a broken wrist.
That was his swansong. Former Rangers boss Walter Smith took him to Everton for a patchy spell but it was a fruitless attempt to ressurect his talent then he wound his way down via Burnley and Boston, then a disastrous trip to China, and then on to an abortive spell in management at non-league Kettering where he was accused of turning up to games and training under the influence. Sad. Drinking to get laughs as a freak show in clubs, bumming fags off strangers and funding benders with people who claim to be mates but encourage him to go to the bar. Shameful. Rehab, sectioned under the Mental Health Act. His life is a car crash.
You can’t help but think we have not reached the end game yet.