WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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The Independent Online
NATIONAL tragedies always bring out the best in newspapers, but two on the same day posed a difficult problem. Was it to be "Hod Axes Gazza" or "Spices lose their Ginger" on the front page? Unanimously, the press opted for Gazza. There had not been a better public execution since JR was shot in Dallas. Anyway, football is more important than music, and a man in tears is a better story than a woman in a rage.

Monday's Telegraph explained it as "Gascoigne sent home as Hoddle picks Cup squad"; the Mirror as, "Ruthless Hod dumps Gazza". Generally, the tone of Monday's papers was valedictory, with long career, kebab and boozing retrospectives, complete with all those silly photographs of Gazza sticking his tongue out or crying.

For the Independent he was "the talismanic England footballer" who "last night paid the ultimate price for his controversial lifestyle". For the Telegraph, he had been "England's inspiration in the 1990 World Cup". The Times saw him as "the mascot as well as clown of the squad" but had no doubt that Hoddle had done the right thing: "Undisciplined prima donnas are unfit for team sports," its leading article sternly declared. "His dropping is a salutary revision in the old-fashioned lessons of team spirit, discipline and unselfishness."

The tabloids were more emotional. In a cumbersome allusion to Gazza's recent match in Casablanca, the Express said that "Glenn Hoddle has brought to an abrupt end the most frequently held debate in all the bars in all the towns in all the World Cup-gripped country". Gazza was clearly distraught, devastated, drained, tired, furious, upset, berserk ... only the sick parrot was missing from the standard list of cliches. The Sun, in an Armageddon- sized front-page headline, announced "Gazza Axed" and pages two and three stressed the "sorrow of the jinxed genius". What the other papers had called the final booze-up that sealed his fate was, for the Sun, "a few glasses of wine with the squad as they let their hair down briefly. For Gazza it was the last supper - the night before the axe fell". The Mirror saw Gazza's current problems as the "biggest test of his life" and quoted "a top psychologist" as saying that "Gazza could spiral out of control if he turns to booze".

And that was all just Monday's reaction. As the week wore on, and the analysts got their teeth into the case of this tortured genius, more profound banalities emerged. "Gascoigne just ran out of gas," the Telegraph concluded. "The Middlesbrough midfielder's fitness had been compromised by his lifestyle." A leading article in the same paper saw "a touch of melancholy" in the news that he would not be competing in the World Cup. "In the tears of the rejected footballer, we see the anguish of one not now in the flush of youth." The leader in the Independent was less sympathetic: "Paul Gascoigne was simply not fit enough to play for England." In the same paper, Suzanne Moore blamed the eulogising of "this ape" for the alienation of so many young men: "He should have been out of the game a long time ago. What does it say about the football establishment when it is far more acceptable to abuse your wife than to abuse the odd kebab?" The Express spread the responsibility for Gazza's sacking beyond the manager's personal decision: "Gazza fell to player revolt," it claimed, saying that "several senior stars told coach Glenn Hoddle they were upset with Gascoigne's behaviour around the team's hotel in Spain".

The firmest boot was put in by Richard Littlejohn in the Sun - somewhat surprisingly, since that was the paper that had paid Gascoigne for his exclusive thoughts about being dropped: "If England were looking to Paul Gascoigne for a little bit of magic, they'd be better off taking Paul Daniels to France ... we are, after all, talking about a man capable of going three rounds with a urinal. A lowlife thug who battered seven sacks out of his own wife." The Mirror, however, thought it was affection for his estranged wife that had been responsible for the latest bout of bad behaviour: "He went berserk with jealousy over Sheryl's new man."

There were fewer theories to account for the other national loss, the defection from the Spice Girls of the only one actually named after something from the spice cupboard. The Guardian saw it as "Girl power failure as Ginger quits Spice Girls" and saw the move as "plunging thousands of teenagers into despair and the four remaining band members into uncertainty and possible legal turmoil". The Times asked "Can this be the end?", and promptly answered itself, "No, but watch this Spice". The Express quoted "sources close to the band" as predicting that the group would split after their latest tour. The Telegraph, however, predicted "Split may be new beginning for Spice Girls". The Daily Mail asked: "Can anything save the Spite Girls?" and painted a picture of general bitchiness and backbiting that led to the split. But the Sport, in a "Spice Exclusive", said "Geri quits in nude pics bust-up", and published the photos as evidence.

All of which left little room for William Hague's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. "Hague stakes leadership on sharp right turn," was how the Independent saw it, but asked whether the return of "Two Brains" David Willett and Ann "Doris Karloff" Widdecombe was a return to "Yesterday's men or a Tory tomorrow". The Times saw the new line-up as stronger, but predicted that Hague "will be engaged in Shadow Cabinet reshuffles for some years to come". The Sun was unimpressed. "Sell me the same old Tory" was its headline, while the Mirror confined itself to a very brief mention headed "No-hopers for Hague".

The Mirror also distinguished itself, in a sense, in a piece on the spat about inviting Gerry Adams to a garden party with Prince Charles. The story was headed with four photographs, each with a one-word description and a name. They went: BOYCOTT: Adams; GUEST: Charles; GAFFE: Mowlam; and BOMB: Mountbatten. Dear dear dear.

The Guardian had the week's most unlucky juxtaposition. Readers of Wednesday's paper were given an account of the theft of some 5,000 cobblestones from Brecon Street in Liverpool - a bold robbery using a mechanical excavator. Then, on turning the page, they could read the headline: "Britain has 'safest roads'".

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