Monday, 14 February 2011

Paul Gascoigne, naked

I met Paul Gascoigne once. We were both completely naked.

It was at a health club. Gazza knew the owner (a quite loathsome 'hanger-on', truth be told) and he used to go there quite regularly.

One morning, I'm walking out of the shower and he's walking in. A mutual friend who, I think it's fair to say, struggles with the fundamentals of social etiquette, decided that would be the ideal time and place to forge an introduction.

I was excited to meet him, of course. But, thankfully, not that excited.

Gazza seemed completely unabashed. I guess when your life is that mental (this was the early '90s (I don't know why I added that, it could have been anytime at all)), then meeting a naked idiot barely registers on the crazy scale. It may not have been the first time it had happened to him that day, who knows.

Those that spent time with him back then said he was already something of a mess. But still a convivial, funny, slightly naive mess. The dark side remained hidden. At least in public. Cheryl's memories probably follow a different timetable.

Noel Gallagher tells a great story of when Oasis played Loch Lomond and Gazza was at Rangers. They were both staying in the same incredibly posh country hotel and, of course, they ended up having a drink together, complete with entourages.

Gradually, inevitably, all the other super-rich guests started to glance towards them more and more often and less and less subtly. Both their fame levels at this stage were dizzying. Eventually a crowd started to gather; everyone wanted to buy them drinks and grab their own little slice of the stellar action.

Deep into the evening, Gazza launched into a story about a game that involved that stalwart of Saturday tea time results shows: Hamilton Academical. They weren't the point of the story, just part of it. But poor Paul simply could not say their name.

He tried a few times and then Noel said it for him, to try and move things along. But our boy was having none of it. He would not be beaten. He kept trying and trying in ever more garbled and giggly ways, until saying Hamilton Academical didn't become part of the story it became the story.

Noel says Gazza had everyone in stitches, just through trying and failing over and over again to say Hamilton Academical.

There's a bit of a performing monkey aspect to the story, sure, but the way Noel tells it it's clear that Gascoigne was still inherently and artlessly charming. And that he had huge reserves of goodwill amongst the general public. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, they weren't laughing at him, they were laughing towards him.

Now it's all very different. No one's laughing. (Okay, the bit where he turned up with some chicken and a fishing rod for Raul Moat was pure, staggering farce, you can have that).

Instead, the decline and fall of Paul Gascoigne, as a player and as a man, is just fucking chilling - especially when you look back at all the signs that everyone ignored.

It absolutely wouldn't happen today. If any player, let alone the greatest English player of his generation, behaved like that on camera or indeed anywhere in public, serious questions would be asked and something would be done. He would not simply be indulged or encouraged.

We will look back on what happened to Gazza, what was allowed to happen to Gazza, in the same was as we look back on sending children up chimneys.

To avoid ending with incredulous head-shaking and general depression, let me add that Paul Gascoigne remains the single greatest player I've ever seen play for Spurs. His pomp probably lasted less than two seasons, but my God he was good. And he could change and dominate a game like no one else.

I saw the last few years of Glenda's reign at the Lane, and he was a brilliant passer of the ball who could contribute 20 goals from midfield. But when Gazza was at his best he was a brilliant passer of the ball, could contribute 20 goals from midfield and do so much more.

Large portions of the crowd used to watch him, or at least keep an eye on him, even when he wasn't in possession. That's partly because Paul Gascoigne without the ball was more effective than David Howells with the ball, but mainly we were working out when he might get it next; willing play to drift into his orbit; knowing, I mean actually pretty much knowing, that when it did something amazing would happen.

I fear what's left to come in his story and I fear what's left of the man himself. But, without wishing to sound too elegiac, what he gave us and what he left us with will be treasured as long as Tottenham Hotspur exists.


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