Monday, May 12, 2008

Falling From Grace

There are few more poignant sights than a prodigious talent that has gone wrong and, for anyone that remembers him in his prime, the descent from grace of Paul Gascoigne has been a long, drawn out affair. Concerns over his substance abuse have long since been replaced over concerns for his overall mental well-being, but the recent life of Paul Gascoigne raises important questions over how football looks after (or rather doesn't look after) its former players. What happens to a man that had spent his whole life dedicated to the game when he can no longer play it? Does football have a moral responsibility to ensure that players have something else to go to when the crowds stop cheering and the stadium empties?

For people of my age, Paul Gascoigne was of the last generation of players that we really looked up to. He is of the last generation of players that was older than I was and, as such, one had expectations of him that one might not have of today's players. His time at Tottenham Hotspur was a period in which a player, in front of our very eyes, began to mature into one of the best midfielders in European football. At the 1990 World Cup, we saw glimpses of both the genius and the impetuousness that would prove to be the blights over his career. The booking against West Germany in the semi-final which provoked the tears that would somehow earn the sympathy of the nation was a case in point. It was a pointless booking for a late tackle in an innocuous area of the pitch. These, however, were the tears only of selfishness - the realisation, too late, as it turned out - that, should England somehow get there, he would miss out on the World Cup final. The incident is as famous for Gary Lineker's reaction, Lineker mouthing, "Is he okay?" to the England bench as the tears roll down Gascoigne's cheeks. In that single, telling image, we can see which one of the two of them will go on to a successful plat-playing career.

The defining moment of his career came less than twelve months later. The 1991 FA Cup Final had been billed as the Paul Gascoigne FA Cup Final. This had started with his magnificent free kick for Spurs against Arsenal in the semi-final at Wembley, but those with a keen eye to his temperament already had cause to be concerned over how he would react to such pressure. The answer to that question came within fifteen minutes of the kick-off. Lucky not to be sent off for a horrendous foul on Forest's Garry Charles just after the start of the match, he seemed to be playing like a man literally possessed, his luck running out with his second tackle on Charles, which ruptured his knee ligaments. This was not the "tragedy" of 1990. Either of his two tackles on Charles could have finished Charles' career, and he was fortunate to not be shown a red card as he left the pitch on a stretcher. The injury, and complications caused by it, were to ensure that he would go on to play less that fifty matches in four seasons for Lazio.

His Indian summer came at Euro 96. It's easy to forget, with the rose-tinted, soft focus legend that has come to surround that tournament, that England hadn't been playing very well. They had been lacklustre in their opening match against Switzerland and, against Scotland, they had been somewhat fortunate to get to half time with the scores goal-less. Although Alan Shearer gave them the lead early in the second half, it remained a nervy, unconvincing performance. When Scotland were awarded a penalty, it looked as if we could be headed for another draw, but David Seaman's elbow saved that particular day and, with Wembley still celebrating that, Gascoigne rolled back the years one final time, turning Colin Hendry inside out before volleying the ball into the net, lifting the gloom that had surrounded England's performances and giving them the impetus to propel themselves to the semi-finals. It was a moment of rare elegance and balance, and it was a moment that was, by that stage in his career, all too rare.

Gascoigne's career had always been blighted by displays of public boorishness, whether this manifested itself through wearing plastic breasts upon England's return after the 1990 World Cup, swearing at a Norwegian television crew or mimicking playing a flute after scoring for Rangers at Celtic Park. Mere raised eyebrows turned to outright disgust after news of the domestic abuse that he meted out towards his then-wife, Sheryl. The press often seemed to be far to tolerant of the worst of his excesses, quite possibly because he always seemed to be more than happy to play up to the image of him that they had created. He was displaying all the signs of alcoholism by the mid-1990s, and one started to wonder what he would do once his legs gave out and he could no longer play. It wouldn't be a career in the media - he was employed as a pundit by ITV during the 2002 World Cup to excruciating effect, his stumbling, monosyllabic performances being an embarrassment to watch. On the pitch, his career had dissolved - going to from Rangers to Middlesbrough, and then on to Burnley, before finishing with five games for Boston United in League Two in 2004.

His managerial career lasted 39 days at Kettering Town, before he was sacked for reportedly being drunk before, during and after Kettering's matches during his time in charge there. The latest stories concerning him only add to the sense of a man descending into madness. The over-riding sense that one gets, when evaluating the life of Paul Gascoigne, is of a man that has lived on the edge and needed people surrounding him that could keep him on the rails. He displays all the traits of an addictive personality, and since he stopped playing, he appears to have be seeking to replicate the surge of adrenaline that he once took for granted on the football pitch through more and more self-destructive methods. In his current condition, a lengthy spell in hospital might just turn out to be the best thing for him.

Football, however, appears to have forgotten him. While clubs do at least make a token effort to give their younger players something of an education nowadays, it still seems that, when players are no longer of any use to them, there is very little in the way of preparation for the decades that will follow the end of their playing careers. Gascoigne has tried management, coaching and the media (what would be perceived as the "natural" career paths for him) but, without the basic skills required to make a success of either, he is now at an almost permanent loose end. The likes of Jimmy Five-Bellies are now now noticeable by their silence (though his adoptive step-daughter, Bianca, is making a comfortable career for herself off the back of his surname) but, since the sycophants have largely crawled back into the woodwork, no-one seems to be there now, when he needs the support of other people more than ever. The good news for him, though, is that the mental health problems that he is now suffering from are treatable, if he allows himself to be treated. It would probably be for the best, however, if this is the last that we hear of Paul Gascoigne for a while.


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