Belfast Telegraph

British football owes debt to tragic Gazza

By Steven Beacom

Earlier this year I interviewed seven-time snooker world champion Stephen Hendry. He was open, honest and forthright.

Our conversation turned to his boyhood hero Alex Higgins. Hendry revealed that at the start of his professional career Higgins was like a father figure to him, but when Stephen began flourishing on the circuit, the more distant Alex became.

The friendship broke down.

That didn't stop Hendry retaining genuine respect for what Higgins had given to snooker in terms of profile, popularity and earning power for top players.

When Alex died in 2010, the Scot attended the funeral in Belfast as a mark of that respect. He was disappointed not many other players made the trip.

He told me: "Everyone knows that Alex was a Jekyll and Hyde character but there is no doubt about it, snooker would not be where it is without him.

"That was one of the reasons I went to Belfast for the funeral. I think it was only right for me as a snooker player to be there and pay my respects to Alex.

"I realised what Alex had done for our game and felt it was important to be there. I was actually disappointed with the low turnout of top snooker players at the funeral. I think a lot of them don't appreciate how good he was and what he did for our sport."

Watching Tuesday night's ITV documentary on Paul Gascoigne, the thought struck me if many of today's modern day millionaire footballers truly appreciate the importance of Gazza to their lives – and bank balances.

The gifted Geordie was one of the key figures behind the transformation of the English game.

There were outstanding performances at club level for Newcastle, Spurs, Lazio and Rangers laced with never-ending stories of his madness and mischief. You could spend hours on YouTube listening to the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Ally McCoist and John Barnes smiling through their memories of him.

It was his appearances in the 1990 World Cup finals, though, when the Gazza legend was born, which brought about the biggest impact.

Football was just for football fans then. It wasn't like it is now with everybody having an opinion on David Moyes or Lionel Messi. Or zonal marking. Or the false number nine!

Gascoigne was a breathtaking player and a wild card all in one, capable of just about anything. In Italia '90 he made fools out of Dutch defenders by doing the Cruyff turn and was a key performer in taking England to the semi-finals, where they had not been since 1966!

Against Germany in Turin after a crazy tackle, he cried when he got booked, knowing he'd miss the final if England made it through. Not exactly Roy Keane driving his team on to the decider, but those tears during and after his nation's defeat helped changed British football forever.

The sport was no longer only on the back pages. It was front and centre. It was THE subject to talk about and that was down to Gascoigne. Suddenly there was an insatiable demand for football in stark contrast to the '70s and '80s when hooliganism was at its height.

Sky Sports took over coverage of the Premier League in 1992 and with football's popularity rocketing, the game enjoyed a new persona, money flowed and wages soared for great players, good players and even those who at best were average.

And so it has gone on and on... today's footballers have become like demi-gods while Gascoigne's life has fallen apart.

Unlike Higgins, or another of our sporting icons, George Best, who found it impossible to keep his demons at bay, Gascoigne, thankfully, is still alive, but his ongoing battle with alcoholism, laid bare for all to see on the television programme, means he is far from well.

Tuesday's one hour show portrayed the 46-year-old's fight to stay on the wagon and the explosive consequences when he falls off it.

There were hilarious moments, not least when his best mate Jimmy Five Bellies was around, but mostly it was a tragic tale of one of Britain's most loved sportsmen.

While interviews with his family were emotional, it was Paul's own words that hit hardest. He said: "I hope I don't die from it, because I won't get any sympathy. All I'll get was 'well he was warned'."

With tears in his eyes and his voice breaking up with despair, a haunted looking Gascoigne added: "But at least I know if I did pass away from it, I wouldn't be in this pain all the time."

It was frightfully sad watching a one time force of footballing nature reduced to this.

The disease that is alcoholism has got hold of him and it won't let go.

There are people who, as he said himself, won't have any sympathy.

And let's face it Gazza hasn't exactly been whiter than white throughout his life.

Like us all, he's made mistakes. His, though, have been many and major played out in the public eye. He has hurt family and friends and all too often his behaviour has been a disgrace.

On the show from those who know him best and love him most, there was no dancing around the fear that the drink could be the end of Tyneside's most famous son.

As his daughter Bianca commented: "He can only save himself."

We wish him well.

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