Football: Our fallible friends in the North-east

As Teesside honours an absent great, today's local hero confronts the demons that threaten his career
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TEESSIDE will be honouring its most celebrated sporting son tomorrow morning. A plaque is to be unveiled outside a council house in Middlesbrough commemorating the fact that Brian Clough spent his formative years at No 11 Valley Gardens on the Grove Hill estate. Middlesbrough Town Council and the Middlesbrough Heritage Group, who have jointly organised the venture, are not certain whether Clough himself will be able to attend. Down the road at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough Football Club are not certain when Teesside's cause celebre of an adopted sporting son will be able to attend for work.

There is an ironic timing in the feting of Clough and the fate which has befallen Paul Gascoigne. Both, once upon a time, were famed for intoxicating the football masses. More latterly they have become more renowned for being intoxicated.

Not until four years ago did Clough publicly admit to what he called a "drinking habit", when he felt moved to denounce reports portraying him as a drink-sodden recluse close to death's door. "I am supposed to have drunk more alcohol than the breweries and distilleries could produce," he said at the time. It is known, however, that Clough has been a heavy drinker since his playing career was cut down in its prime by a cruciate ligament injury - ironically, similar to the one from which modern surgery has allowed Gascoigne a second chance. The final straw which led to his departure from the Baseball Ground back in 1973 came when the Derby County board, concerned about his "habit", locked the drinks cabinet in his office.

The Brian Clough story might have been altogether different had the young man fulfilled his rich potential as a natural goalscoring predator for club and country. Then again, he probably would not have ventured into football management with quite the same burning ambition if his right knee had not suffered its fateful collision with the Bury goalkeeper Chris Harker at Roker Park on Boxing Day 1962. Three years later, at the age of 30, Clough was managing Hartlepool United. And such was his eagerness to succeed in the management game he obtained a public vehicle licence so he could drive the team bus. Unlike Gascoigne, who commandeered one of Middlesbrough's club coaches the other week, he was fully qualified to do so.

So, as a matter of coincidence, was Jackie Milburn. Towards the end of his playing days, he acquired a 29-seater Bedford coach and started a family business running day excursions. He drove the vehicle himself. Unlike both Gascoigne and Clough, however, Milburn was never driven to drink. He kept whisky and sherry on his sideboard but would tell visitors to his Ashington home: "Help yourself. I never touch the stuff myself." His unhappy spell in football management came to an end when he resigned at Ipswich after discovering his players had been out on the town the night before a vital game.

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Milburn's funeral. While Gascoigne was drying out at the Marchwood Priory Clinic and Clough's name was being engraved on the Valley Road plaque, the north-east of England was remembering its favourite football son. Milburn might not have been as skilful a player as Gascoigne, nor as adept a manager as Clough, but he was, without doubt, the region's best-loved football man. His death prompted something like a state funeral. Thousands of mourners lined the 20-mile route of the cortege from Ashington, the Northumberland town famed for its mining, to St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle.

Ten years later, Milburn's statue stands at the entrance to St James' Park. His name is borne by the main stand at Newcastle United's ground. And on match days there his photograph can be found proudly on display in the press room. Kath Cassidy brings it with her to every game and hangs it on its appointed hook before attending to her duties as the finest tea lady in the land. Milburn was one of the football greats - an England centre-forward and fulcrum of Newcastle's three FA Cup winning teams in the 1950s - but he was always considered to be a man of the people, "Wor Jackie", as he remains affectionately known on Tyneside.

He started his working life as a colliery fitter and genuinely considered himself fortunate to earn his living on a football field. He was blessed with a natural modesty Clough never possessed and, unlike Gascoigne, he was a contented, settled soul off the pitch. His one vice eventually killed him. A smoker, he died of lung cancer at the age of 68. But Milburn's idea of a good night was sitting at home with his family, reading Raymond Chandler thrillers and listening to the crooning Nat King Cole. He liked to go out before every big match - but to the cinema, with the specific intention of taking his mind off the next day. He was always in bed by 10.30pm.

Milburn could not have been more different in his social life from Gascoigne or, indeed, the man who had the most marked influence on his career. Hughie Gallacher would wait for Milburn outside St James' Park and give him an appraisal of his performance in every game he played there. Gallacher was the firebrand Scottish goal poacher who shot Newcastle to their last title, in 1927. He was once suspended for kicking a referee into a bath. He was known to pop into the Strawberry Inn outside St James' Park for a pre-match pint. And he was charged with being "drunk and disorderly" on a football field; a Football Association inquiry accepted his explanation that he had swigged scotch before a tour game in Budapest because it was such a hot day.

Gallacher was the Gascoigne of his day. One day he would be brawling on the High Level Bridge; the next he would be giving his best overcoat to a tramp in Newcastle Central Station. The son of an Orangeman, he was even shot at by a sniper while in Belfast to play for the Scottish League. "It seems I still haven't taught the Irish to shoot straight," he famously remarked. In 1957, at the age of 54, Gallacher stepped into the path of the Edinburgh to York express train at Gateshead - not far from Dunston, the suburb that remains Gascoigne's family home and where he likes to spend time in the bar-room bosom of his beloved Excelsior social club.

Milburn never came to terms with Gallacher's suicide. "I could never understand how a man who had been idolised by thousands could feel so alone," he said. Those commuters who encountered Gascoigne in a tearful state at Stevenage station nine days ago have no doubt been saying much the same thing. Yet so many idols of the football masses have been down the same track, among them the man who was the local hero when Gascoigne was growing up on Tyneside. Malcolm Macdonald confronted his drink- fuelled demons after his arrest on a drink-driving charge 18 months ago. He still has treatment, paid for by the Professional Footballers' Association.

"The drink is just an escape for Paul," Macdonald said last week. But now Gascoigne, at 31, is seeking to tunnel his way back. If he makes it, he will have achieved his greatest escape.