There are uncomfortable parallels between the slippery slope Paul Gascoigne now finds himself on – a slope he started to slide down at a Wembley Cup Final in 1991 – and the decline and ultimately tragic death of another flawed genius, George Best. It’s not the happiest comparison to make, but perhaps it’s a message that needs to be spoken loudly and repeatedly, directly into the ear of the legendary Gazza, in the hope that he may yet be saved from the process of self-destruction he appears to be unswervingly set on. The news today that he’s been arrested over an incident involving drink and violence is no great surprise – but it IS cause for extreme concern.
Gazza was undoubtedly the finest talent of his generation, but like so many footballers and other artists gifted with supernatural skill of one sort or another, he seems fatally lacking lacking in anything approaching a safe level of common sense. Those identical words could have been written and published in the 1970’s, substituting only the legend of Gazza for the legend of Bestie. The similarities between the two are uncanny, both in terms of raw ability and irrepressible personality when things were going well. Sadly, the tendency towards addiction to factors which are the enemies of health and well-being seems another element ominously common to both.
George Best of course ultimately fell victim to his fatal attraction to booze and died an early and tragic death following the raising of hopes after a liver transplant. George was unable to leave the drink alone even after such a very final warning, and his demise followed as night follows day. There was a time when he had it all, of course – but it’s tempting to believe he might have wished to trade some of those trappings and achievements for a few more healthy years on the planet. Famously, a hotel employee once walked in to witness George surrounded by champagne bottles in his luxury suite, happily relaxing in bed with at least two Miss Worlds and the humble functionary sighed, without any apparent sense of irony, “George, George – where did it all go wrong?” It was funny at the time, as was Best’s quote when asked what he did with his money. “I spent loads on wine, women and song – but quite easy on the song – and the rest I just squandered,” he replied. Again, it’s pithy – but the humour shrivels away to nothing when you remember how he ended up in an early grave.
Is Gazza inevitably headed for a tragically similar fate? His health has been a matter of public concern for some time now, and again he seems totally unable to leave the booze alone despite repeated warnings that he’s drinking his health and possibly his life away. It’s not too difficult to pinpoint the start of Gazza’s descent – rewind back to the FA Cup Final of 1991, Spurs v Forest. A pumped-up Gascoigne had already perpetrated an ugly, early, chest-high foul on Garry Parker of Forest – a challenge which went unpunished by referee Roger Milford, but which could so easily have been a red card. Then, still high as a kite on Cup Final adrenalin, Gazza scythed down Gary Charles to concede a free-kick on the edge of the area. Forest actuallly took the lead from the resultant free-kick as Stuart Pearce hammered home – but the price for Gascoigne was even higher. He had ruptured knee ligaments in fouling Charles, and had to leave the field on a stretcher.
To many minds, he was never quite the same player again, even though his subsequent career still hit some major heights. Who knows what difference an early red card for the first foul might have made? Gazza would have avoided that calamitous injury and perhaps come much closer to fulfilling his outstanding potential – and maybe his life post-football would have been less of a horror show. No blame attaches to Roger Milford for his evident misjudgement – referees have no insight into the future.
Since his retirement, Gazza’s life has been a catalogue of calamity, culminating in this latest arrest and charge of alcohol-fuelled misconduct. That he is still drinking is a worrying signpost to the fate suffered by George Best, and if he fails to conquer this demon, it is difficult to see a bright future for the Clown Prince of the 80’s and 90’s. Daft as a brush, Bobby Robson called him, and there’s little reason to dispute that. But surely someone needs to take Gazza in hand and steer him away from a fate that Bestie could eloquently warn him all about, if only he were alive to do so. Someone, somewhere, has to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself. Someone has to save Gazza from himself.