Match of the Noughties: 2004 – Radcliffe Borough 1 Manchester United XI 2

THOSE of us gathered in the press box at Stainton Park weren’t sure if he was going to turn up. Paul Gascoigne playing for Radcliffe Borough? It sounded too ridiculous to be true. But he did.

Gazza and Bryan Robson had both agreed to play for Radcliffe in a pre-season friendly against a Manchester United reserve side in July 2004. They had been persuaded to turn out by Borough chairman Bernard Manning junior, the son of the late comedian.

Manning junior had put the request to Gazza via his old mate Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’ Gardner.

“We couldn’t believe it when he said he’d play for us,” Manning junior said to me afterwards. “And even though there was a lot of scepticism from some people, he was true to his word.”

In the end, it was Robson who didn’t show. The man who had played through goodness knows how many injuries for Manchester United during the 1980s and early 1990s was forced to pull out on the morning of the game after being struck down with food poisoning. Even Captain Marvel has to admit defeat sometimes.

Gazza not only showed up, but played a full 90 minutes, and looked as if he was having a ball, having flown in from Germany, where he had taken part in a charity game organised by the then-Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher.

The man who had once been the great hope of English football had turned 37 a couple of months earlier, and it was clear his legs had gone. Indeed, he barely moved outside the centre circle – but he was still the best player on the pitch, so good were his footwork and his passing.

Despite Gazza’s best efforts, Radcliffe were 2-0 down inside half-an-hour, with Ritchie Jones (now at Hartlepool) and Colin Heath (last heard of at Farsley Celtic) putting United’s reserves well in control.

Bizarrely, Gazza was joined in Radcliffe’s line-up for the second half by Lee Sharpe (post-Manchester United, pre-Celebrity Love Island), who had dashed over the Pennines from West Yorkshire having played in a testimonial match for former Bradford City player Wayne Jacobs earlier in the day.

They both had a part to play in Radcliffe’s goal, with Sharpe heading down Gazza’s cross for Steve Foster to fire past keeper Tom Heaton (still at Manchester United, currently on loan at Rochdale).

Afterwards, half-a-dozen or so journalists made their way through the club bar and into the physio’s room, where Gazza was sitting on a bench wearing nothing but a jockstrap. He looked lean and muscular, and had clearly been doing an awful lot of gym work.

At that stage, he was coming out of a prolonged period of depression, and had just released an autobiography describing his various battles with drink and drugs, and his tempestuous relationship with ex-wife Sheryl.

I’d heard all about Gazza’s hyperactive personality. And I had seen it during his television interviews. But I had never seen anyone manage to be hyperactive and reflective at the same time. In any case, he gave the most extraordinary post-match interview I have ever taken part in.

(And that is despite the fact that, moments after the interview, I spoke to Manning junior in a disabled toilet cubicle, because it was the only place we could find that was large enough and quiet enough to speak.)

I recently found a cassette recording of the Gazza interview gathering dust in a drawer at home, and played it back to find out if it was as odd as I remembered it.

It was. The interview opened with one journalist asking him about the Radcliffe game with the straightforward question: “How was that, then?”

Gascoigne’s answer lasted for three minutes and 25 seconds, with no hesitations and no interruptions. I have just transcribed it, and it comes to almost 700 words. Those of you with any kind of grasp of maths will know that works out at around 200 words a minute. Which is bloody fast.

That 700-or-so-word answer took in – among other things – his performance, Radcliffe’s performance, his desire to help young English players develop, his feeling that there were too many foreigners in the domestic game, his ongoing discussions to become a player-coach at Boston United, his pleasure at being treated as a normal person rather than a superstar and the fact that Radcliffe’s chairman had given him a gold watch as a souvenir.

The interview lasted for 10 minutes. During it, Gascoigne admitted to his shame at being a wife-beater, discussed his alcohol and drug problems, and revealed that he had been sober for 14 months. He did this without being directly asked about any of those subjects.

By the summer of 2004, I was working as a sports journalist for the Bolton Evening News. Gazza’s visit to Radcliffe was a big story for us, but it would be better if I could get an even stronger local angle.

And so I found myself in a room with arguably the most gifted English footballer of the last 30 years, a man who was as deeply flawed off the field as he was brilliant on it, whose life story could fill (and has filled) dozens of books. And the only question I wanted him to answer was this: What were his views on Radcliffe Borough’s chances of success in the Unibond Premier Division for the coming season?

“I hope Radcliffe can build on this,” he said. “Having seen them play, I don’t see any reason why they can’t go on and win the league.”

As it turned out, Radcliffe would go on to finish ninth. Gascoigne did go on to join Boston, but the relationship didn’t last, and neither did his sobriety. A spell as manager of Kettering lasted 39 days in 2005, with chairman Imraan Ladak claiming that Gazza was drinking too much – a claim he disputed. Several stints in rehab have followed since then.

I don’t know if he even remembers his day entertaining 1,703 people at a tight non-league ground, but he looked as if he was enjoying himself at the time.

For a day, at least, Gazza was a hero again.

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