I ONLY met Paul Gascoigne once. He was in the physio’s room at Radcliffe Borough, sitting on the treatment table, naked except for a jockstrap and a towel.
How he came to be there on a Saturday afternoon in July 2004 is a story in itself.
Radcliffe’s chairman at the time was Bernard Manning junior, son of the comedian. Through a complex web of showbiz contacts, Manning junior got a message to Gazza’s mate Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’ Gardner asking if the former England international would be up for playing for Radcliffe in a pre-season friendly against Manchester United reserves.
To Manning junior’s amazement, Gascoigne not only said yes, but actually turned up; flying in from Germany, where he had played in a charity game organised by then-Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher.
Stainton Park, Radcliffe’s ground, is what you might describe as ‘cosy’. One all-seater stand behind the goal, one side a covered terrace, the rest uncovered, overlooked by neighbouring houses. And there, in the middle of all this, in front of a gawping crowd, was Gascoigne; hardly moving outside the centre circle, but spraying passes around with unerring accuracy. United’s reserves seemed every bit as awestruck as the supporters.
And so afterwards, a group of journalists, me among them, wandered around the stand, through the bar, past the dressing rooms and in to the physio’s lair, where Gazza awaited.
“How was that, then?” came the first question. I later timed Gazza’s answer to this straightforward opener when I played it back on my tape recorder. It came it at nearly three-and-a-half minutes, without interruption, and covered his marital problems, his drug addiction, his autobiography (just out), his determination to stay sober and his desire to get back into English football.
It was mesmerising, exhausting and terribly, terribly sad.
At that time, Boston United were in talks with Gazza over a player-coach job – something he confirmed in that interview. Many doubted it would happen. It did. Many said it wouldn’t last. They were right. Gazza joined Boston in August 2004 and left in October, having played just five games.
Gascoigne’s early life has often been cited as a factor in the problems that have followed him ever since: he had a financially-impoverished upbringing, he saw the younger brother of a childhood friend knocked down and killed by a car when he was 10, another close friend died in an accident on a building site in his teens.
What sort of impact that must have had on Gascoigne is impossible to imagine. I’m not knowledgable enough about mental health issues to know whether Gazza’s compulsive personality would have developed because of, or in addition to, those tragedies. What I do know is that watching arguably the most gifted footballer of his generation’s life unravel in public over the last decade-and-a-half has been painful.
Today, he was detained under the Mental Health Act following an incident at the Hilton Hotel in Gateshead. There’s a part of me that hopes he will be OK. But that part of me becomes less optimistic every time he hits the headlines.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time here,” Gascoigne said as he sat on that treatement table at Stainton Park in 2004. “In fact, I probably got more pleasure out of that match than anybody else on the pitch.”
He turned 40 in May. Gazza is a man who has always lived for his football, and that’s why I worry for him now.