YOU can judge a man by the company he keeps. So why, with 21 days to go before the World Cup opens in France, is Paul Gascoigne, England's football totem, out carousing again with the likes of Chris Evans and Danny Baker?
It's a question that is splitting the nation. Some have no problem with Gazza's kebab-and-fags-and-lager preparation for the biggest sporting occasion of the year. Others side with the approach favoured by the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger: orange juice, salad and early to bed.
Sadly, Gazza is also a totem of the Yobbocracy, a group of A-list celebrity New Lads and Lassies who like to do their roistering in the public eye.
Gazza is the Tim Nice-But-Dim of this clique. "What's wrong with having a kebab?" he said yesterday. "We're talking about one night. I'm sure a lot of the other guys were having a drink as well."
Of course, such unorthodox preparation is nothing new for Gazza, who warmed up for Euro96 with a drinking marathon in Hong Kong (his chosen poison: the flaming Lamborghini). Then, to prove his critics wrong, he scored that extraordinary goal against Scotland.
What is new, however, is the way a group of high-profile, heavy drinking stars from different fields have come together to form the Yobbocracy. What Gazza is to football, the Gallagher brothers are to rock, Damien Hirst is to art, James Brown, the former editor of Loaded, is to magazine publishing and Chris Evans and Zoe Ball are to breakfast radio shows.
Not only are they naughty, they possess wealth that few genuine aristocrats could match.
Evans has a 55 per cent stake in the Ginger Media Group, owners of Virgin radio and Ginger Productions, valued at more than pounds 100 million. Noel Gallagher's song-writing royalties from Oasis now run to tens of millions. And while poor George Best may have had trouble paying the pounds 300,000 mortgage on his London flat, Gazza could have bought it outright from petty cash.
Yet for all their affluence, the Yobbocracy have inherited the parsimonious instincts of their upper-class predecessors. Nothing attracts a Yobbocrat more than the prospect of a free drink, hence their appearances at launches, award ceremonies and freebies of all kinds.
Damien Hirst likes to take his pals to the Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill: he owns it and the drinks are on the house. Little wonder he is so popular with this crowd.
His other eaterie, Quo Vadis, in Soho, is a yob-spotter's paradise, even if the yobs - having quaffed copious iced margaritas - sometimes ignore its expensive menu in favour of the nearest kebab stand.
Just down the street from Quo Vadis is the Groucho Club, once Yob Central and still a popular spot for those who haven't, like Liam Gallagher, been banned for life. The centre of star gravity has, however, shifted from the Groucho to the Soho House, a short stagger away in Greek Street.
Similarly, Yobbocrats used to gather in Oliver Peyton's Atlantic Bar and Grill, but that's now reserved for aspirant yoblets: the stars are more likely to be found in Peyton's new hang-out, Mash. Chris Evans, however, prefers the Met Bar at the Metropolitan Hotel on Park Lane.
For more sensitive trend-setters the presence of boorish celebrities is a distinctly mixed blessing. According to Danielle Nay, a Channel 5 executive and party-girl deluxe, "We're all dreading the moment when they realise that the Mirabelle is the new chic place. When Gazza catches up, you know it's time to move on."
Not that the Yobbocracy are worried by the reactions of others. If pathetically middle-class types are offended, they may reply with the disdain of a true toff (although sometimes in the four-letter vernacular of the street.)
These are not, you might think, nice people. But in the same way that sad, middle-aged teachers sometimes try to solve the problems of indiscipline by ingratiating themselves with misfit pupils, so a sad, middle-aged Downing Street establishment - faced with an entire generation of under-educated, unemployable, hopelessly alienated young males, and the highest proportion of unmarried teenage mothers in the western world - has tried to cosy up to the Yobs, relishing their status as the gentry of Cool Britannia.
But have the Blair brigade backed the right horses? Gazza may be all over the tabloids on account of his drinking. But while he's been out getting smashed, it's the newly sober, sensitive, piano-playing Tony Adams whose skippered Arsenal to the double.
The Wenger-era Gunners are a testimony to the virtues of sobriety and intelligence. Typically, Mr Bergkamp was ordered home early from a dinner to honour him as footballer of the year in case staying up too late would spoil his preparations for the FA Cup final.
Oasis, meanwhile, appear to be moving in much the same downward direction as their beloved Manchester City. Sales of their last album Be Here Now have fallen far below its predecessor, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, while their tour of Australia and New Zealand was a PR disaster.
Meanwhile, the much-derided Spice Girls - happy, smiley, hardworking professionals that they are - have defied the doom-merchants who predicted that their film and concerts would flop.
It is, of course, in the nature of things that self-indulgent aristos are replaced by cool, rational puritans. The true image of the coming age may not be Gazza and his mates out boozing, but of that former drink- driver Tony Adams contemplating poetry and tickling the ivories.
It is a prospect that must fill the tabloid newspaper editors with shock and horror.Reuse content