Football: Diary of the downfall of a tortured talent

The most talented footballer of his generation is in crying need of help as a personality disorder takes hold to deprive his team of a dream player and force his long-suffering coach to run out of forgiveness

SO THE fat boy sang and it was all over. The most gifted English footballer of his generation and a symbol of a lager'n'video nation duly pressed the self-destruct button, as Glenn Hoddle always feared he would and hoped he wouldn't, and a country half-mourned, half-moralised. Life will go on for England in the World Cup but how well? And how now, where now, for Paul Gascoigne?

The time for dancing around the subject and on his footballing grave is gone. To anyone who knows about these things, Gazza is patently suffering from an addictive illness; something far more serious than mere pictures of Teddy Sheringham enjoying a morning out.

Sadly, the national football team has been robbed of a great talent by the ravages of a potential killer disease but more important for the man, Gascoigne looks to be in a desperate, miserable place. He needs help and, crucially, needs to ask for help.

His condition can be seen not just in his public use of alcohol but also in an eating disorder, once chronicled in a book by an associate, Jane Nottage. They may seem unconnected but are different ingredients of the same cocktail of personality disorder.

Then there is the behaviour that goes with it. The wife beating, fuelled by alcohol, has been the obvious outlet of an anger and frustration, possibly at the dying of his sporting light that booze accelerates. Last week, in the furious reaction to his dropping, and the subsequent sad, sanitised version of his six-figure story in the Sun, we saw all the other aspects.

After the rage came the self- pitying tears. With the support system of football stripped from him, it was escape to another, to his estranged wife Sheryl. The next day we read his version of events that veered from the blaming of others to a remorse about his actions. A huge ego revealed a low self-worth; arrogance covered up fear and loneliness.

In the rush to judgement over the past week, it may be forgotten that he exhibits the symptoms of a sick man, not a bad one. One senses that the thought of six weeks in France without a drink and away from his wife filled him with terror. Gazza probably almost had no choice in his actions because addiction takes a person prisoner. Once he had started drinking last Saturday, the conclusion was almost certainly inevitable, because for some the first drink does the damage. Hoddle is probably aware this is an illness that worsens rather than gets better unless a person stops taking the drug of choice. And the signs have been there for a while.

GLENN HODDLE sat in the departure lounge of Berne airport late on a chilly Wednesday night in March, nursing a cold and sipping coffee as he began answering the inevitable Paul Gascoigne questions. This despite the fact that Gazza had not even played against Switzerland. Hoddle and his sidekick, the FA's director of public affairs, David Davies, sometimes have a private bet about how long it will be before the name that dare not speak except for money crops up.

Yes, Hoddle agreed, England had missed the spark of invention that a fully fit and integrated Gascoigne can provide. He had been keeping tabs on his progress and there were hopeful signs. "He has come a long, long way. You can see a maturity in his play," said Hoddle. "But I don't feel you are ever out of the woods. He can easily slip back into his ways again given the opportunity."

There was no hint, though, that Hoddle doubted Gascoigne as a player. In fact, he spoke of him being one of the few at his disposal who had proved themselves at the highest level. He had always done well when he had played under Hoddle, most notably in Rome against Italy on the night of qualification for France 98 when he responded to the atmosphere and occasion with a canny display of ball retention and accurate passing. Furthermore, Gascoigne was the only member of the likely 22, he added, with experience of a World Cup finals.

It had been this way ever since Georgia in November 1996, when Hoddle picked Gascoigne despite a clamour for his head after the episode when he hit Sheryl in a Scottish hotel. Forgiveness was Hoddle's credo, and Gascoigne did appear to be seeking it. Always, though, Hoddle made it plain that he carried a small stick behind his back and behind the offering of the carrot. In hindsight, the indication that Hoddle might swap it for a large rod came with a Radio 5 Live interview just three weeks ago.

"Certain things worry me," he said, "and in certain things I still see he has genius in him. I've always said we're not out of the woods with Paul and I've said he has to go 50-50 with me. I've gone on record as stating that there has been a problem."

By now, Gascoigne had started smoking again, as first revealed in these columns, a habit he had taken up in Italy when he played for Lazio. Hoddle was not best pleased, but still defended him. It became more difficult after he was pictured on the town with his drinking cronies Danny Baker and Chris Evans, eating a kebab at 2am shortly before England were due to meet up to go to their pre-tournament training base in Spain and play two games in Morocco. Consequently, against his own wishes, Gascoigne was put before the press when England did join up, insisting that he had 27 days to get fit and would do so. It never occurred to him that if he didn't, he would go home.

Last Friday I asked Hoddle if he would have retained Gascoigne had he said on the Sunday he was omitted that he was trying his best to get fit and would now knuckle down. "Two weeks before he had the chance to do that," Hoddle replied.

Hoddle was clearly coming to his reluctant conclusion about Gascoigne after the game in Casablanca against Belgium on the Friday night 10 days ago, but no one thought then he would leave out Gazza. A few of the press party had discussed the possibility a couple of nights earlier but it was quickly discounted. His skill and ingenuity were needed, as evidenced by lacklustre displays without him.

Hoddle's comments were tinged with ambiguity. "People have asked me in the past if he'd ever come back fully but I think he's given his answer on the pitch," he said in the bowels of the Muhammed V Stadium. "He needs to get fitter and sharper but he's worked extremely hard and he's still got time. Whether he's somebody we feel is right and ready we'll have to wait and see." He didn't have to wait and see much longer.

THE ENGLAND players were sunbathing beside the pool at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, La Manga, waiting to be called one by one for the talk with Hoddle that would tell them whether they were in or out of his squad of 22. There was an almost touchable tension in the air; I know, because I was walking past on the way to the nearby first tee of the North golf course and when an England player moved to shake hands to speak to me, a security guard intervened after the exchange of a few pleasantries.

The mood, we know now, was generated not only by the anxieties of the players on this day of the long knives - one which in retrospect may not have been healthy for anybody - but because of what was unfolding behind the scenes with Gazza.

First summoned to Hoddle's room, at 4.30pm local time, was David Seaman, Hoddle having rethought his original plan to go and visit the six to be dropped in favour of speaking to everyone. Gascoigne's turn was at 5.15pm. Until around 4pm, he had been on the golf course, playing with Seaman, Ian Walker and Philip Neville, Hoddle keen that he should exercise the dead leg he received against Belgium on the Friday night.

It was on the course, Gascoigne admits, that he bought cans of beer from a drinks trolley but the effects seemed not then to have kicked in.

Indeed he scored a remarkable 45 points in a stableford competition, playing off a handicap of 26. By 4pm, though, Gascoigne was somewhat tired and I understand that he was persuaded to have a swim in the pool to freshen himself ready to meet Hoddle at 5pm. Come the appointed hour, the meeting lasted just a few minutes, Hoddle simply telling him of his decision. They shook hands but an angry Gascoigne admits to kicking furniture - cutting his leg in the process - before seeing his best friends, Seaman and Paul Ince.

Both dissuaded him from returning to see Hoddle to ask for his place back and instead Seaman helped pack a bag for him. Within an hour he was on his way to the airport along with the other five released players - Ian Walker, Phil Neville, Dion Dublin, Andy Hinchcliffe and Nicky Butt. Three hours later, he was stepping through the door of Sheryl's house in Hertfordshire.

Gascoigne's weekend drinking and state of mind are thought to have originated the previous Thursday when he saw a newspaper article reporting that Sheryl had been seen in the company of another man. It is understood he subsequently made frequent telephone calls to England, and he could be seen making one on a mobile from the pitch in Casablanca pre-match on the Friday. Hoddle apparently told him to turn the phone off. "There were certain personal things that were in his mind and when your mind is not straight, that hinders you as well," Hoddle would say later in the week.

That night, Hoddle defended Gascoigne's performance, because, he now says, "I wanted to encourage him, to give him positive signs", as he had done after the Morocco match when he pointed out how Gascoigne had got forward for two chances in the last few minutes. As he had done throughout the build-up. It was nowemerging that Gascoigne was not one of the 20 whom Hoddle had seen as certainties when the trip began.

The coach's reservations had merely grown over the week, and were now serious, mainly because Gascoigne had sustained yet another injury five minutes into the second half against Belgium, quite apart from the cut head, which was accidental. The knock came, Hoddle would point out, because Gascoigne was simply not sharp enough to evade a challenge.

Once the players had flown back to La Manga from Casablanca that Friday night - it was Gazza's 31st birthday - Hoddle watched the video of the game and it confirmed to him that Gascoigne was too far behind the fitness of others to deserve to go. "He didn't show us enough and you could see that yourself."

Thus, Hoddle insists, the antics that Saturday night when Gascoigne was one of several players who admit being drunk, ultimately counted for nothing. "The decision was a football reason, not a drinking reason," he reiterated. Though he admits to seeing Gascoigne only for five minutes or so that night, Hoddle says: "The staff were all there and it was no problem."

Gazza apparently sang "Wooden Heart" on the karaoke machine in the bar set aside for the England players away from the holidaymakers in the hotel before, he has since said, realising at around 1.30am that he was drunk. He got drunk easily, he claims, not having had a drink for nine days.

Hoddle says he was not disturbed by that night's events, with the players permitted to relax in the way they saw fit after a hard week's work. "But I didn't say I wanted jack, queen, king," said Hoddle. "I wanted one, two , three." Nor was he that perturbed by the Sunday, even though "they knew a drink was off the agenda". Significantly, he does add now: "If he walks in on the Sunday and has had alcohol, it just makes my job so much easier."

It remained for him to explain the decision to the TV cameras the next day on the terrace of the Hyatt Regency, where some 21 hours earlier Gascoigne had been sitting drinking coffee after returning from his round of golf. With his sunglasses taken off to reveal a drained, pained face, Hoddle then sat in the hotel's Grand Ballroom and answered the questions of the daily press. "He just ran out of matches," Hoddle said of Gascoigne. The cynic in you wondered how Gazza would now light his cigarettes. But this was no time for flippancy, not a problem to joke about.

PAUL GASCOIGNE stands at the crossroads of both his life and his career. Yet again. This time, the choice of direction will carry more wide-ranging consequences than ever before. Gazza can go away on holiday, to the United States or wherever, telling everyone to get off his case, then return for the new Premiership season with Middlesbrough and go through the motions, continuing in the same vein as before and probably picking up more injuries as his career sinks to its sorry conclusion. One suspects, though, that the player himself is not happy with his condition and his performances.

The other choice is to acknowledge that an illness has interfered with his life and work, robbing him of his potential as a human being and footballer, and that it is time to address it before it does him yet more - and more dangerous - damage. It is not too late; in fact, at the age of 31, it is quite early.

The temptation will be to take the former path - the easier, softer option - at least until it becomes simply too painful. He can listen again to the hangers-on who tell him that he is a genius and that the fault lies with other people. After all, addiction is the only illness that tells its victims that they don't have it. Alternatively, Gazza can grasp the hand of recovery offered by such brave men as his old England colleagues Tony Adams and Paul Merson, hear how they got off the elevator before it reached the basement and follow the same path. Such a prospect may seem daunting but not to do so may be more daunting still.

Hoddle stops short of saying that he believes Gascoigne may need help - of a more practical nature than the faith healer Eileen Drewery is able to provide - and, perhaps worried by more adverse reaction, possibly legal, he talks of "a deep thing, a private thing". But Hoddle once talked about life being a journey and that if we followed all the right signposts, we would be shown the way.

Thus far, Gascoigne has ignored those signposts. It is to be hoped, however, that Hoddle has done him a huge service by placing one so blatantly in front of his eyes. There is a wondrously talented, kind and generous soul in there - even those who have grown tired of him testify to the fact - and it would be good to see the evidence once again. There is still time for a new song to be sung; it may not yet be all over.

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