The rise and tragic demise of Gazza

Frontpage splashes about Paul Gascoigne’s sectioning suggest he has completed his journey from professional footballer to professional failure.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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On Wednesday night, the police were called to the Malmaison hotel in Gateshead, England. A 40-year-old man had set off the fire alarm and, according to a police statement, was ‘behaving in a disorderly manner towards other guests’. The police spoke to the man, he calmed down, and then left to check into the Hilton hotel nearby. Later that morning, the same man was escorted peacefully away from the Hilton and detained under the Mental Health Act. That man was, as many of you will know, the ex-England footballer, Paul Gascoigne, or, to give him his public title, Gazza.

There’s a sad predictability about it all. In recent years, Gascoigne’s life, from the joyless booze and drugs benders to admissions of wife battery, has been one of unremitting desperation, punctuated by very public pleas for forgiveness. Even more dispiriting, however, has been his professional humiliation.

The footage of an emaciated Gascoigne, one of the brightest talents English football has ever seen, struggling to cope with the demands of the Chinese B-league while playing for Gansu Tianma in 2003 seemed cruel enough. But having been appointed Kettering manager amid much fanfare in 2005, his sacking just 39 days later was crueller still. As his then chairman, Imrann Ladak, explained: ‘[Gascoigne] had been under the influence of alcohol before, during and after several first-team games and training sessions.’ This as it turned out, was to be Gascoigne’s last meaningful involvement in football.

Gascoigne’s career has, if nothing else, always been rich in pathos. Although he will always be remembered for his mesmerising performances in Italia ’90, for all their bustle and skill, it was his blubbering reaction upon receiving his second yellow card in the semi-final against West Germany for which he’ll live longest in the public imagination. Even at what, as it turned out, sadly, was the high point of his career, the impetuous act, followed by regret and soul-lacerating openness, were to the fore.

Recurring throughout his career, this signal moment indicates the leitmotif of Gascoigne’s professional life. For instance, having dragged Tottenham Hotspur, a football club on the brink of bankruptcy, to the 1991 FA Cup final, he needed just 17 minutes before his flailing tackle on Nottingham Forest’s equally ill-fated right back, Gary Charles, ruptured his cruciate ligaments and put him out for over a year. The tears were not quite as noticeable then, but the curiously self-destructive pattern was.

While Gascoigne’s career stalled, his striking need for public affirmation had to be sought elsewhere – at this point in a fly-on-the-wall series documenting his recovery from injury and his life with his new club, Serie A’s Lazio. The programme itself was harmlessly idiotic, featuring Gazza playing pranks on his best friend, Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’, such as filling a meat pie with cat shit and putting Five Bellies’ obvious appetite to the test; yet there was a sense in the programme that Gazza the public persona and Gascoigne the footballer were finally separate.

As his career progressed, the private life of Gazza, increasingly tormented, frequently eclipsed the achievements of Gascoigne the footballer. While he might have scored that wondrous goal against Scotland in Euro ’96, he was just as frequently in the public eye confessing to beating his wife Sheryl or revealing his battle with depression. And the more his career meandered, through Middlesborough, Everton and ultimately to Kettering Town, the more important publicly bearing the wreckage of his emotional life became.

Seeking the approval that football was ceasing to provide, the public displays of private torment came to the fore. He only seemed to exist insofar as he was admitting his failures. Self-validation, which might have once come through his footballing exploits, increasingly seemed to be sought in attempting to atone for his private life. The problem is that, without football, if he wasn’t tormented, he was nothing. The constant cycle of individual failure and pleas for forgiveness, a form of self-perpetuating victimhood, meant that if he stopped failing, stopped destroying himself, his one means of self-affirmation went with it.

No doubt the medicalisation of Gazza’s character will start soon enough, with his all too public cycle of self-degradation given clinical sounding names. And no doubt Gazza will be encouraged to talk about his multifarious conditions – but I hope for his own sake we don’t hear from Gazza for a very long time.

Duleep Allirajah, spiked‘s regular sports columnist, is away this week. Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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