Tuesday, January 6, 2009

He's lost the plot....

Before I fully understood the complexities of English Football, I knew the image shown above: Vinnie Jones attacking the ‘personal bits & bobs’ of Paul Gascoigne. I first saw this picture in Granta 45: Gazza Agonistes in 1995 while I was sitting on my brother’s couch in Philadelphia. This photo kicked off Ian Hamilton’s piece on Paul “GazzaGascoigne. I’d never forgotten Hamilton’s incredible telling of Gazza’s story, but moreover, it’s this photo that's stuck in my mind forever.

My brother was a scholar of English footie, having honed his knowledge while living in England for a year, so he explained what this picture was all about. Jones was a goon, a defender valued for his ability to harass and scare the crap out of the opposition (hockey has a lot of these guys as well). Paul Gascoigne is the young man unfortunate enough to be the recipient of this exchange, occurring when Gascoigne’s Newcastle played Jones’ Wimbledon.

The picture captures Gascoigne at one of the many points in his career where his reality has caught up to his ability. Gascoigne was a Geordie, from the northeastern city of Newcastle. At a very young age, he was brought up into his hometown’s football club, his play noted for speed and daring. Here the young Gazza’s boyish glee for the game is meeting a seasoned pro intent to put the young lad in his place and perhaps, scarring him for life.

As Gascoigne was thrust into top-level football, he had two problems: (1) a sophomoric inability to control his weight, drinking and off-pitch behavior, leading to (2) an inability to fit into the heroic mold of a stoic yet charming British football hero. Amid the excess, drunkenness and crude behavior, Hamilton portrays Gascoigne in this Granta 45 piece as an incredibly sympathetic and enormously likable person.

I found Ian Hamilton’s portrayal of Gascoigne compelling because he’s trying to essentially explain a Joe Namath-type sports persona to an English audience who’d never (with the exception of Georgie Best) experienced too many subversive sports mega-heroes. The pinnacle of Gascoigne's career seems to be World Cup 1990, where in defeat, his very un-British response of wildly shedding tears would move the stiff-upper lip nation in a way we’d later see on a much larger scale when Princess Diana died.

At the time at which Granta 45 came out, Hamilton can take the Paul Gascoigne story only so far. It encompasses his rise at Newcastle, his subsequent transfer to the London club Tottenham Hotspur (and to the London nightlife), which ultimate leads to his eventual transfer to the Italian club, Lazio. That’s where this story leaves off.

The years that follow Lazio have ups, but unfortunately more downs. Gazza would eventually leave Lazio and play for Glasgow’s Rangers. He would play for the national team 57 times. After Rangers, he would play for short spells with Middleborough and Everton. One of his last gasps at playing would be to try out for DC United here in the U.S. He wouldn’t make the team. After retiring, a managerial job with a lower division team would last a month. Recently, he’s had a number of alcohol related incidents leading either to arrest or in one case, being sectioned under the Mental Health Act and being brought into custody for his own protection.

I read about Gascoigne from Hamilton and I read about him from recent BBC news updates. I want to like this guy. He seems to have a love of life and a generous spirit. Like the England that once adored him, I keep wanting to give him second changes.

Maybe you can understand this by the following: I'll leave off with the attached clip. This is his goal against Scotland at Wembley in Euro 1996.

What joy.


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