When I told friends I was being offered the opportunity to put questions to footballer Paul Gascoigne, the response was mixed. Most enthused “ahhh, poor Gazza”, but football fans were annoyed and angry at him, furious. A wasted talent. He could have had it all. He pissed it all away, literally.
Of course Paul Gascoigne – Gazza – was a footballing genius in his day, and so passionate about the sport. Who can forget him crying in front of millions when England failed to make the World Cup Final in 1990? But his early promise on the pitch was never truly realised. Problems in his private life swamped everything.
The notion of a wasted talent is a valid one, but the biggest source of sadness surrounds Gascoigne’s personal life and health. Gascoigne has published three books in which he talks about treatment for his bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. Stories of domestic violence within relationships are well documented, as are convictions for drink driving and assault, and more recently the harassment of a girlfriend. He’s been sectioned under the Mental Health Act at least three times. And of course in 2010, Gascoigne intoxicated on alcohol and cocaine arrived at the scene of a six-hour stand-off between police and the fugitive gunman Raoul Moat, aiming to play peacemaker with some chicken, a Newcastle shirt and a fishing rod.
And yet despite all this, he’s someone who still garners warmth and affection from the public. His regular “audience with Paul Gascoigne” events around the UK are packed out and it’s telling that the most common question he gets asked from fans is ‘how are you keeping?’
Gazza, the normal guy, everyday jack the lad, one of us, that’s how we think of him, even now. I tell him about a friend who met him once in a bar. You were quietly sipping a pint, I say, and mulling over afternoon’s races in the newspaper. My friend said you were quiet and nice, spent most of the time asking him and his mate about their taxi driver jobs and “ordinary” lives rather than talking about yourself. My friend didn’t expect that, I hope you don’t mind me saying.
‘I don’t think most of the public see me differently to that, basically I’m a normal down to earth lad, but the tabloids lie about me all the time which doesn’t help,’ he says.
The press reporting issues around his alcoholism and other health problems must get to him, surely? Especially the red tops’ prim reprimanding tone “here he goes, Gazza at it again” and I know he suffered during the phone hacking enquiry/scandal. Does all that make him reluctant to trust people?
‘Sometimes the press are right, but mostly what they write is a load of rubbish which is very hurtful. Keeping to myself is the best policy. I’ve been let down by people close to me quite often and that is sad and difficult.’ The image of Gazza as a lovable drunkard endures. He talks of well-meaning members of the public lining up to buy him a drink, so they can say “I’ve had a pint with Gazza”. ‘It happens every day. My agent Terry Baker gets annoyed about it but I’m used to it. They don’t mean any harm, people are just being nice, but it doesn’t help me really.’
Back in 2013, stories emerged about Paul’s “showbiz pals” Chris Evans, Gary Lineker, Piers Morgan clubbing together to pay to send him to The Meadows rehab clinic in Arizona. It’s noticeable that Paul doesn’t credit celebrity acquaintances as those who are helping him the most right now in his recovery. “I’m best talking to my Mam and dad and sisters. Terry and Freda (Baker of A1 Sporting Speakers) are the people outside my family that I can trust the most. I know they have my back and try their best for me,’ he reckons. ‘Terry and Freda try and look after me. They get me work, take me to it, help when things go wrong and generally stay in touch with me and we have a laugh.’
And things do go wrong. December was a tough patch for Paul, with reports of falling off the wagon whilst staying at a health clinic and his controversial comment about a black security guard being difficult to make out in poor light.
‘I’ve been in various rehabs over the years.’ Seven at the last count. ‘The Providence Project (an alcohol and drug rehab centre) down here in Bournemouth were great with me and after their help I moved into he area. It’s hard to cope sometimes but I try to keep busy, keep fit and stick to my daily routines. I miss playing football more than anything. I loved playing and the great times I had on and off the pitch. The day to day dressing room camaraderie with my team mates is something I miss a lot.’
This year, he aims to ‘just to be happy and stay off the drink. I have probably only drunk for an average two or three weeks every year and I’d like to try and stop that.’ I hope he gets to that point, in 2016. It’s no more than he deserves. ‘And world peace and GAZZA peace!’ he adds.
Gazza peace sounds good. He deserves some of that.
Originally published in Hooked Magazine (Jan 2016)