Brian Viner: The footballer formerly known as Gazza - or just plain daft, by any other name

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The Independent Football

Never mind David Beckham, what are we to make of this week's news about another England footballing hero fallen from grace; that Paul Gascoigne, in the hope of being taken more seriously, wishes to change his name? Maybe it's understandable. As Gazza he is associated with lachrymosity, alcoholism, wife-beating, fake breasts, 3am kebabs, Jimmy "Five Bellies", and belching into microphones.

On the other hand, we also associate the name Gazza with a sublime ability to play football. All of which explains why he sensibly called his autobiography Gazza - My Story. And a thoroughly good read it is too, incidentally, especially page 331, where your columnist gets a mention (excitingly, I'm one of a quartet of Vs in the index, along with Terry Venables, Marco Van Basten and Gazza's mate Vinny ... just think what a diamond formation we would make, assuming us all to be on top of our games).

Presumably, Gazza hopes his book will continue to sell, while at the same time wanting to wipe his past from his future. He intends to forge a career in management, but thinks that his reputation might hold him back. So he has hit on a way of disassociating himself from that reputation, which is to give himself a new first name, and to stop answering to Gazza.

He is also being coached in how to project his voice, and is taking elocution lessons, the objective being "to calm me Geordie accent down and make me talk slower so as people can understand us".

Pardon? On the one occasion I interviewed Gazza, in a dressing-room at the Everton training ground, Bellefield, I found him beguiling, funny and surprisingly insightful, although there was also something he said that I played over and over on my tape-recorder and still could not comprehend. Frustratingly, it was followed by a huge, mad laugh, so I knew it was worth transcribing, but to this day I don't know whether it was a joke about football or vasectomies or Scotsmen or sheep, or none, or even all, of the above. I can see, therefore, why he wants to become more comprehensible to those of us not from Tyneside.

But the name-changing thing is a different matter. It reminds me of the old Monty Python joke, that Mr Arthur Penis would like to let it be known to his friends and relatives that he wishes henceforth to be known as Mr Art Penis. Gazza can drop the Paul and even the Gascoigne, but he can't stop us forever thinking of him as daft old Gazza. To stop being daft would probably be more helpful in his pursuit of a new image.

Still, the story got me thinking about other changes of identity in sport. There was Andy Cole, of course, who decided we should all refer to him as Andrew. Fundamentally, his motives were the same as Gazza's: he thought that a slightly different name might procure him slightly more respect. But it just made him a laughing-stock. Gazza, take heed.

The most radical name change in sporting history, and the most successful, was that of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. That was an appropriately pugnacious political manoeuvre, made in March 1964, two weeks after the 22-year-old had destroyed Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight boxing champion. Clay, under the spell of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, said he wanted to cast off a name that had been given to his slave forebears by their owners. The truth was that Elijah Muhammad had forced the change on him; he had always been fond of his name. "Makes you think of the Colosseum and those Roman gladiators," he once said. "Cassius Marcellus Clay. Say it to yourself: it's a beautiful name."

Nevertheless, the sporting world duly embraced Muhammad Ali, as it did Billie Jean King and Margaret Court, who discarded the names with which they had become famous in much more prosaic fashion, by getting married. There is a strong tradition of this in tennis, although I cannot be the only person who gave a little sigh of regret when exotic Miss Goolagong became plain Mrs Cawley.

The late Dan Maskell had particular reason to lament the tendency of female tennis professionals to adopt their husbands' names, for it caused him no end of confusion in the commentary box. "Oh, a peach of a volley by Miss Evert ... Mrs Lloyd, rather," the old boy would say on a regular basis.

Indeed, anyone new to tennis and listening to Maskell at that time could have been forgiven for thinking that the former Miss Evert had become Mrs Lloyd Rather. Later still, after she had married the skier Andy Mill, he came to know her as Miss Evert Mrs Lloyd Mrs Mill Rather. It is perhaps a blessing that he died before Arantxa Sanchez Vicario went down the aisle.