As a self-confessed simple bloke with refreshingly-simple tastes, Paul Gascoigne is the last man you’d associate with an interest in Middle Eastern conflict.
But this is just another anecdote in the story of ‘Gazza’, possibly this country’s most talented footballer. Probably its most troubled. Undoubtedly one of its most understood, yet loved at the same time.
Gascoigne, you see, would sit in his living room with the news on the TV, hear a story about the Israel-Palestine conflict and wince. He heard ‘Gaza Strip’ and mistook it for another negative headline about himself, borne out of a deep mistrust of the Press and an intense paranoia caused by, he alleges, over a decade of having his phone tapped and his privacy intruded upon.
He documented both his triumphs on the field, and his tribulations off it, in ‘Gascoigne’, a stunningly-made-and-edited biopic featuring Gary Lineker and Wayne Rooney which premiered on Tuesday evening.
The film showed Gascoigne’s rise from a council estate in Gateshead; how he witnessed the death of his friend’s brother at the age of ten, was taken to therapy after developing ticks and twitches and spent hours on the street outside his home, playing football with a tennis ball.
“My dad bought me my first leather football when I was seven,” Gascoigne, now 48, remembers.
“I took it everywhere with me. I used to sleep with it under the covers, then I’d sometimes climb out my window, go down the drainpipe and play through the night. I’d hide it from teachers at school and then play huge games. Football was my life.”
He returned to the local park weeks after returning from Italia ‘90, when he inspired England to the World Cup semi-finals and came back to England a national hero. Tearing up, he admitted reminding himself that this is where he’d come from. From the bottom to the top.
He was credited as a ‘father figure’ who kept Gascoigne in check. But even the late Sir Bobby Robson couldn’t always control his protege’s penchant for doing things his way; Gascoigne himself tells the story of being in the hotel the night before England’s World Cup semi-final date with Germany in 1990.
Gascoigne, rooming with ex-Sheffield Wednesday star Chris Waddle, couldn’t sleep and went for a walk in the hotel grounds.
He noticed two Americans playing tennis and challenged them to a game. The night before England’s biggest game since 1966, and their best player is running around a tennis court trying to beat two Americans.
Robson couldn’t drop his best player, of course, and Gascoigne remembers the great manager’s words of advice before the semi-final against Germany.
“Lothar Matthäus was in Germany’s team and Sir Bobby said to me: Gazza; you’re up against one of the best midfielders in the world,” Gascoigne said.
Big games simply didn’t fear him. He felt at home on the field. Off it, he was vulnerable and was soon consumed by depression, self-doubt, drink and drugs after retiring. He even turned up at the stand-off involving Raoul Moat, offering cans of beer and a fishing rod.
“And I said, no boss. He is.”
It is probably one of the most iconic goals in England football history; Gascoigne’s flick over Colin Hendry, his volley past Andy Goram, his ‘dentist-chair’ celebration. Football may have not come home in Euro ‘96 but that 2-0 win over Scotland at Wembley lives on. Not least because England’s hero was playing in Scotland at the time, for Rangers.
Big games simply didn’t fear him. When Spurs played Arsenal in the 1991 FA Cup semi-final, Gascoigne was pulling faces for the camera and then smashed a free-kick in the top corner. His first taste of the Rome derby, after moving to Lazio, saw him score a late equaliser against AS Roma. He was, as Lineker said, fearless on the field; probably because it was where he felt most at home. Off it, he was vulnerable and was soon consumed by depression, self-doubt, drink and drugs after retiring. He even turned up at the stand-off involving Raoul Moat, offering cans of beer and a fishing rod.
“’I’ve given stuff in this movie that I’ve not told anybody, I’m welling up now talking about it,” he said.
“But I’m pleased it’s out. I haven’t seen it. I know what it’s like ‘cause I lived it. So it will be very emotional watching it. I just wanted to do this for the reason that not everything in my life was rosy.
“Even from a young age what I’ve had to cope with, what I’ve had to put up with and still come through it. Whether it be injuries, whether it be rehabs, whether it be taking drugs years ago.
“And I’m not wanting to be proud of... some of the things I’ve let myself down, but people think, “Why’s he doing this?” Because I had illnesses, I had problems.
“But my football side of it, people forget. I had 20 years of playing football and entertaining fans.”
That should be Paul Gascoigne’s legacy, whatever happens from now. Let’s remember one of the great entertainers, for doing just that.