Gazza: A cry for help

Paul Gascoigne's latest indiscretion will surprise few people. But, during the harrowing decline of a talent that once shone so brightly, more should have been done to protect a damaged genius from himself, writes James Lawton

Paul Gascoigne already has a signature tune. It's "Fog on the Tyne" and at the peak of his celebrity, in 1990, it reached No 2 in the charts. But then when yesterday you heard that he had spent the night in the cells at a Chelsea police station, another song came to mind. It was the one which goes: "On the Sunday morning sidewalk I'm wishing Lord that I was stoned, there's something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone."

Yesterday happened to be Wednesday but for Gazza you have to fear life has long seemed like a desolate Sunday morning, about which Kris Kristoffersen also wrote: "There ain't nothing short of dying, half as lonesome as the sound of the sleeping city sidewalks, and Sunday morning coming down."

There is nothing much we don't know about the Gazza story now. It is at least as well documented as that of George Best, but just as it was when the great Georgie meandered into fresh crisis, and futility, and for similar reasons - obsessive behaviour and an inability to see celebrity and many of the friends it brought for the dangerous mirage it was - the sadness remains just as acute.

Calling for the rescue of Gazza is no doubt a little like shining a small torch into that fog he celebrated at a happier time. So many people in and out of football have tried, and the truth, even as he became a household name not for the brilliance of his talent but for his teary breakdown in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, was never far from hand. Gascoigne, even at that early stage of the race, was programmed for self-destruction.

But if you knew deep down he was never going to conquer the weakness of his nature, and deliver more than fleeting evidence of a gift that at its best was the most thrilling seen in these isles since the decline of Best and the arrival of Wayne Rooney, it never made the process any less disheartening or painful.

Yesterday, even though it was so soon after his charity mission to Africa had turned into another personal ordeal of an excruciating kind, was no exception. There was the familiar regret about the inevitability of his fate but perhaps also something more, a stabbing question about whether, when it still mattered, when it might, who knows, have been a little more in the balance, something extra could have been done.

Was Gazza delivered a little too easily to his self-elected fate? And if this was so, at least to a small degree, is there anything to learn from his present plight? Does the vigilance that Sir Alex Ferguson successfully applied to the formative stages of Ryan Giggs, say, and his current and thus far largely successful attempts to protect the prodigious Rooney, need to be re-doubled with so much player, not to mention managerial, anarchy in the air?

If Gascoigne's psychological profile, and background, was always deeply worrying, it is still true that not everybody sought to impress upon him the reality of his situation - and the inevitable brevity of the time he would have to show that he was indeed one of the most naturally favoured footballers the world had ever seen.

Even mild criticism of his elevation to the status of a great footballer - as opposed to one of immense promise - drew a fierce reaction. His agent, Mel Stein, shortly before launching into a biography of his client that might have been penned, for all its reserve, by a Hollywood press agent, once invited a sportswriter to lunch so that he would have the chance to explain why he had been so wrong to say that Gascoigne was still in the foothills of Best's stature in the game.

A few years later, when Gascoigne was rejected by the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, on the eve of the 1998 World Cup - and the player promptly rampaged tearfully in the team hotel - a small army of celebrities made angry protests, and were joined by quite a sizeable section of the media. The force of showbiz was formidable in the life of the football superstar, and ebbed only to the point of extinction when the prospect of reflected glory had faded beyond recall.

Though he will do it with the backing of a vast fortune fuelled by years of relentless celebrity, and possibly a knighthood, even David Beckham is having to contemplate the challenge of life in the dwindling afterglow of being at the heart of a media circus. His Real Madrid coach, Fabio Capello, was saying this week that the loss of the England captaincy has inflicted a heavy psychological blow, which was a salutary reminder, if we ever had one, that even footballers infinitely more grounded than Gazza, are in danger of believing their more fanciful publicity.

It is no doubt true that Gascoigne could have been deposited in a Trappist monastery between match-days and still found diverting mischief but this does not alter the fact that because of his ability to make headlines, often at the cost of turning football logic on its head, a certain indulgence was granted to even his most errant behaviour.

At the time of his disappointment at the hands of Hoddle, it was pointed out by an old pro that all the support he received from the showbiz fraternity was essentially worthless. In showbiz you have rehearsals. In professional sport you don't. You have to walk a line that can offend all the instincts of an extremely wealthy, red-blooded young man. You have to get the rest. You have to be ready to deliver now, not in some airily projected future.

Of all his mentors, no doubt Terry Venables got the best out of Gascoigne. As Tottenham manager he put aside the stories of poor discipline and bizarre behaviour and in 1988 invested a then British record £2m in what he saw as uniquely creative talent. Gazza largely flourished at White Hart Lane, right up to the point where he went berserk in a Wembley Cup final.

Soon after that denouement Venables expressed his deepest fears, saying: "I had Diego Maradona when he was a kid at Barcelona and sometimes you saw an expression which made you worry about his future. Sometimes I look at Gazza and see the same thing in his face. I don't worry so much more for him now but 20 years down the road." Frank O'Farrell, then manager of Manchester United, said almost precisely the same thing when Best defected to Marbella and confided to a mob of reporters that he was getting through a bottle of vodka a day.

In their different ways, Best and Gazza were two of a kind. They had been given inordinate talent and not a lot to protect it. It was their burden and football's problem. As the spotlight gets ever brighter, it is one not likely to go away.

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