The tragedy of legendary England footballer Paul Gascoigne is one that has unfolded over many years and continues to be vividly played out on the front of tabloid newspapers and on 24-hour television news channels.
Mercurial as a player, “Gazza” became a sporting icon as well as a supremely talented player capable of destroying opposition defences, but since his career ended, the 45-year-old has been slowly destroying himself.
Alcohol problems and mental illnesses have blighted Gascoigne during the last decade, and only this week his agent, Terry Baker, told BBC Radio 5 live that the ailing former star was “dying in front of us” and in need of urgent help.
So dire is the situation for Gazza that, having squandered his career earnings on his ruinous habit, he cannot afford the hospital or treatment fees that may well save his life.
A campaign by tabloid newspaper The Sun was started yesterday, encouraging Premier League footballers to contribute, and already 21-year-old Jack Wilshere, not even alive when Gascoigne was in his prime, has pledged his support.
It was not always so desperate, however. Back in 1990, Gazza shone like the brightest beacon at the World Cup in Italy, helping England through to the semi-finals against West Germany.
Having already received a yellow card against Belgium in the second round, the attacking midfielder was pictured with tears in his eyes after being booked for a foul on Thomas Berthold, as it would have made him miss the final.
England slumped to a devastating defeat on penalties to the West Germans, but Gazza was named in the team of the tournament and returned to his country an untouchable hero.
What became known as “Gazzamania” was everywhere: people from all walks of life marvelled as this remarkably fearless, prodigiously-talented talisman, a figure that united the nation and could be appreciated on a very basic level for his extraordinary raw talent.
On the home front, it was a similar story. Making his debut for Newcastle United in 1985 against Queens Park Rangers, Gateshead-born Gascoigne had been told by manager Jack Charlton that he needed to lose weight or would be kicked out.
Fortunately for the narrative, Gazza satisfied the wishes of his boss and scored 25 goals in 107 games for the Magpies, culminating in him being named PFA young player of the year and included in the PFA team of the year at the age of 21.
Moving to Tottenham Hotspur saw Gascoigne collect further honours, such as the BBC sports personality of the year award in 1990, as he led Spurs to sixth in his first season and the FA Cup final in 1992, when he was also in the PFA team of the year.
A spell at Lazio, where media interest was intense and Gascoigne was plagued by injury, lasted for three seasons, before a £4.3million move to Rangers in July 1995, which sparked further success and saw the Englishman named in the Rangers hall of fame.
Yet it was a moment during the 1996 European Championships, hosted by England, that cemented his status as one of the greatest ever players to wear the Three Lions.
Two games in, and Scotland were the visitors to Wembley Stadium. After Alan Shearer had given England the lead 53 minutes in, Gazza received the ball from Darren Anderton outside the Scotland penalty area and flicked it over the head of defender Colin Hendry.
Changing direction suddenly, Gascoigne wrong-footed Hendry and volleyed the ball past goalkeeper Andy Goram for one of the greatest goals in English football history.
His celebration after scoring was equally memorable, as Gazza lay down on the pitch while team mates sprayed water into his mouth, referring to a controversial photograph of the England squad on a night out drinking in a dentist’s chair.
Sadly, this side of Gascoigne has been on show ever since his playing days came to an end and was regrettably obvious before time was called on a 20-year career in which he made 468 club appearances and scored 110 goals.
Speaking to a Sunday newspaper in 1994, Gazza admitted having beaten his wife Sheryl on a regular basis for two years, and was admitted to The Priory clinic in 1998 after hitting “rock bottom” in a drinking session that saw him down 32 glasses of whisky.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, other visits to clinics followed as did high profile incidents such as a fight with police officers at Gatwick Airport in 2005, emergency surgery two years later and being sectioned under the Mental Health Act in 2008.
However, it was an incident in 2010, where the man that won 57 caps for his country and hit ten goals in 10 years rushed to a stand-off between killer Raoul Moat and police claiming to be his friend, which most summed up how far Gazza had fallen.
The farcical nature of the situation was not helped by the fact that Gascoigne, who was denied access to Moat, allegedly brought with him a can of lager, some chicken, a fishing rod, a Newcastle shirt and a dressing gown.
An acquaintance once told me that his late wife had taught Gascoigne at school and, finding him practising his ball control rather than doing homework, told her colleagues: “He’ll never amount to anything if he doesn’t stop kicking a ball against that wall.”
Never particularly bright, Gazza did amount to something, and remains an icon for young footballers with ability and the drive to succeed in a sport that bears little resemblance even to how it was during his heyday.
Although fading now, many are hoping and praying beyond expectation and reason that Gascoigne can be saved, but with so many chances for redemption having come and gone, the demons may well have got the better of him once and for all.
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