Of all the pieces I’ve written, only two have left me so emotionally drained that I still find it difficult to revisit them. One of them was my October 2010 post on the tragedy of my childhood hero Paul Gascoigne’s continued battle with alcoholism and the fear that haunts me that one day I may wake up to the news that he is no longer with us. Nearly two and half years after Schoolboy’s Own Stuff, the fact remains that this recurring nightmare sadly draws ever closer to becoming a reality if what we read in our daily newspapers is to be believed.
I find it hard to talk about Gazza without tears forming. The pictures that have emerged this week of his gaunt frame drinking a pint before once again, being admitted to a rehabilitation centre in the US upset me beyond belief. I try to avoid them as much as I can because the sight of him withering away just makes me very, very sad. I see the person who was largely responsible for sparking my abiding love for this game, who provided me with some of my most cherished sporting memories, tormented by his own demons and addictions and there’s nothing I can do. I feel so utterly helpless.
I turned thirty-five this week. Next week, my mother will turn sixty. Not long after that my grandmother goes into hospital and is likely to spend her eighty-third birthday mostly in the company of NHS staff. With these shifts in demographics, the old certainties of my younger years are gradually eroding. Many of my friends are beginning the process of losing grandparents or coming to terms with the reality that parents who were once considered immortal are as susceptible to the changing of the seasons as anybody else. Like my elders, the Gazza of my youth is very far away from the person we see today. It feels as if I’ve been preparing myself for the worst for years now.
Nevertheless, I refuse to talk of him in the past tense. The tone of what is written and said about him increasingly takes the form of an obituary but until that day happens, we as his fans, cannot fall into the trap of eulogising someone who continues to battle himself on a daily basis. Recall and celebrate everything he once did on a football pitch by all means, for we will not ever be treated to his genius again, but let’s not bury him either. While there’s breath left in him, he deserves every ounce of moral support we can give him.
The flickering embers of that twenty-three year old boy in a number nineteen shirt who took on the world’s best on Italian pitches all those years ago may be harder to spot, but he’s still there somewhere. As is the twelve-year old boy who cried in a terraced house in Edmonton when his hero cried and who watched him weave his magic over and over again from the stands as the years went by. These days I may be weighed down by the pressures of adult responsibility but Gazza’s art will always keep the boy in me alive.
I call Gazza an artist because that is what he is. He could do things on a football pitch that belied his stocky frame and made more traditionally athletic individuals seem boorish and heavy-footed by comparison. For me, Gazza is every much the equal of Nureyev, Dali and Joyce. There may be some who scoff at such bold hyperbole but I contend that when he was in full-flow, Gazza was as magnetic and compulsive and beautiful as any of the works these men ever produced. What’s more, watching him play football was and continues to be much more fun.
There will also be those who inevitably bring up the fact that he beat his ex-wife Sheryl and suggest that he does not deserve such continued reverence. There are those who will probably have little sympathy for an addict who has had every opportunity to mend his ways over the course of many years; opportunities that he has consistently squandered. There are those who have probably given up on his sporadic television appearances proclaiming that he is making a good recovery.
While I will never condone some of his past behaviour, I nevertheless cannot accept such wantonly ignorant dismissals of him either. He is a fallible, emotionally fragile, weak man. He is a long way from being perfect. However, if we scrutinise every individual’s life from each strata of society, I’m pretty certain we’d all find something equally shameful locked away in our closets. It is not my place nor anybody else’s to judge Paul Gascoigne the man.
Gazza, unlike any other player I have ever known, has that unique ability to inhabit the hearts and minds of disparate souls. His career geographically spanned the length of Britain and beyond, being affiliated as he was with a number of clubs and also because of what he was able to produce in an England shirt. It feels that we all have a little bit of Gazza in us. I bet you’re thinking of your own beloved Gazza moment right now. However, since we inhabit the here and now, this amazingly talented man deserves all thoughts to be focused on his recovery rather than reminiscence.
Paul Gascoigne will always be my favourite player. He is not an abstract figure like Maradona, Zidane and Messi who I have only experienced via the barrier of the television screen. Gazza, I’ve seen play. Play football better than anybody I’ve seen in my entire life. And as the years go by and I watch clips of all those moments he has provided me with, the phrase “Schoolboy’s Own Stuff” becomes increasingly more profound. I hope and wish that this story has a happy ending.
Whatever the next few days hold in store for my (childhood) hero, whatever sadness awaits his family and each and every one of us, Paul Gascoigne will continue to be an integral part of the fabric that shaped who I became.
Get well soon, Gazza.
Further reading: Schoolboy’s Own Stuff
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