Paul Gascoigne, who used to be the toast of a nation, needs a counsellor more than a dentist

Oh how we chuckled indulgently at this great footballer's high jinks years ago. Now he desperately needs expert help if his story isn't to have a terrible ending

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The Independent Online

Those of us who are old enough will have our own favourite memories of Paul Gascoigne.

Probably his tears in the World Cup semi-final in 1990 when he realised that his yellow card would have ruled him out of the final (although this was arguably more memorable for Gary Lineker's gesticulation to the England manager that Gazza was about to lose his head).

Or maybe it was his sublime goal against Scotland in the European Championship of 1996, which was followed by a celebratory re-enactment of an incident involving several England players who, on a night out in Hong Kong, were pictured taking part in a drinking game involving a dentist's chair. After scoring one of the best individual goals ever seen at Wembley, Gazza lay prostrate on the turf, arms outstretched while a handful of his team-mates stood over him, squirting water into his mouth.

Oh, how we chuckled indulgently at this humorous bit of horseplay. So what if players occasionally drank to excess? If they can score goals like that, a few Flaming Lamborghinis can't do them any harm. These are young athletes with fame, talent, and money to burn, so why shouldn't they enjoy it while they can?

At least that's what we thought back then. The world of 2013 is less likely to adopt such a permissive attitude to alcohol, and anyone who has seen the most recent photographs of Gascoigne, bloated, wan, his features ravaged by years of drinking, and his once cheeky-chappie countenance replaced with a blank, eerily distant stare, will not watch his “Dentist's Chair” celebration again and raise a smile.

Instead, our impulses will be a mixture of sadness, empathy and an unsettling sense of helplessness. We have already seen, in the case of George Best, the tragically corrosive effect of drink on a once-heroic figure, and the reason we may feel helpless is that the story of Gazza appears to following the same horrendous trajectory. Even as he was dying before our eyes, there was a queue of strangers waiting to buy George a drink.

Celebrity culture is even more ingrained these days, and, given that our voyeuristic tendencies are heightened by the gory fascination some newspapers have with the plight of fallen heroes, I am sure Gazza never lacks for company at the bar from those desperate to be touched by his infamy, and to insert themselves in this gut-wrenching narrative.

A friend of mine once told me his theory on alcohol consumption. He said that when we are born, we are all given a vat full of drink, and at the bottom of this vat was horrible sediment, and assorted toxic substances that made us feel awful. It was up to each of us how quickly we reached the bottom. Some people went through life, sipping carefully from the vat, and never reached the bad stuff. Others got there quickly and, for their own sake, had to stop.

Paul Gascoigne, you'd have to say, has appeared to have reached the bottom of his particular vat. He needs expert assistance to recognise that fact, and if this story is to avoid a terrible ending, it will be through time spent in the counsellor's, not the dentist's, chair.