Little boy lost
From The Observer Sports Magazine, Sunday 2nd February 2003
By Ian Ridley
Paul Gascoigne was one of the best footballers in the world. Now he has signed to play in the Chinese second division. And, as Gazza faces the fact that his playing career - the only refuge in a turbulent life - is all but over, there are increasing signs that he is losing the battle with his twin demons of alcoholism and depression
He sat opposite me, at a table on the riverside terrace of the ITV studios on London's South Bank, talking excitedly into my tape recorder, pausing only to draw on his cigarette. The rambling, slurred words were barely registering, though. I couldn't take my eyes off the sore on the index finger on his left hand as he picked at it constantly, the nail of his forefinger gnawing at an ever-deepening hollow. It disturbed me, as did much of that day I spent with him.
It was 12 June, last summer, England had just drawn 0-0 with Nigeria and I had come to see him again in his new role as a World Cup pundit. We had met nine months earlier for an interview for The Observer and got on well as he opened up as never before, freely confessing his alcoholism and telling of his stay at a treatment centre in Arizona. How was he now, I wondered?
The previous year, when he had not touched a drop for almost six months, there was a sheen to his thinning hair and a smoothness to his skin. Above all, there was light in his blue eyes. Soon he would be back playing for Everton, and to a standard that had some wondering, unrealistically, whether he might even be recalled to the England squad. He seemed at peace. Gazza, the nation's object of attention and amusement, had become finally emerged into Paul Gascoigne his own maturing man.
But now the midday light of a June day revealed the hair to be dry, the skin flakey, the eyes dark. And that sore, as he worked it in self-mutilation, self-punishment, told of a vitamin deficiency that comes of not eating properly. I could tell that he had been drinking again, and was probably ashamed of himself. As I followed him that day, into an editing suite and a studio, then out to a bookmakers' where, for a light-hearted TV slot, he placed a bet on England to win the tournament, he was hyperactive again, lighting tabs in corridors or as he stepped out of a car.
To stop moving, talking or smoking meant to feel the pain of how life had turned again for him, I suspect. Or rather against him, he would more probably believe. And it was too big a feeling to feel.
Of course there were glimpses of the charismatic, engaging character with whom the country had fallen in love at Italia 90 - and of a shrewder brain that he has usually been given credit for - but they were being buried by a discerned fear in him and certainly for him.
He had come to the studios from watching the Nigeria game in his room at the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, off Hyde Park, armed with two sheets of scrawled notes, as eager as a cub reporter on his first assignment. Watching a videotape of the Nigeria game, he pointed out some flaws in Sol Campbell's positioning. 'He's not going to like me for saying this,' Gazza fretted.
In the studio, he recorded a telephone interview with David Seaman, asking what the fishing in Japan was like. Outside the bookies he approached a young girl trying to recruit donors for a mental health charity and signed up his fellow pundit and former Rangers buddie Ally McCoist for a sizeable sum. 'She should be handing out donations to Gazza,' said one of the camera crew.
When it came to the interview, Gazza was back to the old defiant, defensive fidget rather than the more relaxed assured figure of the previous September. 'What now after Burnley?', I asked him. 'Who's saying I'm finished with Burnley?' he retorted. 'Anyway, I've got all sorts of offers, Dubai, America.'
It was unusable. I didn't want to do a hatchet job on a man when he was down, print falsehoods. His assertion that he was fine - often an acronym for fearful, insecure, neurotic, exhausted - was unconvincing. A week later, the real story emerged. In three weeks, Gascoigne had run up a hotel drinks bill of £9,869.62 on ITV's account, another £281 from the minibar in his room. 'People were surprised to see Gazza with a drink in his hand as they thought he had given up alcohol,' said a member of the hotel staff. 'He was downing glass after glass of wine and getting pretty drunk. To be honest, it was pretty sad to watch but he was no trouble.'
Then came the rider than everyone adds, the sentiment everyone feels. 'He was a fantastic footballer in his day and could have been one of the world's greatest, but he threw it all away.'
For Paul Gascoigne the last year has been a lost year. Another one. Even he probably has trouble piecing it all together. Not the first few weeks, though, containing as they did some memorable moments. It may have been only against Leyton Orient but he went through the repertoire that had made him English football's outstanding talent of the late Eighties through to the mid-Nineties - and approaching the best in the world. That running with the ball, that sleight of foot, that eye for a pass.
He even gave an articulate interview to BBC's Football Focus. 'I would work with kids and tell them not to do what I did,' he said, as if having just emerged from the House of the Rising Sun. 'I'd tell them about how drinking can affect your muscles and how not having enough blood supply to your muscles can cause you injuries. At least four of my operations have been down to the drink.'
His training routine was diligent, probably excessive. Usually in long before everyone else at Everton's Bellefield training ground, he would delight the first-team squad with his love of the game, his skill, his sense of humour. After lunch, when his grown-up playmates had gone up, he would stay to train with the reserve squad. Then, after tea, with the youths. And the eight, nine and 10-year-olds in the evening. Only when someone had taken home their ball would he return to his rented flat in at Quebec Place in Liverpool's Waterside Village. I saw this fear of going home, of being alone, myself one dank afternoon. Interviewing Everton's then manager Walter Smith in his office, there, sitting on a ball on a flat roof outside, watching a youth team match, unconcerned about the rain, was a pensive Gazza.
Something happened in February, though. On the first weekend, he was in the starting 11 in a defeat by Ipswich, but was only a substitute in the next Premiership game against Arsenal. He was a substitute, too, in the FA Cup tie at Crewe but did not figure in the replay nine days later. Perhaps he had been disturbed by a Valentine's Day dinner with his ex-wife Sheryl. The couple dined in a £1,000-a-night suite at the Malmaison Hotel in Manchester, were waited on by a personal butler and Gascoigne showered Sheryl with gifts. The couple left the next morning but the reconciliation that he has always craved since their divorce in 1998 was never realistic.
Gazza's eating disorder resurfaced. Sometimes he would eat a large box of cornflakes with milk and sugar, go to the toilet to vomit it all up, then return for tea and toast before starting training. He was also pre-occupied with a break-up with his long-time agent Mel Stein, who would serve him with a High Court writ for £60,000 he claimed he was owed for writing Gascoigne's autobiography. Gazza withdrew from the project, no longer wanting Stein to write it.
He was off the pace in training now, picking up niggling injuries as he always does when his mental state is low. He wondered to Smith whether it was worth all the work of getting fit only to get injured again. Smith feared he was drinking, or about to, again, though Gascoigne made a point of meeting and greeting him in the morning, as if to show he was not. The manager warned all the staff - the groundsmen, the kit managers - with whom Gazza was popular because he spent so long at Bellefield - not to take him out for a drink.
Gascoigne's last appearance for Everton was in an FA Cup quarter-final against Middlesbrough when a limp personal and collective performance saw Everton well beaten. The result cost Smith his job. Gazza wept at the news. Smith, who had also managed Gascoigne at Rangers, had long been a father-figure and had insisted the previous summer that Gascoigne go for a 28-day rehabilitation at the Cottonwood addiction treatment centre in Arizona.
Gascoigne could not see a way into the first team under the new manager David Moyes and asked for a move. It took him to Burnley and into a familiar ballyhoo. 'When we knew Gazza was coming there was a real buzz around the club and town,' recalls Mitchell Thomas, a Burnley team-mate and who had also played with him at Tottenham. He tells a tale, too, of every player who has known him: in to training half an hour before everyone else, enjoying the fresh air and the buzz of a training ground.
'The first training session we had was a really good one,' says Thomas. 'In the five-a-side everyone was looking to get on his side. He did things other players could only dream of. He did look a lot thinner than I had ever seen him, in an almost drawn way. His fitness was there but he did look a bit thinner and going bald.'
After three games, though - 'He just got caught up in one or two games because it was a bit quick,' says Thomas - he found himself on a substitutes' bench again. The season ended with him coming on for eight minutes as Burnley beat Coventry City 1-0 but failed to make the First Division play-offs. 'It's a shame but there was definitely a sense when he came on that this could well be his last appearance in English football,' Thomas adds. 'It was a proper substitution to see whether he could come on and open them up. We had a free-kick with the last kick of the game and it would have been the swansong but it wasn't meant to be. I did think that this could be it because I thought he would be going to America or Dubai.' His new agent, Ian Elliott of First Artists, was working to do just that. Gazza meanwhile, accepted an offer of £50,000 from ITV for 10 appearances during their World Cup coverage. Executives had seen him giving an interview on a rival channel after Everton had beaten Stoke City in the FA Cup in January and thought he might just be the maverick, populist figure that would become compulsive viewing. The compulsion was all his, though. 'We were sure that underneath the problems and the nervous wreck there was something there, a warmth,' says an ITV insider. 'But though we were never worried about whether he would turn up, we did worry about what condition he would turn up in.'
After a couple of nervous studio appearances, when producers worried he might clam up, it was decided he would be better doing pieces with the man in the street. 'But he just became more nervous,' said the ITV source. 'Then he would get mobbed and it became dangerous.' There were meetings to decide whether to take him off the air, but Brian Barwick, ITV's Controller of Sport, persisted. A loyal man, who had travelled North before the tournament to make sure Gascoigne was well, Barwick feared that to ditch him would be to tip him over the edge again.
They tolerated that bar bill, which emerged after a journalist befriended Gascoigne - always open to new drinking company - in the hotel. 'The trouble was he was buying £200 bottles of wine and buying for everybody in the bar,' says the ITV source. 'The next day Brian had a call standing up for Gazza from the chief executive of a company who had been there, saying he was a gent and had been signing autographs. In fact, he was good as gold around the studios. He would have a drink in the green room after filming but never before, though I don't know where he went when he would disappear for half an hour here and there. And he was the only on-screener who would be at the bar in the evening. He was a generous colleague.'
Gascoigne developed a friendship with one of his fellow pundits, Andy Townsend, and the producers encouraged Townsend to look after him. The night before England's game against Denmark, the two went for a quiet meal at the Circus restaurant in Upper St James's Street. But in the end, Ian Elliott was called in to 'mind' him the night before the game against Brazil. It was the 10th and final appearance. ITV decided not to extend his stay for the last week.
From there, Gascoigne went a few weeks later to Washington, to try out for the Major Soccer League team DC United. The coach, Ray Hudson, had grown up in the same Newcastle suburb of Dunston as Gazza, next door to Gascoigne's oldest and best friend Jimmy Gardner 'Five Bellies' in fact, but had never met Gascoigne having left for the United States 23 years earlier. There may have been a bit of hero-worship about the invitation.
'When he arrived he was very, very humble, highly strung and eager to impress,' says Hudson. 'He was in the locker room like an 11-year-old kid, banging the ball around, just waiting. 'When do we go out Ray, when do we go out?' he kept saying. When we did go out he elevated the entire practice with his poise and his guile and his subtlety. He was desperate to enjoy his football. We were talking about what type of apartment he wants, what type of car and he says, "Ray, I just want the ball man, I just want the ball."'
Problems surfaced, though. At first, there were concerns from local pressure groups about Gazza's past, particularly the time he had hit Sheryl. 'This was Washington DC and it was a time when everyone was still very much on edge after 11 September and there were all sorts of rumblings from political groups,' Hudson recalls.
Once they were overcome, though, came doubts about the drinking, nights at the city's Capitol Lounge. 'While he could control it, while he controlled it, it was really fine,' says Hudson. 'He went out with our guys and had a couple of good nights without it being out of hand. But there were certain situations where he could have been there much longer. I don't want to say that it wasn't acceptable but it didn't augur well for the future. He was here for just less than a week and he needed to be pretty much like Snow White. Once you started to see even the slightest indication of it, then we couldn't go there.'
With sadness, Hudson told Gazza that he wasn't going to be right for the club and signed the American player Ernie Stewart instead. Gazza took a 10-day holiday in Cyprus and, convinced that he could yet play at a high level though 35 with a history of injuries, sought a club on his return.
It was here that the almost comical list of clubs apparently interested in him began. There was Auckland Kingz in New Zealand, Dundee and Partick Thistle in Scotland, Colchester United and Gillingham in England. Exeter City's interest in him becoming player-manager was simply a publicity stunt by the co-chairman Uri Geller. Graham Roberts, manager at Carshalton, offered to help his former Spurs colleague get fit with a few games in the Ryman Isthmian League. None of them appealed or offered sufficient challenge or money.
Frustrated and wandering the North-east, Gazza appears to have sought sanctuary in the bottle again. At the end of September he was reported to have been staying for three weeks at the Beamish Park Hotel in County Durham in the company of friends and then agent Ian Elliott. 'He stays up most nights until after 5am drinking whisky,' a member of the hotel staff was quoted as saying in the Sunday Mirror. The paper added that he usually spent the next day in bed, ordering mineral water and sandwiches, before emerging in the afternoon to go for a run near a favourite local fishing lake. Then it would be back on the Glenfiddich and lager. 'A couple of weeks ago his hand was covered in cuts and blisters,' a barmaid from a nearby pub was also quoted as saying. 'Paul told me he was so out of it that he fell asleep on the toilet with his hand resting on the radiator.'
Then, in mid-October, Gascoigne turned out for Berwick Rangers in a charity match against a Newcastle United XI. It was, by all accounts, embarrassing, though Berwick were indulgent. 'Mind you, they might not have been OK if they'd known I'd necked six brandies before I got on the pitch,' Gazza told the Sunday Mirror the next day during what the paper described as a 10-hour bender at the Duke of Seaham pub near Sunderland.
He also appeared for Tottenham in a friendly at White Hart Lane against DC United, his lack of speed and strength saddening Spurs fans, and in an over-35s, veteran's tournament at London's Docklands Arena.
Soon after, Gascoigne appears to have had one of his more lucid moments and decided to embark on a fitness programme with Steve Black, a fitness coach attached to the Newcastle Falcons rugby union club. It lasted for six weeks until just before Christmas, with Gascoigne staying at the Linden Hall Hotel and training at Black's home in Newcastle. He was even seen in the gym at the Marriott Hotel in Gateshead.
'It was every day, seven days a week,' says Black, touching on another thing about Gazza - his all-or-nothing approach to life. 'And it was a total lifestyle package, incorporating education, so it was a programme where you sit down and work out what will work best for that particular person for the that particular time in their life.'
First came conditioning, then work with a ball 'to work on his skills and movements and mindset that he would need to get him back playing top-level football again. He wasn't playing any matches but had lots and lots of touches under various amounts of pressure where he would re-enact environments he would play in and work from box to box and take people on and hold people off and become strong in the areas he would play in. To get back to being what Paul Gascoigne was noted for, which was the strength in his body and the change of pace.'
Black described his attitude and application as excellent but still there were few serious takers. Gascoigne did have a few days training with Morpeth, a Northern League club 15 miles North of Newcastle, but it was never a prospect. Nor were offers from Total Network Solutions of the Welsh League or Marsax Lokk of Malta.
Gazza seems to have grown frustrated and depressed again over Christmas. He visited Sheryl in Hertfordshire to see his seven-year-old son Regan but four days later he was in the accident and emergency unit of Gateshead's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, claiming to feel numb down the left side of his face. It was mysterious but not serious. It was still a worrying end to a bad year, but the new one offered better. There was the promise of a trial with a Chinese club and a potential £10,000-a-week contract.
At first, unsurprisingly to us but probably to him, it ended with rejection again. After early training sessions on the southern island province of Hainan with Liaoning Bodao of Beijing, the training director Zhao Ronggang observed that he 'showed weak physical strength'. Gascoigne may be leaner than ever, worryingly gaunt indeed, but the weight loss appears to have cost him the power that provided his crucial change of pace.
Now talk turned to others at the margins of the world game - St Pauli, a Second Division German club located in the red-light district of Hamburg, Lokomotiv Plovdiv of Bulgaria and Universitatea Craiova (appropriately enough pronounced cry-over) of Romania.
Then Gansu Tianma, bottom of the Chinese second division, stepped in with £8,000 a week for playing and helping with the coaching. It meant a move to Lanzhou, a largely industrial city in the western reaches of China (said to be one of the most polluted in the world), but Gazza jumped at the chance. Even now you can't help doubting that the homeboy will be home sooner rather than later - assuming that he returns to China at all, having come back to England for 10 days earlier this week, once the deal was done. It all smacks of desperation.
As does the majority of the last poignant, pathetic year. It has recalled the old boxer's lament: 'First your head goes, then your legs go. In the end, your friends go.' How cruel it must have seemed to Gazza, contemplating the popular mobbing during the World Cup in Trafalgar Square as he nursed a hangover alone in his Co. Durham hotel room in October. Though Gascoigne himself says that he has put money away and has a sizeable pension fund, the money does look to be running out. The last published figures for his promotions company, in 2000, showed a loss of £56,000 when there was a profit of £400,000 in the mid-Nineties. He is said to have an overdraft of £60,000, the maintenance to Sheryl is believed to be £10,000 a month for life, and there is the High Court writ for £60,000 with Mel Stein.
And the number of respected people willing to represent him has been dwindling. After parting company with Ian Elliott, the former Newcastle player David McCreery represented him for two months, but now Gazza's calls are taken by the maligned Jimmy Gardner. How does he cope with the criticism? 'I'm used to it now but I worry about my family. I'm 38 now and I've got two kids,' says Gardner. 'I'm just sorry for Paul. People don't know him. He's got a heart as big as a lion and he's so generous. He gets people coming round the house, saying, "Lend us this, give us that," and he does. If he only had £10 he'd give it to you.' Generous to a fault, indeed.
Some believe Gardner has led him astray - 'No way. He wouldn't have had me around for 29 years if I was leading him astray' - but in fact he has been amazingly loyal. Like Gazza, his heart is in the right place. It is just that sometimes he is not best qualified to see the problem. 'Paul's just a wine drinker now,' says Gardner. Like many ignorant of a potentially fatal illness, he cannot grasp that any alcohol to Gascoigne is like pouring petrol on a fire.
Gazza's manager at Burnley, hardly helped either. '"It's obvious you are not off the booze completely," I told him,' he has said, '"If you want to go bang on it, book into a clinic and then check yourself out on a Friday to come and play for us. I don't mind. If you've been on the piss all night, tell me, I'll pick a team to suit you for 30 minutes."'
From Gascoigne's drinking flow all his problems and behavioural disorders. And there are many. There are the prescription drugs, the depression that results from injuries and not playing, leading him back to the bottle, and the bingeing and vomiting. Then there is the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that insists he returns repeatedly to check that the lights are off and the doors closed, even that towels are folded properly in the dressing room before he goes out to train.
And a need to be around others, for their support and approval, because of his own self-disgust and discomfort at being alone with himself. 'It's like he needs emotional crutches,' said the ITV insider of Gazza's World Cup stint, when Terry Venables 'was virtually holding his hand'.
It is why he has been unable to let go of Sheryl, begs her to rescue him. One embarrassed player last year received a text message from Gascoigne intended for her. 'You can have the £30,000,' it said. 'Just come back to me. I love you.'
Everyone you talk to about Gascoigne loves him, fears for him. He seems not to love himself very much, shuns the help of those who genuinely want to offer it to him, however, and is instead drawn to damaging relationships. He has spoken to Walter Smith, a man who once in Glasgow had a lonely Gazza round to Christmas dinner with his family after receiving a desperate phone call that morning, only twice since leaving Everton. Once was at the Rangers v Celtic match in December.
I suspect, too, that Gascoigne declined my request for an interview for this article because he knew that after our uplifting meeting 16 months ago, when he was interested also in my experiences as a recovering alcoholic, that I would want to talk about the issue. For Gazza these days does not like being asked if he is drinking again. It is precisely just such confrontation that true friends such as Walter Smith would offer him that he needs, however. The concern is that Gazza will be found one day soon in a Gateshead gutter. But then, he may need that too. No one is simply an alcoholic and Gazza is certainly more. His core problems go deeper than, say, Tony Adams. All the other dependencies will see to that. But by stopping drinking he could clear his head and begin to heal, painful as it might be, all the other anxieties besetting him. What, for example, has been the effect of growing up in a claustrophobic family environment? What are the scars of seeing his best friend's little brother killed in a road accident before his very eyes at the age of 12? For that, he will need to re-engage with the support network of people who truly care for him. There remains the staff of Cottonwood and Walter Smith, for a start. Tony Adams's Sporting Chance Clinic is ever ready.
Gascoigne's biggest terror is probably being forced to give up football, believing life to be empty without the game he adores and that has - when he is well - adored him. 'If he could get a ball at his feet 24 hours a day, then he'd do it,' says Steve Black. Adams can probably help him with that dread. 'I think in his heart of hearts that's what he'll always be,' adds Ray Hudson, 'that little boy with his ball. All the cynics and the naysayers, his critics, will hit him because he's such an easy target but I think there's never been a personality that personifies the tragedy of English football like him.'
It doesn't have to stay that way. If - more probably when - he reaches a China crisis, I believe there could yet be redemption, professional and personal. A healing Paul Gascoigne could still become the pundit that ITV intended, in whom all saw a warmth sadly suppressed by anxiety. And though Sir Bobby Robson just smiled in the summer and said: 'Enjoy yourself while you can and keep playing - and take care of yourself,' when Gazza told him that he wanted one day to become a manager, a sober Gascoigne could yet be an asset to an English club, as perhaps an assistant coach, so that he can still indulge his touchingly childish love of the fresh air and the joyous camaraderie of a training ground.
Every day doesn't have to be an endless stream of cigarettes and magazines. There are still good people willing to offer the hand of help that he has spurned over the last year. The willingness, however, has first to come from Paul Gascoigne.
Additional reporting by Jamie Jackson