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Happy Hour is over. Paul Gascoigne picks up the bill
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One of the most frequently used phrases in the modern exchanges of media soundbites is the reference to somebody or other "drinking in the last chance saloon". Never has this expression been more appropriate than with the current state of Paul Gascoigne, Britain's highest-profile footballer of the decade, who, over the weekend, was sent to a clinic for the treatment of alcohol abuse by his club, Middlesbrough. The precise justification for this drastic action was said to have been a four-day "bender" on which Gascoigne indulged himself last week and which finally alerted the club to the seriousness of its player's problem. But, in the jargon of medical case studies, "there is a history here", not just in Gascoigne's individual story, but also in the masculinity cult of British professional football.

For those who have followed Gascoigne's wildly fluctuating career over the past 10 years, his admission to a clinic is not exactly a surprise in the sense that it has been obvious for some time that his poor physical condition on the field could be directly linked to excessive drinking. His sluggish appearance at Wembley in England's first game of the European Championship finals in the summer of 1996 confirmed that the infamous "dentist's chair" escapade in a bar in Hong Kong - in which team-mates took turns to pour shots of neat tequila down Gascoigne's throat - had become just one of many sessions to have taken their toll on his fitness.

Since then, the bingeing has become more frequent and more public, no doubt linked to a progressive decay in his private life, and to Gascoigne's own instincts to act the clown and to be "one of the lads" with media friends such as Danny Baker and Chris Evans. Just prior to last summer's World Cup finals, Gascoigne was photographed in a Soho kebab house at 2am one morning, a further twist in the downward spiral that saw him ejected from the England squad, an event which then pushed him further into the pits of darkness. The confirmation of his divorce and the recent death of an old friend from the Newcastle area after a drinking session involving Gascoigne must have extinguished some of his legendary ebullience.

So the real surprise is not just that Gascoigne has actually agreed to accept treatment after so many years of being indulged by those who employed him, but also Middlesbrough's decisive and sympathetic action - although, having spent the best part of pounds 4 million buying him from Rangers earlier this year, the club plainly has a vested interest in the player's welfare. At Wembley last Saturday for the England game against Bulgaria, Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, found himself having to react to queries about Gascoigne's latest bender. However, this time he at least had a constructive response.

"We are going to help the lad so that he can combat everything, and it will all be done in private. He has been under a lot of strain for the last six weeks." That these words should be spoken by Robson himself marks yet another of the fissures to appear in the edifice of male football psychology. For, in his playing days at Manchester United, Robson was feted not just as an epic drinker, but also as a captain who organised team piss-ups after training in order to boost the squad's morale.

This wasn't exactly a break with tradition. Ever since the wages of professional players and their public status rose in the early Sixties, they have had both the means and the opportunity to celebrate their fame. Peter Thompson, a dazzling winger for Liverpool in that decade and now a hotel owner in the Lake District, recalls "the nights after games when we went out and you wouldn't have to buy a drink because people were so eager to buy them for you. The glasses would just line up on the table".

With nothing to do after morning training, players would frequently adjourn to pubs for the afternoon for a "lock-in", when the unspoken bonding rituals would involve putting away as much drink as possible and not leaving early. One of England's greatest players, Bobby Moore, who skippered the 1966 World Cup winners, was viewed with awe by his team-mates for his ability to drink heavily but still be able to beat everybody else in training the next morning. On one of my first journalistic assignments in the spring of 1975, I was following Fulham's FA Cup progress by training and travelling with the team. On a night out in Bournemouth, the squad stumbled across George Best at a bar and there was a genuine sense of collective pride that none other than their captain Bobby Moore and Best would be leading the evening's session, so exalted was team drinking as a means to unity and inclusiveness.

Of course Best was the first celebrity casualty of this new era of football, his meteoric career snuffed out by alcohol and other excesses, his relationships wrecked, his wealth drained. But Best has retained an aura of tacky glamour to this day, because there is nothing the male drinker likes to venerate more than a high-profile victim. To the New Lad cultists of the mid-Nineties, Gascoigne was a spiritual leader. He drank, he played football well, he biffed his missus when she gave him a hard time and he was always good for a laugh, whether belching into microphones or donning plastic breasts at a team photocall.

But now the leader is dethroned, like the "trunkless" statue of Ozymandias in Shelley's sonnet, which invited visitors to "look on my works ye mighty and despair". Gascoigne could now face a minimum of six weeks of treatment involving detoxification and counselling before meeting the outside world again with its callow friendships and easy temptations. And yet, at this darkest moment of what should have been a great career, there remains the possibility of redemption.

In the first instance, the boozing ethos of British football clubs is, if not in decline, then certainly under threat. The advent of several foreign coaches and many hundreds of foreign players to our leagues has offered an alternative style to the "rat pack" mentality of drinking sessions. Throughout Spain, Italy, France and Germany, professional footballers are informed of the dangers of alcohol at the same time as being brought up in a drinking culture that is more relaxed than frenetic. Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's highly successful French coach, has imposed new dietary and drinking regimes on his squad over the past two years, instilling in his players a greater awareness of the destructive powers of alcohol and junk food. It was reported that when the Dutch striker, Dennis Bergkamp, joined the club, he was shocked by the smell of beer on the breath of his team- mates in training.

But now, with such players as Tony Adams and Paul Merson having confessed their alcohol addictions and then been helped through them, there are role models for every player who has pushed himself too far. Equally, the days when clubs would simply "bum out" or offload a boozer are gone, too. A more sympathetic climate exists in terms of man management, although the cynical will say that this is merely in proportion to the inflated transfer value of the player in distress.

However, the recuperation of both Adams and Merson has more than just monetary significance. Since their respective "cures", both players have exhibited a maturity of behaviour and a revival in form that have suggested just how damaging drink can be to a professional footballer's career. Indeed, with Merson now at Aston Villa, the current Premiership leaders, and Adams still leading the reigning champions, Arsenal, they are examples of what Gascoigne, at 31, may yet achieve if his treatment is successful. Yesterday Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, even dangled the carrot of a return to the international scene should Gascoigne rid himself of the poison within him.

Yet nobody should be under any illusion about the difficulty of the struggle that Gascoigne faces. When Merson, who two months ago left the same Middlesbrough team after citing the threat of the team's drinking culture, was asked yesterday about his former team-mate's chances, he struggled to control his emotions as the memories of his own descent swamped him again.

"I'm pleased for Paul. It takes a lot to admit that you have a problem and say that you can't stop. But the hard work starts here for him. He's in the best place, and if he can't get better there, he won't get better."

Over the next few months, Gascoigne will receive the same professional help that put Merson's career and life back in order. But once his time in the Marchwood Priory Clinic is over, his team-mates, his cabal of friends and his legion of personal advisers will have a major role to play in his recovery. They can stop indulging his laddishness, steer him away rather than towards drink and nightlife and perhaps convince him that the time for moderation has come. The old Gazza would probably think that "The Road to Damascus" was just another pub, but the new one may yet come to appreciate the rewards of conversion.