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Stranded in a war zone where the only combatant is himself

Paul Gascoigne has many problems but being an old pro is the least of them. For many, the most distressing aspect of Gascoigne's latest public unravelling was the feeling that the football community, whoever they are, didn't do enough to help him.

This soon became a plea for greater pastoral care for old footballers and an attempt to make sense of Gascoigne's world through the prism of retirement. Gascoigne's health may have declined since he was a player but people struck with his condition often find that the problem is irreversible.

Retirement is not Gascoigne's problem. If it was it would be easier to deal with and repair. If it was simply a case of keeping him involved in the game or letting him know that football loves him, he could attend a golf day or show up at a charity ball. His solution might be simpler and more complex than that.

Gascoigne's issues pre-date retirement, in fact they are a pre-existing condition which probably pre-existed at birth.

It may be that the infantilism of professional sport doesn't help those who have to deal with the infantilism of their own disease but there are plenty of accountants with the same problem as Gascoigne who are stuck in the same cycle as well.

The desperate tragedy of Paul Gascoigne is that at this stage he probably knows what to do. He's been to rehab, he's been sober and now he's in rehab again. He knows what they'll tell him there and there is no doubt that it's the right place for him to be, but the challenge is how to make a bridge towards what can loosely be described as normal living.

It is easy to look at Gascoigne now and think that, with football removed, he doesn't know how to live. The truth may be that he never knew how to live but when football was part of his life, we didn't notice that he didn't know how to live. With football removed, all we see is his life.

In a superb BBC interview with Kirsty Wark recently, Billy Connolly explained how he used to look down on those who would drink before gigs. Wark made an observation that Connolly agreed with, she said that he didn't need to drink to perform but he needed to drink to deal with the rest of his life.

Gascoigne didn't need a drink to play football, although he occasionally did drink before he played, but having one area of your life in which you feel safe doesn't prevent the rest of it collapsing. His life was chaotic and ugly at times during his career, as it appears to be chaotic now.

He has, according to reports, been off drink for much of the last two years. He was living in Bournemouth and before that in a rehab centre in Dorset. He had gone to Bournemouth for the quiet life. According to Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian, "He had moved to Bournemouth to get away from 'friends' who just wanted to take him for one last night out and hear one last story about his famous goals and celebrations and tears."

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Piers Morgan is one of the people who has paid for Gascoigne's trip to rehab so perhaps we have to endure his analysis of the situation. He noted the similarities between Gascoigne and George Best, but said Best was a "happy drunk . . . he just wanted to be left alone to drink himself into the grave; Gazza is a very unhappy drunk. He has been through innumerable hellish treatments, and although he keeps falling off the rails, he is still desperate to sort himself out."

Some of us would recall the time in Best's life when he moved to Portavogie, Co Down and installed a bar in his home even though he was off the drink himself at the time.

The story went that he didn't think it was right that other people shouldn't enjoy themselves just because he wasn't drinking. This assumed that most people expect a full bar when they pop over to a friend's house.

Another version of the story says the bar was stocked with lemonade but either version reveals the torment of a man locked into all-consuming negotiations with alcohol. He may have spent his time not drinking wishing he was drinking and his time drinking wishing he wasn't. Happiness didn't come into it. Morgan's comments merely illustrate why a subject like this is best left to the professionals, in this instance the retired drinkers.

Gascoigne's unhappiness can't be denied. The move to Bournemouth was part of his plan to escape, a familiar scheme where hell is seen as other people when the real hell is yourself.

Perhaps it's harmless that a cry goes up for football to do more whenever Gascoigne makes the headlines although there is always the implied search for a scapegoat and the consequences – seeing Gordon Taylor on the television – are terrible. Yet the truth is that football can do nothing.

They will tell him in rehab all the things he has heard before. They will tell him some steps he can take which might help him. But the rest is up to him, not the football family. This is probably the best chance he has of making it and maybe the worst chance too. There are people who can show him how to live but Paul Gascoigne is going to have to do the living.

Tom Waits put it best when he recalled his own transformation to life without drink. "Am I genuinely eccentric? Or am I just wearing a funny hat? All the big questions come up when you get sober. What am I made of? What's left when you drain the pool?"

dfanning@independent.ie


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