x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

There is something about Gascoigne

Paul Gascoigne has obviously caused those nearest and supposedly dearest to him untold despair over the years, but even so my heart continues to go out to him.

"If I could wish, I would wish that he would go away from us. He's probably going to die soon... everyone thinks Gazza is, but because he was a top player doesn't mean he's a good dad or a good person to be with, does it, really?" As the dad of two "normal" teenagers, I can but wonder how Paul Gascoigne felt on hearing those sentiments from his 12-year-old son Regan, delivered on a television documentary.

Gazza has obviously caused those nearest and supposedly dearest to him untold despair over the years, but even so my heart continues to go out to him. I spent six weeks in his company during the 2006 football World Cup finals when I served as a ghost-writer for his newspaper column; he reduced me to tears of hilarity on occasions and tears of grief on others with tales of his past escapades. My heart goes out to young Regan, too, but can Gazza be the ogre he is so frequently made out to be when Walter Smith, one of football's great gentlemen who signed him for both Rangers and Everton, holds him in such deep affection?

"Paul is such a likeable lad," says Smith, with genuine sorrow that not everyone will agree with his character analysis. "He was popular with everyone at Everton, from his fellow-players to the groundsman. People who don't know him say he's this, that or whatever because they've formed their perceptions of him through what they've read, but he's got a lovely nature when you do get to know him. "I had met Paul by chance a couple of years previously on holiday in Florida before I first signed him for Rangers and was struck by his sense of fun.

"He's not the slightest bit malicious. I was prepared for all the other stuff and I accept people either love him or hate him. But most of the people who hate him don't know him. "Of course there's a gentler side to Gazza. Nobody could be as popular a boy as he is - with all the different people who've played with him - if the only side to him was that represented in some newspapers." Gascoigne's former Rangers' striking sidekick, Ally McCoist, concurs.

"He's actually a very intelligent boy who, for reasons known only to himself, prefers people to think he's stupid," he said. "He does some stupid, ridiculous things, but that's what makes him so interesting." Some will insist there is nothing remotely interesting about an alcoholic who once stood accused of being a wife-beater, and I agree that being a football genius does nothing to excuse the repeated outbreaks of anti-social behaviour over the years.

Yet there can be no denying that Gazza continues to exert a unique fascination over the nation. Like George Best before him, this extraordinarily laddish, pigeon-toed, sparrow-legged Geordie lad brought pleasure to millions by weaving a football tapestry of sublimely weighted passes, flicks, tricks and 'Brazilian' free-kicks; but there was always far more to Gazza than his artistry with a ball at his feet.

"Whenever I was trying to rustle up some players to visit a children's hospital in Glasgow or Liverpool, I never had to go looking for Paul," Smith adds. "Paul always came looking for me to be the first person to put his name on the list. He was wonderful with the kids. No matter how poorly they might be when the time came to leave the ward their faces were wreathed in smiles." Let us pray it is not too late for Paul Gascoigne to put a smile on young Regan's face.

rphilip@thenational.ae