Let’s be honest. Many of us tuned in to BT Sport at 10am on Sunday because we thought we were in with a chance of witnessing a car crash. After all, Paul Gascoigne was on.
Gazza: the player as famous for his drink problems as his wonderful moments on the pitch and whose only appearances in the media recently have been because of an alleged relapse or binge.
Fletch and Sav seemed like a nailed-on, watch-through-fingers, voyeuristic extravaganza.
Boy, were we wrong. He looked well. Sure, he had a greying goatee that made him look like a barbecue-loving blues-rock fan from the Deep South of the USA, but apart from that he looked healthy, was lucid, full of stories and, for the most part, very funny.
And, no doubt to BT’s relief, he behaved himself, apart from one “slip of the tongue”, as the host Darren Fletcher put it, when he was recounting a story about pretending to have Tourette’s syndrome. Not that we heard it – the show was broadcast on a slight delay and, thanks to a fast-fingered technician, we got a second’s silence followed by guttural guffawing from Ian Wright.
The Tourette’s story was by no means the best anecdote of the morning. That accolade must go to the one about him offering to help the Tottenham groundsman deal with a pigeon infestation at White Hart Lane.
“I asked him how to get up there to the pigeons, then I just climbed up on to the roof,” Gascoigne said. “I heard them going ‘coo coo’ then I heard a crack. I only had time to look down when I fell through the roof down on to the stairs, about 30 feet below.
“I had bruises all the way down from my arm down my side. I had to tell the boss, ‘Sorry, I can’t train today’.”
One which came a close second was the one about when he saw Colin Hendry, the former Scotland player Gascoigne ghosted past in Euro ’96 to score a wonder goal.
“I bumped into him in London recently,” he said. “Colin said, ‘What are you doing in London? I thought you lived in Bournemouth.’ I replied, ‘What are you doing here? I thought I left you at Wembley’.”
Then there was the one about when he first started at Newcastle: “I was on 25 quid a week. Me mam was on 35 a week and she wasn’t even playing for the Toon.”
Gascoigne’s demons are clearly still only just below the surface and he began the show by saying he was “fighting back”.
Fletcher introduced the former player by saying how good it was to see him “on the up”, which prompted Gascoigne to launch into an angry attack on how he has been portrayed in the press.
“What they have been writing about me is scandalous,” he said. “I went into a shop, Oddbins, the other day for a packet of fags and the next thing I read is that I was drunk, or betting, or whatever. These are lies that keep coming. I am enjoying life.”
Even so, he still appears fragile, underlined by two incidents in the 75-minute show.
First, when he was speaking about signing for Tottenham, he recounted how Terry Venables, the then manager, told him that within a couple of weeks he would be playing for England. Gascoigne stopped, fighting back tears. “That is all I wanted to do, was play for my country,” he said, his voice quavering.
Then, late in the show, Fletcher asked him if he still wishes he could play. The answer Gascoigne gave was heartbreaking.
“I was in tears last week, talking to my sister and my dad,” he said. “I was feeling a bit lonely. I miss football. That is why I find it hard going to games; I always think, ‘That could have been me’. I sit there and wonder how I would have dealt with a certain incident.”
Russell Brand, who was the other big-name guest but very much in the shadow of Gascoigne – and, to his credit, reeled in his self-centred, pseudo-intellectual schtick and was surprisingly reserved – put his arm around the former player.
“But you gave the game those moments,” Brand said. “You gave every fan, even ones from opposing teams, those moments which will live for ever. You mustn’t feel sad, because even though your body can’t do it any more they are still in everyone’s memories.”
Brand, a West Ham fan, had earlier said that Gascoigne was a “totemic figure”, prompting a sheepish “top man, cheers” from the man himself.
“The only time I would come to White Hart Lane without a full disguise, without being all hijabbed up, would be if Paul Gascoigne was here,” Brand continued.
Gascoigne appeared genuinely flattered, if ill-equipped to handle the praise.
This, his fragility and the genuine warmth and humour with which he delivered his stories of his career made the show one you couldn’t tear your eyes away from.
Whether he will appear elsewhere is anybody’s guess – the fact he doesn’t watch football rules him out of punditry – but it was good to see him on the box again, “enjoying life”.Reuse content