Gascoigne consigns the 'daft times' to history

There is a religious element to the wayward midfielder's latest career move - for what he seeks at Everton is footballing redemption
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Paul Gascoigne is late. We have arranged to meet at the Everton training ground, Bellefield, at 4.30pm, but it has gone five and still there is no sign of him. The Everton press officer utters a remark not along the lines of "Stone the crows! This is out of character! Normally you can set your watch by Gazza!" And at 5.35 our man finally arrives, looking, I am delighted to report, lean and fit.

Paul Gascoigne is late. We have arranged to meet at the Everton training ground, Bellefield, at 4.30pm, but it has gone five and still there is no sign of him. The Everton press officer utters a remark not along the lines of "Stone the crows! This is out of character! Normally you can set your watch by Gazza!" And at 5.35 our man finally arrives, looking, I am delighted to report, lean and fit.

Evertonians broadly divide into two camps over the signing of Gascoigne. There are those who roll their eyes and say that it is bound to end, not inappropriately, in tears. Then there are those who think that maybe, just maybe, the volatile 33-year-old can provide the odd spark of creative midfield genius lacking at Goodison Park since the heyday of Reid, Bracewell and Sheedy. I am not embarrassed to admit that - encouraged by his spectacular goal in Everton's 5-0 defeat of Plymouth Argyle on Monday evening - I fall into the latter camp.

More significantly, so does the vice-chairman, Bill Kenwright, who supported manager Walter Smith's risky declaration of faith in Britain's most wayward footballing genius since George Best. If anyone can squeeze out what remains of a rare talent, Smith can. At Rangers he exulted in the best of Gascoigne and coped resourcefully with the worst. The best in the form of some exquisite goals, a couple of which Gascoigne still cites in his personal top five. "There was one when I ran the length of the park against Aberdeen, and a header against Celtic," he says, although he broke Celtic and Rangers hearts alike with his all-time favourite, the devastating volley for England against Scotland in Euro 96.

As for the worst of Gascoigne, or at any rate the most pathetic, the story goes that Smith was at home one Christmas morning when his star player rang in tears. His entourage, Jimmy Five-Bellies and co, had all gone home to be with their families over Christmas, but Gazza had to stay put because Rangers had a game on Boxing Day. He was lonely and distraught. So Smith invited him over and Mrs Smith hurriedly set an extra place for Christmas dinner. I know a Presbyterian clergyman who uses that story as a parable of the man who has everything - phenomenal talent, enormous wealth, the devotion of tens of thousands of fans - and yet has nothing. Which might be pitching it a bit strong, as Presbyterian clergymen are wont to do, but there is some truth in there somewhere. And while we're at it, there does seem to be an almost religious dimension to Gascoigne's latest career move. For what he seeks, in essence, is footballing redemption.

"If I can keep a clean nose and work hard on the training ground, who knows? And until Kevin Keegan or the next manager says 'Paul, you'll never play for England again' then I haven't ruled that out, either. But for now my ambition is to play for Everton Football Club, and the only problem I want to give the gaffer is a selection problem, by forcing him to find room for me. Bill Kenwright has given me a book about Everton v Liverpool derbies. I've read some of that and really enjoyed it. And the fans have been great so far. I'm really looking forward to the new season."

All the same, he must admit that his celebrated talent - celebrated over the years, in particular, by fans of Newcastle United, Tottenham, Lazio, Rangers and Middlesbrough, not to mention England - is on the wane? "Well, I wasn't ever the quickest guy on the pitch, but I can get about the park no problem and I can still give 110 per cent. I've always done that. If I hadn't then I wouldn't get all these daft injuries. The main thing for me is not to give the ball away. And my aim overall is to enjoy my football again. To be like a kid, but a kid on the pitch, like I was years ago, playing with a smile on my face.

"It's not that easy any more, though. The rules are so incredible now on things like shirt-pulling and tackling from behind and I'm glad I've only got a couple of years left because shortly it won't be football any more. I mean, we get massive fines, but what happens when a ref makes a wrong decision? What punishment does he take? I'm not suggesting a fine but they don't even get overruled, not even when a player gets sent off for no reason and banned for six games. And that's his living we're talking about."

I interrupt this impassioned outburst to ask why he left Middlesbrough, and why he expects to deliver for Smith when, latterly, he could not deliver for Bryan Robson, another manager for whom he has tremendous respect? He eyes me uneasily, then sidesteps the question. "Things were OK with Boro. I'd enjoyed my holiday and I had a year left on my contract. I went there to get them up, and they went up, and the next season they finished in their highest position for 75 years. But then things didn't go too well for me because of injuries.

"Bryan Robson said he'd put me on a free [transfer] and I told my agent, Mel Stein, to see if Everton were interested. Walter said he might be and it went from there. He asked me how I was, and whether I was up for a new challenge."

He does not seem to bear a grudge against Robson for encouraging him to move on. On the contrary, when I invite him to name the footballers who have inspired him, only Johan Cruyff - "different class!" - gets a mention before Robson. "Back and forth scoring goals, three broken legs, two broken collar-bones, incredible. To me, he stood out a mile."

Fair enough, but what of Robson as a manager? After all, it is no secret that he enjoys the occasional alcoholic beverage. Might Gascoigne not have been better off at a club run by a hardline teetotaller? A hardening of those blue eyes indicates that he does not appreciate the question.

"Have you ever seen Robbo getting pissed with his players? He's a good professional. He must be to have got so many England caps, to have taken Boro from being dead and buried to where they are now. Like any other manager you've got to be fair with him, otherwise he'll fine you. Walter's the same. It was fantastic working with him at Rangers. I won five medals there and people say it's easy with Rangers because they win everything, but the training sessions were so hard it was unbelievable. It was like training for a cup final every day because, believe me, it's tough when people expect you to be three up by half-time in everysingle game.

"But you can still have a beer at the right time with Walter, although actually I don't touch beer. I enjoy a glass of wine but I'm not a great drinker. I can't handle my drink brilliantly, that's all. And I'm not interested in clubbing anymore. I went clubbing once at Rangers and twice at Lazio, that's all. A few times at Tottenham, yeah. But I won't be going clubbing here, that's for sure. You can write that. I've had my daft times, but I've got a challenge on my hands here and I've got to be careful."

Indeed. Smith has reportedly warned him that his two-year contract will be shredded if he steps out of line, on the pitch or off, and it is hardly as though he can expect to transgress off the pitch without word reaching the manager. The hated press will make sure of that.

Gascoigne gives very few interviews these days. He is almost neurotically wary of journalists and understandably so. I know for a fact that after first joining Middlesbrough, a tabloid newspaper paid for a reporter and photographer to stay in the same hotel for as long as it took to dish the dirt on Gazza. The reporter was male, the photographer female, so that they might pass as an ordinary couple. And the photographer was armed only with a humble Canon Sureshot. That way, when she photographed Gazza in a compromising situation, preferably legless in a bar, she could pretend to be a fan taking an innocent snap. Except there were no compromising situations. Gascoigne trained hard, stayed sober and went to bed alone. The pair stayed in Middlesbrough for three weeks before finally admitting defeat.

All of which explains and excuses the following rant, which puts me in mind of the old one-liner that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you: "Even when I don't go out the papers will say I've been out. If have a glass of orange it's gin and orange, a glass of Coke and it's Bacardi and Coke. I get followed by the news guys more than any other player. The other lads are free to enjoy themselves, but I'm worrying all the time about what's going to be in the papers the next day. And if the team gets beat it's my fault. I've had to carry that around for years.

"Sometimes it's depressing, knowing that you can't sit and relax. It's ridiculous. Like when I went out before the [1998] World Cup. There were lots of players out that night. I was out until 11.30, had a kebab, and some guy took a photo with a camera that must have cost him £1.99. The papers got me thrown out of the World Cup more than anything."

Glenn Hoddle had a hand in it, too, though, then told us in his ill-judged diaries that Gazza took the news of his omission from the final 22 somewhat intemperately, let's say. I do not expect him to shed much more light on that episode, not when an autobiography is in the pipeline, but you can't blame a chap for trying. "You'll have to get my book for that," he says. "But I won't slaughter Glenn Hoddle, I'll just tell the truth."

What did he think of England in Euro 2000? "I didn't watch it. I saw about half an hour of one of the games, because I knew if I watched it I'd feel like I'd never got a break from football. I felt sorry for Keegan that they didn't gel as a team, but he took the blame himself and that took some courage. A lot of managers would blame the players. It took a hell of a lot of guts for him to take the blame, especially the way our fans and our media are. And if anyone can make England bounce back, Keegan can."

Can anyone make Gazza bounce back, though? A couple of hours after our chat he trots out at Prenton Park in a friendly game against Tranmere Rovers, and there follows almost a parody of a Gazza performance, complete with sublime touches, rash challenges, two stitches in the head and a hasty substitution.

The Everton fans chant "There's only one Paul Gascoigne" as though he has illuminated their midfield for years. The Tranmere fans, celebrating a 2-0 lead, sing "Gazza, Gazza, what's the score?" Afterwards, I grab five more minutes with him. I switch on my tape-recorder. He passes wind, loudly. A huge grin lights up his face. I ask what he will do when all this is over.

"Maybe management. I'll talk to people like Walter Smith, Arthur Cox, Brian Clough, Terry Venables, and see how they got started. Maybe I'll go and play a bit in America. There are some business-type ideas, too. Them Lineker's Bars have been successful. Maybe I'll start some Gazza's Bars. Or maybe I'll go and work with [theatrical impresario] Bill Kenwright. Get an Oscar with Bill Kenwright. That would be nice."