Sometimes in your football-supporting life, you see a player in the opposition ranks who is simply different gravy. Partisanship or no, you just have to acknowledge genius when you see it and, if you’ve any appreciation at all for the Beautiful Game, you simply applaud talent and ability the like of which we see all too rarely.
As a Leeds United fan, I’ve had this bittersweet experience uncomfortably often. Bitter, because – let’s face it – you’re there above all to see the white shirts prevail, and some pesky genius in the other camp can be a big problem. But sweet, because we all know, deep down, that this is what football is all about; a talent that eclipses more mundane performers and makes your soul sing for what this game can be.
I’ve seen a few of these over the years at Elland Road. Johan Cruyff, so recently taken from us, lit up my first evening match at Elland Road in 1975, albeit in a losing cause. Sadly, I never saw George Best play (and he spent most games against Leeds in Paul Reaney‘s back pocket anyway) – but I did see a man who could match him for talent and for that mystical ability to take a game away from you. Sadly, he also matches the late George for the tendency to self destruct. And, if the current situation isn’t checked sooner rather than later, we shall tragically see Paul Gascoigne – Gazza of blessed daft-as-a-brush memory – follow Georgie Best into a needlessly early grave.
There isn’t much doubt that Gazza’s potentially fatal weakness for the booze makes him the lead author of his own misfortune. It’s also true to say that anyone in that downward spiral of addictive behaviour really needs to find, if possible, the willpower to break out of the prison they’re building for themselves. But that’s frequently easier said than done, and some of the brightest stars, the most transcendent genius performers, are eggshell personalities, lacking the intrinsic strength and resilience to fight the demons inside their own skulls. In that situation, outside care and intervention is needed; somebody needs to help. So who can, or should, help Gazza?
The former star is not without support. He has friends in the game, people who stay in touch with him and worry about him. But I can’t help feeling that the wider entity of football in this country could be seen to be doing more, for Gazza, and for less illustrious but comparable cases. The tragedy of Best is still clear in the memory, but there have been others who used to bask in the sunshine of fame and worship from the terraces who, once their star fell, found the world a bleak and friendless place they simply wanted to quit. Hughie Gallacher, like Gazza a former Newcastle star, was another who felt lonely and hopeless enough to walk, in a boozy stupor, in front of a train in 1957, rather than face what his life had become after football.
The thing about Gazza is that the current, wealth-laden state of the game he entered as a chubby lad in the early eighties owes much to the way he lit up the Italia ’90 World Cup. That tournament, with Gascoigne’s flashes of genius and iconic tears, did much to redeem the game of football from what had been a decade of disaster in the 1980s. Football, ably assisted by the Geordie genius, recovered from virtual social unacceptability to become once more the game everyone was talking about. Everyone wanted a piece of soccer, and its stars. And no star shone brighter in the football firmament than Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne.
Such was the new appeal and cachet of football that it was judged ripe for rebranding in this country. It became A Whole New Ball Game as Murdoch and Sky bought the TV rights to a massive chunk of it and, 25 years on, the money is still rolling in unabated. A lot of that is down to that period of Gazzamania in the early 90s, and that – as much as anything beyond common humanity – is the reason why football, and the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Rangers and Everton in particular, must be seen to be doing more to help.
So money-stuffed is the game that was once a working-class opera, that ticket prices have become almost incidental to club income at the top level. And yet still, the matchgoing public pays through the nose. They, too, have a right to see some of their money devoted to former stars fallen on hard times or, indeed, in danger of complete dissolution. Surely any Spurs or Newcastle fan would feel it appropriate for their club, served so well back in the day by a man now in crisis, to step in and provide real help, a safe environment and a solid support network for somebody in such imminent danger of sinking out of sight.
Everyone knows that there’s only so much you can do for a person seemingly plummeting towards self-destruction. But the duty to try as hard as possible, to do as much as possible, remains, whatever the chances of success. Especially for someone like Gazza, who gave so much pleasure in his heyday, who made so many smile or laugh with his hare-brained nuttiness, who helped so much to enable the rude health of the game today by the display of his peerless genius for clubs and country.
It’s not too late to save Gazza, surely. But it may well soon be. Over to you, football.