Whenever I see a front page, online headline or news report on mute commenting on the ever-escalating troubles in Gaza, my mind always instinctively snaps into reading it as Gazza. Upon seeing “Gaza Tragedy” or “Gaza in crisis again” my first thought is naturally “Oh god, what’s he done now?”
The mind of Paul Gascoigne has long been a fascinating, wondrous and terrifying place for those of us who grew up with him occupying the kind of national great white hope position that Wayne Rooney currently does. It’s been a regular occurrence on slow work days, cab journeys and late night pub conversations to ponder the possible alternative career and life of Gascoigne had he been free of the demons that plagued his playing career and continue to do so in life to this day.
Rooney has already enjoyed a more fruitful career and will undoubtedly continue to widen the gap as the years pass. Whereas now we fret over the possible burnout of our current favorite man-child, aware that our chances of lifting that famous golden-ball-in-a-sock-type-thing in South Africa this summer lie with him, once we concentrated the same attention on Gascoigne. For most of the 90s the key to England’s success lay in Gazza’s pocket. And then in 1998, almost exactly 12 years ago, Glen “gotta have faith” Hoddle dropped him from the World Cup squad, and he never returned.
Could anything have been done? Was there a moment when he could’ve become all we had hoped he would? Or was his genius eternally bound to his madness?
The last time I saw Gascoigne play was in 2004, in a pre-season friendly for Boston United. He had just signed for the Lincolnshire club at the age of 36. Even at that relatively past it age for a footballer, League 2 of the Coca Cola Pound Stretcher Christmas lights disco league was no place for a player of that quality. Never mind that he as playing Newcastle reserves, he was epic in that game, and it was a pleasure to watch him again. Boston ran out 4-1 winners and everything went through Gascoigne. It was a relatively low rent but relatively poignant reminder of why I had idolized him as a child barely able to understand the offside rule. It was also a stark reminder of why he was there.
During the course of the game he untied, retied, retied and retied his shoelaces at every opportunity. Whenever he didn’t have the ball his mind was constantly plagued by the uncontrollable desire to make sure his boot strings were just right. He would occasionally forsake any kind of positional duties because this crippling pang of OCD was too strong to resist. And this, at heart, is what was always wrong with Gazza. Not just the OCD – which has been a constant since his early life – but moreover that when he wasn’t actually playing football, he simply didn’t know what to do with himself. Or he thought he did, but his thoughts were incredibly untrustworthy.
One of the more popular schools of thought that’s often floated around in pubs and by annoyingly chatty cab drivers on the way back from airports at 4 in the morning, is that had Gascoigne signed for Manchester United in 1988 – as he had famously promised Alex Ferguson he would – then he would’ve straightened out. I don’t believe this for a second.
His reckless streak was already well imbedded by then. During his ascendancy he was constantly in trouble for increasingly ludicrous things. He’d already become addicted to gambling machines by then, had already met Jimmy five bellies, already tried to bribe his way to a driving license and already driven the grounds man’s tractor into the dressing room wall at Newcastle. Such ridiculousness would never had been tolerated had he not been such a special player, but even Ferguson’s patience would have been stretched to breaking point by him.
However the key factor in Gazza’s decline was injuries, and his inability to cope with not playing football. Ferguson may have been able to curb the excesses whilst he was in the team, but he wouldn’t have been able to stop him getting injured. And once he was injured, once he was idle, his temptations would always get the better of him. He was already straightening himself out at Spurs, which was where we arguably saw the best we ever did of him, but it was on the field, not off the field madness that really began the decline.
He would always have gotten injured, his over exertion guaranteed that. Playing football he was free, once he was not, he was lost. No manager or club could have kept him under supervision 24/7 and once he was removed from the routine of first team preparation, it all got a little weird – or weirder – in the mind of Paul Gascoigne.
It was almost as if he had nothing to live for without the promise of action week in week out. Even when he channeled it in the right way, as he did at Lazio, he’d over do it. He trained obsessively, almost aware of his compulsion to stray and attempting to banish it by pretending he was still active. He was incapable of rest, because Gazza didn’t do rest. The devil makes work for idle hands and he was the perfect conduit.
This over doing was the cause of his injuries too. His horrendously incompetent tackle on Gary Charles is a prime example. Had he not done that we could speculate that everything would have been different, but I believe he would’ve done it, or something like it eventually anyway. It was his nature. The similarities with Rooney continue here. He was also an infectiously enthusiastic competitor. Take that out and he’s a third of the player. True, Ferguson has managed to clam Rooney’s aggressive streak, but not his exertion, and Gazza was never aggressive in that way anyway. During that particular injury lay off he exacerbated it by getting involved in a nightclub scuffle. Ferguson, or any other top manager for that matter, would’ve had to have kept him locked in a cupboard.
To ensure a long and fantastical career, you’d have to go right back to childhood and remove the tragedy, the seeds of doubt and insecurity and with that, you may remove some of the drive. You’d throw the baby out with the bath water, or bits of the baby, and no one wants a baby in bits. Part of his unpredictability on the pitch was part of his unpredictability of it. If given his time again, Gazza would surely know his pitfalls and avoid them, but that’s hindsight, and something we only ever get after the fact.
In short, I’ve just written a very long article when I could’ve written one word. Could anything have been done during his career to save Gazza? No. What he could have been is an irrelevant discussion because he would likely have always been this. When he was bad, he was very bad. And in part, we loved him for it. But when he was good….by God was he good.