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Offside, 9 December

Gazza: why we binge on this binge-drinker’s misfortunes.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Last Saturday Britain’s favourite alcoholic was given a state funeral. This week the nation’s second-favourite alcoholic was given the sack (and later arrested after a fracas with a photographer).

When the manager of non-league nonentities Kettering Town gets his P45 nobody gives a toss. But not when the manager happens to be Paul Gascoigne. Despite the abject failure of Gazza’s career in football management, the former England midfielder can still command an impressive media circus. Gazza possesses all the necessary ingredients that make up that elusive ‘X-Factor’: he’s a football star, a celebrity, an alcoholic, and a therapy case. It’s a winning combination.

Of course we shouldn’t be surprised at the latest tearful episode in Gazza’s career. He practically invented the ‘vulnerable footballer’ genre when he famously blubbed in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. The latest instalment in the increasingly pathetic soap opera that is Paul Gascoigne’s life was, like so many previous episodes, played out in public. On Monday Gascoigne was sacked by Kettering chairman Imraan Ladak after 37 separate alleged incidents of inebriation (which, if true, is quite an accomplishment when you consider that Gazza had only been in charge of the Conference North club for 39 days).

Gazza immediately denied the allegations, claiming that he had been ‘stitched up’ and that the chairman was a ‘control freak’ who wanted to pick the team. Well those were just the edited highlights of Gascoigne’s emotional interview on Sky Sports News. The full-length, unexpurgated version of the interview which, by chance, I happened to watch, was the most toe-curlingly excruciating television imaginable. It was like watching a real life version of Mike Bassett: Manager – only better scripted. If this had been an episode of The Office we’d be lauding it as a work of comic genius.

Gazza was visibly upset, largely incoherent, his speech was notably slurred, and he spoke in a mixture of footballer’s clichés and psychobabble. ‘I’m going through a tough time…I broke me neck…nearly broke me neck’, he gibbered. ‘This last year’s been tough, regardless me ex-wife, me ex-kids (sic), everything…everything I’ve had to deal with to get better, with me neck, with everything, I was on death row, erm, pneumonia, everything.’

At times Gazza’s grip on reality appeared rather tenuous. ‘He is not the chairman, he is Imraan the doctor’, he ranted. ‘I am a genius’, he insisted and, with no trace of irony, he declared ‘I’m the next Brian Clough’ (it is fair to say that Gazza’s managerial achievements do not, thus far, support such a claim).

Gazza also drew comparisons between himself and George Best. ‘We both loved each other because we both know where we’re coming from, me and George Best, regards getting hassled by the press’, spluttered Gascoigne. Although he was rambling and uncalculated, there were echoes of Martin Bashir’s legendary Diana interview. Like Diana, Gazza also complains of press harassment while simultaneously craving the media spotlight and treating TV interviews as a public confessional.

Gazza might regard himself as a persecuted genius like George Best and certainly both men were exceptionally gifted footballers who couldn’t lay off the sauce. But that is where any comparisons end. Despite the frequently asked question ‘Where did it all go wrong?’, George Best was certainly not a wasted talent. By the age of 22, Best had won every honour he could conceivably have won. Gazza, by contrast, has largely frittered away his talent. A series of injuries and well-publicised ‘refuelling problems’ meant that, after his dramatic entry on to the world stage in 1990, he never realised his potential. There were a few memorable vignettes – that goal against Scotland in Euro 96 springs to mind. But a handful of frankly worthless Scottish honours and a Number 2 hit record (‘Fog on the Tyne’) is a poor return for the most talented English footballer of his generation.

But, in our anti-heroic times, winning isn’t everything. We’re as fascinated with the frailty and personal failings of our sporting heroes as their achievements. Gazza might be struggling to build a coaching career at the lower reaches of football’s food chain but he is still a celebrity and, more to the point, he’s a drunken celebrity fuck-up who obligingly conducts his suffering in public. He can’t help baring his soul for the cameras and we can’t stop rubbernecking his self-destruction.

Never mind our binge-drinking culture, it’s the voyeuristic bingeing on other people’s misery that’s we really ought to worry about.

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Topics Politics

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