Gazza: A man-child needs help

while the most gifted footballer of his generation stands at the crossroads of his career again as the detractors close in; Ian Ridley believes the icon of laddishness has some rethinking to do
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The Independent Online
AFTER the goldfish bowl of Wembley, the flounder Paul Gascoigne today swims in the piranha tank of Ibrox for the Glasgow derby against Celtic. Tomorrow, the Scottish FA will consider his version of the events of that teeth-bared match against Aberdeen, in which Taggart's colleagues are also taking an interest. The day after, we might see if there is any substance to the speculation that Rangers are ready to offload him, possibly to Chelsea. And the day after that? Perhaps Gazza himself might consider the next phase of the rest of his career and life.

The icon of laddishness seems to have been at the crossroads, and fallen down on his knees, more times than Eric Clapton, such are the troubled times of the most gifted English footballer of his generation. Now, however, it does seem after mixed reviews for his club and his country that Gascoigne has some rethinking to do. At 28, he probably has three more good years. They take in the European Championship finals in England and the next World Cup.

Thinking may not be an activity readily associated with a figure Bobby Robson once labelled "daft as a brush" - and not a brush with the law - but his footballing brain has ever been eligible for Mensa. This, finally, may be his salvation and the fulfilment of a talent in danger of disintegrating. If he can give the elbow to the worst elements of his old childishness, we may yet see a new man.

The elbow rampant has long been a symbol on the Gascoigne coat of flailing arms, along with foaming pint, Mars bar and sundry other crutches, physical and metaphorical. The instinctive act of the prodigy appears now to have become the desperate weapon of a frustrated natural desperately seeking to compensate for lost pace, reflexes and years. He may not find them - but all need not be lost.

Gascoigne arrived at the England training camp at Bisham Abbey last Monday contrite about the Aberdeen anguish, which included him sticking his head into one opponent's chest and his elbow into another's chin. "Whether it's on the field or off, he's always the first to apologise," said the ever- supportive Terry Venables.

There was also the defiance of the man-child more sinned against. "No one has written that I was spat at and punched or that I've seen the doctor about my ribs and my side," Gascoigne said. The guilt, the remorse and the victim-playing recalled the behaviour and comments of similarly deluded talents and personalities, such as George Best; publicly sorry, privately seething.

As he also said, Gascoigne has clearly been trying too hard, taking too much upon himself. But after 12 operations his body may be finding it too hard trying. Perhaps the time has come to look at his limitations and become a different type of player; one more reliant on brain than body.

Against Switzerland, Gascoigne produced some splendid first-half moments. A wall pass with Teddy Sheringham saw the goalkeeper saving at his feet. A neat run ended with a curling shot wide. Then he played a perceptive pass into Sheringham's path. In the second, though, the game often passed him by as he stranded himself in unhelpful positions while Robert Lee manfully held midfield together.

"He had said all week he's been overdoing it and basically he's taken that into the game," Venables said. "He's actually trying to show his fitness, making 30 to 40-yard runs to prove he's fit. He doesn't need to do that." The coach had wanted him to "sit in" and "boss" a deeper area. For Venables, that ranks as criticism.

After his own 18-month absence after knee surgery, Ruud Gullit had to admit that "it was not possible to do what you did before", and that instead of 50-yard forward runs, he could make only 20. "But it's important that those are done well." John Barnes, too, has slipped intelligently into being an unhurried passer of the ball. He may no longer go by players and get in penetrating crosses, but he fetches and carries ceaselessly for those who do.

Does Gascoigne have to change his game similarly? "Only a little. That's fair comment," Venables said. "But he has still got his acceleration. It's not like he just can't do certain things any more."

It assumes that Gascoigne can accept no longer being the centre of attention, that the team, the world, does not revolve around him. Venables believes he can. "He just wants to be one of the boys. He really doesn't want to be a superstar. I'm not saying there aren't times when he doesn't enjoy it. I'm sure he does. But he doesn't want any special treatment." It has been an over-developed sense of responsibility for club and country, however, that has surely led to his trying too hard.

In the week that Gascoigne re-entered the England picture, it was poignant to see Venables's predecessor Graham Taylor making another sad exit, this time from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Many of Taylor's utterances have been ridiculed by time but he at least went as far as he could in hinting at the Gascoigne problems; in effect, trying to do him a favour.

"This fellow has got something about him which can still, if we're not careful, bring him down," said Taylor after Gascoigne's last comeback three years ago. "He's probably at his most vulnerable now he's back playing. He has time to think about other things and it could be that people suggest he gets involved in all sorts of things."

Taylor recalled a glazed look in Gascoigne's eyes that time he dropped him against the Republic of Ireland and later he talked of the player's need to look at his "refuelling" habits. "He looks as if he was born with five pints of a start," a bar-room observer once said and a former associate, Jane Nottage, has told of his over-eating. Add spending binges - Gascoigne once admitted to lashing out pounds 30,000 on clothes in one spree - and that Channel 4 film in which he squirmed while telling how a towel had to be placed just so, along with the grandiosity of the white stretch limo picking him up amid the players' black courtesy cars at Wembley after the match against Colombia in September, and a picture of a compulsive, obsessive figure emerges.

Perhaps Gascoigne should bring himself to ask for advice from outside the circle of sycophantic acolytes of the sort who indulged Best and company before him. Understanding is one thing, some "tough love" another. It is said, for example, that referees in Scotland are seeking to be sympathetic but such treatment by Roger Milford at the 1991 FA Cup final, when the Spurs dervish escaped punishment for his lunge at Nottingham Forest's Garry Parker then wrecked his knee hacking at Gary Charles, did him a disservice. The rod was spared and the child was spoiled.

More constructively, Gullit and Barnes might explain how they prolonged and developed their careers after serious injuries. Clearly a generous spirit well liked by colleagues and coach alike, Gascoigne does not need to change his personality, but Paul Merson might also venture how the courage to change attitudes can benefit both his life and his play.

The legs may not be the same but the twinkling, talented feet should never leave Gascoigne. A mature, healed figure could yet lead England to good things in the European Championship finals and the World Cup beyond. This fish could still cause wonder.

Euro '96 at a glance

Group One qualifiers

Romania, France

Group Two

Spain, Denmark

Group Three

Switzerland, Turkey

Group Four

Croatia, Italy

Group Five

Czech Republic

Group Six


Group Seven

Germany, Bulgaria

Group Eight

Russia, Scotland

Play-off for remaining place Republic of Ireland v Holland (Anfield, 13 December)

Main draw 17 December

Top seeds England (Group A), Denmark, Germany, Spain

Tournament schedule: Group A Wembley, Villa Park (8-18 June). Group B Elland Road, St James' Park (9-18 June). Group C Old Trafford, Anfield (9-19 June). Group D Hillsborough, City Ground (9-19 June). Quarter-finals Anfield, Wembley (22 June), Old Trafford, Villa Park (23 June). Semi-finals Old Trafford, Wembley (26 June). Final Wembley (30 June)