Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Football

Gazza on his knees in the last chance saloon

By Vincent Hogan

Paul Gascoigne is dying. Slowly and painfully and in plain sight of a world all but buying tickets to the wake. Back in rehab after a destructive Christmas in which a drunken row left him with a fractured skull, a statement on the Facebook page of A1 Sporting Speakers last week suggested people "say a prayer" for the former England international.

Days earlier a tabloid newspaper ran a story of Gazza groping almost blindly for laughs in a seaside theatre before an audience happy to toss them his way cheaply.

In the accompanying photograph, his eyes were narrowed and dull, his face wizened. The terrible physical toll wreaked by addiction made him appear far older than 49.

Sitting on a leather couch next to his agent, Terry Baker, Gascoigne looked a balding murmur of a man locked almost in conversation with himself. Baker, you sensed, could have been coaxing a dolphin through a hoop here as he played MC to this tragic human cartoon reduced to monetising his chaos essentially for rent money.

The words 'smashed' and 'blotto' seemingly punctuated almost all of Gascoigne's stories and, at the end, 10 punters were offered a €300 bonus deal to meet him back-stage, have their photo taken, then walk away with an autographed shirt.

The tone of the newspaper article was hostile to Baker, referencing how he was "doubtless taking a healthy cut of the proceeds".

Yet it was tempting to wonder what other avenue of income is logically now open to Gascoigne 12 years after his last job in football (manager of Kettering Town) ended in a predictable sacking. All he has left are his stories.

If they don't pay the bills, what else will?

Over in the Celebrity Big Brother house, meanwhile, his step-daughter Bianca took to telling housemates how she feared "bad news" coming her way, a reminder that, these days, even light entertainment can take custody of human tragedy and make it all a part of the show.

Gascoigne's predicament is rotten. His alcoholism is friendless. George Best could drink five or six bottles of Sauvignon Blanc daily in a London wine-bar with 'friends', all the time nursing an illusion that his sociability made such consumption acceptable.

He didn't drink for blackout. Paul McGrath did. Gascoigne does.

So there is nothing glamorous about a penthouse apartment in Bournemouth when it's where you hide yourself away with only gin and strong lager and occasionally cocaine for company and a perpetual sense that no force will ever be more powerful in your life than that physical ache for the contents of a bottle.

Gascoigne's alcoholism clearly feeds an anger that leaves him susceptible to the kind of incident that led to him allegedly being thrown down hotel stairs in Shoreditch on December 27.

There is thus the faint air of fatalism attaching itself to his predicament two decades into a battle he has never looked persuasively committed to.

Physically, he looks ruined, his body disintegrating, his speech largely communicating disorientation and vulnerability. Ongoing dental issues impart an un-natural,lop-sided balance to his mouth and he now slurs his words even when sober.

The over-riding impression is of someone trying to communicate through heavy fog and with a mouthful of broken teeth. Drink and substance abuse and the trouble they uncork are the only compelling narratives in his life now. Three times in as many days last summer, the emergency services had to be called to his home. Is he saveable?

Not if he isn't committed to saving himself.

When I was working with McGrath on his autobiography, I argued against the publisher's preferred title of Back from the Brink. You see, I dreaded the weeks of publicity that Paul had committed to on the basis that he might not be in condition to honour those obligations. There had been days during our collaboration when I genuinely feared for him. To me, the title was a lie.

Paul wasn't back from the brink. If anything, he seemed occasionally to be hurtling towards it.

But publishers believe an upbeat title always sells better than gloom and, so, my suggestion of In Search of Me was politely tossed into a London publishing house bin.

And Paul, one of the gentlest, most emotionally intelligent and patently decent men I know, was sent out into a dizzying blizzard of interview commitments to sell his story as some kind of parable of redemption. But, incredibly, that's what he did.

And oddly, 11 years later, the title has outlived my reservations.

He still has good days and bad, but McGrath's will to live and to be a part of his children's lives has become a far more profound force than the energies that trigger an occasional tumble out of sobriety.

I used to suspect that he was lying when he'd tell me that he didn't even like the taste of alcohol.

But there is a passage in the book that, when I read it now, shines a light into the kind of place I suspect that Paul Gascoigne feels hopelessly entangled in.

"I'm not sure alcoholism is explainable to people unaffected by it," says McGrath. "It IS a choice thing. But maybe not in the way that most imagine. When the time comes to drink, there's not much that can draw you back from it.

"There's this endless cycle of regret and resignation. It's difficult to articulate what drags you back to something you know is hell.

"I'm sure people who drink normally would be disdainful of that description. How exactly does a bellyful of booze qualify as hell?

"The difference is that people who drink normally have a fair idea where any given night is going to take them, by and large. They're not playing Russian roulette.

"Hand on heart, when I'm 'on one' as I call it, I'm genuinely frightened that I won't come out the far side alive. Because my drinking always leads to blackout."

Paul turned 58 last month, yet doesn't look it. Almost a decade older than Gascoigne then but palpably healthier and happier and - wretched lapses aside - settled into the rhythms of a life that doesn't at least demand the indignity of selling the dark side as some kind of lurid cabaret.

He could certainly never be gratuitously vulgar in the way Gascoigne has resorted to, parodying "fat women" and Alzheimers sufferers and "ugly footballers" for just €35 a head at the door.

Maybe when that's the only profitable existence left to you, being wheeled from one beery hall to another as this battered piece of human hardware perpetually losing ground against gravity, it's hard to have a self-image beyond the popular caricature.

Gascoigne was diagnosed as bipolar 16 years ago, has been treated for obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and bulimia and is now back in rehab 19 chaotic years after his first visit.

A lot of people care for him, but it's as if he has long since ceased to care for himself.

On his 'good' days, he is the ghost with the microphone, chasing cheap laughter.

Baker sells it as hero-worship, meeting "the man, the legend", but it isn't that.

It's voyeurism, a dubious exercise without much in the way of a conscience.

Because Gascoigne is dying and anyone with a functioning level of intelligence can see that.

Worse, he's doing so in front of the world. Just before this week's re-entry to rehab, he stood bespectacled on a busy street somewhere to record a festive video message, re-assuring fans that he'd "just done meself a good favour and done nine days of looking after meself".

In the video, he promised: "See you all next year on the road, looking well."

The word from his management is, naturally, that Gascoigne hopes to stay sober through 2017.

But if "the road" is what awaits him on his return, is that hope anything but another circus poster?

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph