Sport Soccer

Sunday 18 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Gazza needs space to slay his demons

Paul Gascoigne
Paul Gascoigne

Eamonn Sweeney

Even though I was still in my teens when it happened, I remember vividly my father coming into the bedroom in Gurteen and throwing a book to me. "Read this," he said, "it's powerful stuff."

And it was. I don't think anyone who read This One's On Me by Jimmy Greaves will ever forget the powerful emotional impact the book made on them. In an era where every second celebrity seems to stick in a chapter on some personal trauma or other to help sell the serial rights, it's hard to recapture the effect that Greaves' revelation of his struggles with alcoholism had on readers.

It was ground-breaking because men didn't really admit to weakness in those days and because public figures still had private lives back then so that Greaves' harrowing depiction of his alcoholism was a shock to people like my father who'd worshipped him as a footballer.

Jimmy Greaves went on to have a highly successful television career as an occasionally irritating but mostly lovable football pundit before fading out of the limelight in the last decade or so. Last week he was back in the headlines after writing a column in the Sunday People concerning Paul Gascoigne's struggle with drink.

It made for undeniably powerful reading but, although I admire Greaves greatly for his 34 years of sobriety and think he was motivated by the best of intentions, I felt uneasy about it. Because the central point of the piece was that Greaves doubted whether Gazza would ever quit the drink completely because, to put it bluntly, the former Spurs midfielder didn't have the gumption to stay sober. And, true or not, it was hard to see how this assessment was going to help Gascoigne.

Eventually I decided Greaves' intervention was worthwhile, not because of the effect it might have on Gascoigne but because it contained a lot of straight talk about alcoholism which might well do people in a similar situation to Gazza's a power of good. And also because his affection for the player shone through. If ever somebody spoke in sorrow rather than anger, it was Jimmy Greaves last week.

But perhaps, and this may be wishful thinking, Greaves may have been a bit hasty in writing off Gazza's chances for recovery. He admits himself that he was in and out of several rehab facilities before finally staying sober for good. Maybe there were people writing Jimmy Greaves off then as they are writing off Gazza now. Gascoigne has, after all, enjoyed longish spells of sobriety which probably weren't the easiest thing for him. At one stage he made public appearances with Greaves after being a year on the wagon.

I was struck by the difference between the worlds inhabited by Greaves as a soccer star of the 1960s and Gascoigne as a celebrity in the contemporary era. Given the amount he drank, Greaves must surely have been seen falling about in public quite a bit yet those escapades never made the papers. But every time Gazza, like Paul McGrath, slips up, it's headline news.

Greaves talks movingly about getting his life back on track in his first three years of sobriety. He got a job selling knitwear for a friend, played some non-league football and stayed away from the media. The problem is that these days the likes of Gazza are not allowed to work out their problems away from the limelight, something which must make it tougher for them to overcome those problems.

A lot of hypocritical cant gets talked around the notion that Gascoigne or McGrath might somehow be scared straight by the media attention but the reality is they'd be better served if people left them alone. We all know that.

And if you think that I'm as bad as everyone else for writing about the subject, perhaps you're right. All I know is that I would like someday to say to my kids about Gazza, as my father once said to me about Greavesie, "Isn't it great to see him off the drink and looking so well? He was some player in his day."

Irish Independent

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