Steve Tongue: Drifter's escape - Gazza sparks new hope with the Kettering connection

'What he should do is knuckle down to pass his coaching badges. Gazza's actually quite a disciplined person'
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The Independent Football

First came Mark Ward, once a spiky little midfield player for West Ham United and Everton, now sent to prison for eight years on drugs charges; as George Best was taken into intensive care, there was news he might have heeded that Jason Kaminsky, released by Nottingham Forest after one senior appearance under Brian Clough, had drunk himself to death aged 31; and then there was Paul Gascoigne.

Fifteen years after the tears of a clown in Turin made football fashionable again, bringing back a million spectators in two seasons, Gazza is part of a consortium being put together by Imraan Ladak, a 27- year-old Tottenham supporter from Milton Keynes, who has been casting around for a club for some time.

Unable to come to an agreement with Peterborough United, he moved down the A605 and down a couple of Leagues to the Conference North and settled on the cheaper option of Kettering Town. On the face of it, a tale of glad tidings for Gascoigne, who has not had many to report since winding down his playing career with Everton and Burnley (six games). Oh, and Gansu Tianma in China (four games). And Wolves reserves (four games). And Boston United (four games).

Is a pattern developing there? Perhaps that is why this latest venture - expected to be tied up within the next fortnight - prompts a feeling of foreboding, and inevitable comparisons with Best, drifting through the divisions via Hibernian and Bournemouth and Dunstable Town, or Jimmy Greaves in midfield for Barnet, as the demon alcohol began to kick back with the force of a Norman Hunter tackle.

Then there is the depressingly familiar story of famous footballer putting capital into a new venture that somehow does not work out. This, after all, is someone who reckons to have "frittered or given away" about £8 million in his time, a quarter of it to his wife Sheryl in their divorce settlement; who, when a previous business failed to make any money, was offered a shop, a cafe and some cars as compensation - and simply gave them away to friends because he did not want the aggravation.

At least, optimists will say, Gascoigne still has some money to invest. That is largely because of the success of his recent autobiography, which reached No 1 in the hardback and paperback lists, earning in excess of £1m.

His ghostwriter, Hunter Davies, has mixed feelings about Kettering, since the pair are supposed to be starting work on a new book, due out next year, but he insists: "What Gazza should do is knuckle down to passing his coaching badges before or perhaps during his time at Kettering. He's actually quite a disciplined person. He's also incredibly fit."

That may lead Gascoigne to believe he can play in Conference North football, which supporters and the club's treasurer would certainly relish. Mark Bulley, the chair of the Kettering Town Supporters' Trust, who met the potential new owner Ladak last Wednesday, says: "I think Gazza wants to get himself in shape and sharpened up, because it's a tough old League, there's a few bruisers in it and you don't want to see him struggling.

"I think it'll happen, though he won't rush into it. Imraan played six-a-side with him recently and he's obviously still very talented."

His new agent, Jane Morgan, says her client is currently "full of beans" (bad news for anyone standing downwind of him) and that it is "not necessarily the case" that his playing days are done. That acknowledgment is perhaps the hardest for any old pro to accept, which is why the Professional Footballers' Association and its chief executive, Gordon Taylor, are so keen to stress that, with luck, there is a lot of life to be negotiated afterwards. The PFA now offer courses in physio-therapy, sports science and the media as well as coaching and management, and non-related topics such as becoming a commercial pilot.

"I don't want to be too doom-and-gloomy, but for a lot of players who suddenly come to the end, it's very difficult, especially for someone like Paul, who's so hyperactive," Taylor said. "They can have drink problems, marriage break-ups and all sorts.

"My own members often don't appreciate that fact, when I'm trying to tell them that it's an average eight-year career and there's a new life after football. When all your contemporaries in other careers are halfway up the ladder or at the top of it, you start at the bottom again.

"Paul being Paul, you can never quite be sure if he'll settle to it, though he does want to stay in the game. I've had a lot of contact with him, we paid for more than one of his operations, and I've got a lot of time for him. I just hope it can work out this time and that he's got the ability to settle and bring some sort of stability back to his life."