Paul Gascoigne was a one-off – the most talented British football player of his generation. Then came the drink, the domestic violence, that Raoul Moat incident and rumours of an early death. Now back in rehab, playing six-a-side with his therapists, is he finally putting his life back together? Simon Hattenstone finds out
In June last year, a dark rumour began to circulate: Paul Gascoigne had two days to live. There were even stories that the former England footballer was already dead – after a car crash, of pneumonia, from the drink. Nobody wanted to believe the rumours, but there seemed to be a grim inevitability to them. A month later, Gascoigne proved he was alive in bizarre and equally dark circumstances. After Raoul Moat had shot three people, killing one, Gascoigne jumped in a taxi with a box of chicken, can of lager, fishing rod and dressing gown, and announced to the world that he was there to rescue his old friend from himself. It wasn't a good year for Gascoigne publicity-wise. But then it's been a long time since it has been. He made one more inglorious public appearance in 2010 – in October he was convicted of drink-driving after being caught four times over the limit. The judge told him he could either go to jail or to rehab for six months.
A year on, Gascoigne is still in rehab, living in Bournemouth and attempting to rebuild his life. After six months in residential care, he recently moved into a flat by the sea – the next stage in his recovery. We meet in a club in nearby Christchurch. Gascoigne walks in with his friend and mentor Steve Spiegel, a former heroin addict turned therapist who runs the Providence Projects. Gascoigne's face is still pale, his cheeks hollowed, and he's limping slightly because of a damaged hip sustained in the car crash, but he looks strong. He sits down, looks at the menu and decides it's time for a cigarette break. Gascoigne admits he's nervous about this interview – he's not done one for ages, and although he says he's in a good place at the moment, he knows more than anybody how fragile stability is.
He's more relaxed on his return: "I'll have a white coffee, and can I also have a ginger beer?" He looks at the waitress apologetically. "It sounds stupid, that, but never mind."
It's good to see you alive, I say.
He smiles. "I was walking up the street and some guy comes up and looked shocked and he went, 'Gazza?' and I said, 'Yeah' and he went, 'Oh! It's in the paper you're dead. There's just been a news flash.' I went, 'Oh, am I? Ah well, never mind' and I just carried on. You've got to understand the press are never going to write Paul Gascoigne looks well. They want to sell papers."
Which might be true, but actually Gascoigne says the stories weren't far off the mark. "The day after the crash, the hospital said I died twice in the ambulance." He punctured a lung, battered his hip, smashed up his face. "I had to get all me teeth fixed. I had them all done ages ago at Glasgow Rangers, but I smashed nine teeth so had to get them fixed again." Did his heart stop beating? "I don't know. I was dead."
It was last summer and he had popped into the pub for a pint and got a lift into Newcastle with strangers. Was he drunk? "No, I'd only been out 10 minutes. I'm sitting in the back, and it hit the wall at 90 miles an hour."
Did it scare him? "No, not really. After the car crash I went home and carried on drinking."
As a footballer, Gascoigne was a one-off – the most talented and loved British player of his generation. The midfielder started out at Newcastle United as a chubby kid with an irrepressible, comic-strip grin. He might have looked like a bag of coal unfeasibly balanced on a couple of Chipsticks, but he could do ridiculous things with a ball – he'd put it through his opponent's legs, then go back and do it again. He wasn't happy until defenders were left trailing and flailing or, best of all, dumped on their arse (the most famous example is when he chipped Scotland's Colin Hendry, ran past him, waited for the ball to come down, then volleyed it into the net). He had wonderful vision, a ferocious free kick, and could dribble past whole teams for fun.
There was always something childlike and vulnerable about him; something, you sensed, his fellow players wanted to protect him from – never more so than when the then 23-year-old burst into tears during the semi-final of the World Cup in 1990 when he received a booking that would have meant he missed the final if England qualified; Gary Lineker gestured to the manager Bobby Robson, with a finger to the head, that Gazza had lost it.
No matter what team they supported, football fans loved Gazza. He was an entertainer, and not just with the ball – he celebrated goals outlandishly (after the chip and volley against Scotland, he performed the "dentist's chair" – a re-enactment of a recent drinking feat in which he sat in a chair while fellow players poured spirits down his mouth); he dived into the crowd for a laugh; he ran on to the pitch in plastic boobs; he booked a referee after the ref dropped his yellow card (and was booked for his efforts). What emerges more than anything in his new memoir is his love for the game. On the evening of the day we meet, £250,000-a-week Carlos Tevez apparently refused to get off the bench to play as a substitute for Manchester City. You sense Gazza would have paid to play.
Then there were the demons – depression, domestic abuse, a bipolar diagnosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder and, of course, the drink. It was invariably the drink that was behind the front-page stories – driving the Middlesbrough team bus into a wall, calling room service in a hotel to ask for a knife so he could kill himself (he was subsequently sectioned), passing out here, there and everywhere. And it was the drink that was behind the one incident for which he's never been forgiven – beating up his wife Sheryl, head-butting her, then banging her head on the floor.
It's nine years since he retired from the British game, and he is stopped as often as ever – even if some people do a double-take before approaching him. Here in Bournemouth, locals have become used to the sight of him. My cab driver talks proudly about the progress he is making and how well liked he is in the town. After a life lived in cities, did he ever expect to find himself in Bournemouth? "No, I thought it was an old folk's home. But I'm down on the sea, doing a bit of fishing, working out every morning, y'know, and I just try to keep things as simple as I can."
He first came here in July 2010, a month after the car crash, spent five weeks at the Providence rehab centre, went back home and started drinking again. He called Spiegel a few months later and told him he was desperate. "I said, 'Come and help us, I want to do the treatment.'" The therapist flew straight to Newcastle, but by the time he got there Gascoigne had had second thoughts. "I had some gin left, so I went into the cupboard and hid in it with the gin."
How long was he in the cupboard? "Till he went – probably about three hours." Two days later, Gascoigne rang Spiegel to apologise. In between times, he had finished the gin and been charged with drink-driving. "If I'd gone with him, I wouldn't have got done. So he came and picked us up. He wasn't a happy chap. He said, 'That's it. No more chances.'" Gascoigne stops, and says no, that's not quite right. "He said, 'Give it a try and if it's no good, go back to drinking.' "
And what does he think? "I'm enjoying it. Listen, I'm like everybody else, I have bad days, I have good days. Now I tend not to drink on the bad days."
Does he stay clear of pubs? No, he says, he's happy to be where other people are drinking. "You get a lot of people saying, 'I can't go to the match any more because people drink beer there.' Well, fuckin' hell, if that's the case, you may as well just sit in the house for the rest of your life."
It wasn't just the drink that brought him down, he says, it was the medication. "I've been off pills for three years. I'd be on one lot and when I went to see the psychiatrist, he'd say, 'Who gave you these pills?' and then this other psychiatrist says take these pills, and another says take these. To get rid of you, they just chuck tablets at you. Some treatment centres like to give you titles, like I've got bipolar and all that. Fuckin' 'ell, at one stage I had more titles than Muhammad Ali: you're bipolar, you're OCD, whereas really all I am is an alcoholic. So I don't need any tablets. I feel good."
He's even overcome most of his obsessive behaviours, he says. "I got cured 90% now. I was touching the door handles nine times, shoes off and on, numbers, and when I was in the Priory [a previous attempt at rehab], they got this guy in and he made us do all the things I'd do the opposite way. I had 30-odd hours with him and now when I shut the door I just shut it the normal way. It was horrible, but I got through it… I used to do all the cracks in the pavement, and I've stopped all that."
It's the first time he's agreed to go on a 12-step programme. The other times he went into rehab, he says, he did it more for others than for himself. "I only went to keep people happy. To keep the press happy, to keep my family happy, sometimes to keep my ex-wife happy."
What he likes about the Providence is that it's not all about therapy and self-flagellation. "They teach you how to enjoy yourself without a drink, and that's what I try to do. At first we were playing volleyball on the beach, cricket, rounders, a bit of camping, and in this way it is not like a treatment centre."
I ask Spiegel what condition Gascoigne was in at the time. "He was emaciated. He was completely lost. I think he felt hopeless and helpless; just a little boy running about. He didn't know where to turn and who to trust. He'd been ripped off so many times, and part of that was down to him. Let's be fair, what he wants is to be loved. And he's a lovely human being."
Gascoigne shows me his bulging, tattooed biceps and six-pack. "See, me muscles are still good." He pronounces muscle with a hard C and laughs. "It's only the muscle between me legs that's not getting a workout." He shouts over to Spiegel, points to his groin and grins. "The muscle here's not working, Steve. It's not functioning!"
It's when Gascoigne starts to perk up that you realise how sedate Bournemouth is. He's seen little of his fellow footballers (though he tells me how caring former Tottenham captain Gary Mabbutt has been) and his rowdy mates from back home. His old friend Jimmy Five Bellies pops down occasionally, but when he does he's on his best behaviour.
Has he got friends here? "I can make friends if I want to, but I'm happy with the people I hang out with." Again, he's talking of the people from the project. "I play football every Friday. Six a side." He says this is one of the week's highlights – the six-a-side match featuring him and the therapists. Are they any good? "Yeah, there're a few good players. It's a good laugh. They all kick the shit out of each other." Do they kick shit out of him? "I've been kicked a few times, aye."
So many footballers never want to kick another ball once they've retired – either because they can't bear playing at a lower level or because football became just a job. Gascoigne can't wait for his next match. "I love it. It's frustrating because I need my hip doing. I had titanium put in my hip after the crash and it's moved out of place, so I need that reset. Then I can start running properly. It really hurts at the moment."
He talks about his football days. The new book features 132 pictures, and he can remember the story to each one, he says. He makes the point that he was always loyal to his managers, and they were to him, and tells a lovely story about former England manager Bobby Robson – at the time in a wheelchair, almost blind and close to death – coming with his son to watch a charity match in which Gascoigne was playing. "I went up to him and he couldn't see much and I said, 'Bobby, it's Gazza' and he half-smiled, and his son took him home, and he said to him, 'How did that Gascoigne play?'… He's probably still looking at us from above." And just as I think he might burst into tears like his old Spitting Image puppet used to, he laughs. "I'm still shit scared of moving in case he's about watching us."
It's a beautiful autumn day, and we go outside so Gascoigne can have another fag. He looks at the ducks on the river pootling by and says he really is happy here. What does he do every day? "I go to the gym 6-7.30 in the morning, go fishing, play football, I pop in to see friends at the Providence, deal with lawyers and financial advisers."
Twenty years ago Gascoigne was earning £100,000 a month, but he lost everything. When he arrived in Bournemouth, he was on the verge of bankruptcy. Now he's gradually sorting out his finances. The book will help, and he's due a hefty payout from News International after it was revealed his phone was one of the first to be hacked. But no, he's not thinking about going back into football, either as a manager or as a pundit. He says he's not got the constitution for it. "I've been told when a player's playing well praise him, and when he's having a bad game fuckin' slaughter him, and I couldn't do that. I couldn't bring myself to slaughter someone having a bad game because I know he's got to sit with his girlfriend or his wife, he knows he's had a bad game, his kid probably thinks, 'Oh, my dad's shit.'" He shakes his head. "Couldn't do it."
At the moment, he says, he's concentrating on staying sober and sane. It's almost a year since he last drank. Is this the longest he's gone? No, he says, that's another misconception – that he is perpetually drunk. "Nah. I've done three years before, I've done one year before. The last four years I've been nine months sober every year." The trouble is, he always lapsed. The funny thing is, he says, he's never been a good drinker – give him a couple of pints and he'll start to wobble.
He can be open about his failings, but at times he becomes defensive and disingenuous. Occasionally, he even suggests that if he only binge drinks, he does not have a problem. "I was back on the drink for a two-month spell: 'Ah, look at him, he's battling drink, he's going to die.' I've seen people on the drink for years and years, and they're still drinking. I have two months and I'm hammered in the papers." At one point he even suggests he never had a drinking problem while playing. "I only started drinking heavily when I packed it in," he tells me, despite the fact that he documents in his book the time the Rangers management team of Walter Smith and Archie Knox bought him bottle after bottle of wine – which he polished off – to check if he was still drinking midweek. A few minutes later, he claims his drinking never hurt his family. "I would like to think I didn't harm anyone. The only person I was harming was myself." He doesn't sound convinced.
Spiegel says one of Gascoigne's greatest achievements in Bournemouth has been to help other addicts stay sober. He visits people, talks about his experience, supports them. "And they think, if he can do it, well, why can't I?"
I ask Gascoigne, now 44, if he could see himself working with the project. "No," he says before the question's out. "I've got other plans… I don't wish to be a therapist." Would he be good? "Aye, I'd be fuckin' brilliant. But I'm working on myself at the moment, keeping well."
Couldn't he make a career of advising aspiring footballers? "Yeah, I like to demonstrate to young kids how to do a move. But until I get my hip fixed, it's limited to what I can show the kids."
He'd be great at showing them both what to do and what not to do, I say. I expect him to laugh and agree, but he takes offence. "Why?" He stares at me. "I've got more medals than I could wish for. I went highest transfer Newcastle to Tottenham, highest transfer Tottenham to Lazio, highest transfer from Lazio to Glasgow, and the highest transfer from Glasgow Rangers to Middlesbrough, and that's at 30 years of age. So if that's a bad time… I won players' player of the year, sportswriters' player of the year, I won eight medals in Glasgow, I won the FA Cup, I went to the World Cup, so if that's someone having a bad career, I'd fucking love to see someone having a good career. People just think of the drinking, that it finished me in football. I was still playing in the premiership, getting man of the match awards every other game, when I was at Everton at 35. Yeah."
He finally takes a breath. But he's got a point. Who are we to suggest he threw it away? Not only did he play for England 57 times, he was the star player in their two most successful tournaments since winning the World Cup in 1966 – in Italia 90 and Euro 96, when Gascoigne dominated. If anybody has the right to criticise his career, he seems to be saying, it is him and him alone. A couple of minutes later, he admits he might have been a little impetuous in some choices. Perhaps, he says, he should have stayed longer at Newcastle, and Spurs, and Rangers, and Everton…
His great regret seems to be not signing for Manchester United after promising Alex Ferguson he would. Does he think Fergie would have calmed him down? Again, he takes umbrage. "Has he calmed Wayne Rooney, has he calmed Ryan Giggs or Rio Ferdinand? They've all been in the news. He's calmed them when they play, but when they go on holiday, he can't watch them all the time."
When I ask where he ranks himself among the British players of his generation, he answers, "Best." When I ask how good a fisherman he is, he says: "Probably the best fly fisherman in the country. I even caught a trout on a cigarette butt. It must have been fuckin' dying for a fag!"
And yet in many ways he lacks self-belief. Take women, for instance. "I was never that good-looking to have a nice woman on my arm," he insists. Would he like a girlfriend? "No, I'm all right at the moment." He says it with something approaching resignation in his voice – as if the prospect of a stable relationship is too remote even to consider. "No, I'm not looking at the moment. I've got a couple of girl friends – you know, friends – but I'm not in any hurry for that part. The main thing is, no matter how good or bad the day is, just enjoy it."
Has he got a car? "I'm banned." A house? "I lost three houses in the divorce, so you get worried if you get another. I'll be looking, but I'm not in any hurry because I don't know where I want to live."
However much he repeats his mantra about living for the day and however much progress he has made and however caring his new friends are, you can't help sensing an overwhelming loneliness at the heart of Gascoigne's life. Yes, his family visit him and he is still close to them. But when he talks about family, he means his mother and father and four siblings. He doesn't mean the family he created. He says he's not seen his ex-wife Sheryl for years. His kids are grown-up now – does he see them? "Well, I've been in touch. They know where I am. I never really talk about them because I always felt every time I was doing well, they'd sell stories and make money on us. But I spoke to them not long ago. I texted them and said, 'Look, I don't mind seeing you, but see us as your dad and not the name Gascoigne as a trophy.' They went, 'OK', then Bianca does Big Brother and Mason goes and sells stories."
Does he envisage a time when they will see him as Dad? "I don't know. You'd better ask them. I'm sure they'd be willing to do it for a fee!"
Later in the day, I drop in on Spiegel at the project to chat about Gascoigne. I mention his defensiveness, and he says it is still a problem. "He's a lot less resentful than he was, a lot less bitter about the past. He's seen he's had a part to play in everything. But family is going to be a slow process. He's still very defensive around family. And he's scared. He's very scared. He's done a lot of damage to himself – and to others."
He shows me a recent photograph of Gascoigne. "I was looking at this picture that was taken the other day at our reunion. His eyes are alive now."
Back in Christchurch, Gascoigne is talking about football's premiership. He says he doesn't think he would make it today because of the preponderance of foreign players. "I don't think I'd get a chance because the rules have changed and there are loads of foreigners coming in. There are good kids about, but they won't get a chance with the invasion of foreign players. I've got nothing against good players coming over, but when you see some player who's crap and is on about 100 grand a week…" He's on a roll. "Then you get those who are homesick and they're on 200 grand a week. If they're that homesick, give an Englishman with the same ability a game for half the money." Then there's the crazy amount paid to those starting out. "You see some apprentices on 15 grand a week and some of them can't trap a bag of cement."
But he knows he has no cause for complaint. He was also paid a fortune in his playing days and blew it on drink, divorce, hangers-on, gambling and everyday extravagances. He knows at some point he's going to have to work to make a living, and talks vaguely about business plans. But in the short-term, he says, he's keeping himself busy. "I've booked myself for four dinners, giving talks. So that's a plan. I've done the book, so that's a plan. I'm going to watch Newcastle against Spurs. That's a plan. I'm going to go to the Rangers game. That's a plan. So really, in the next two months, I'm quite busy."
I ask about the Raoul Moat incident. Only Gascoigne could have turned such a tragedy into farce – albeit unwittingly. For once, he looks embarrassed. "Yeah, I wasn't well then," he mutters. Did he know him? "I'm not too sure. At that time I thought I knew everyone. I thought I knew Bin Laden when I was that drunk. No, it was a daft thing I did, y'know. Like I said, I wasn't well."
Can he remember it? "Not really. I remember sitting in a taxi, that's all. I remember the fishing rod, but apart from that I can't remember much. It was only later I thought, 'What have I done?' I had 20 texts, and everyone was saying, 'What you doing?' and I went, 'I don't know.' And then I put on the news and thought, 'Ooh shit, I've got myself into a bit of trouble there.' "
Back in the day, Gascoigne was almost as famous for his laughter as for his tears. Now, he says, that's coming back. "From 36 to 42, I wasn't laughing that much. I laugh now just as much as I did when I played football. Yeah."
He was also known for his pranks. Does he still play tricks on people? "Yeah. I just did one the other day at the Providence Projects. I dropped the lighter in the kettle and turned the kettle on and almost blew the whole place up."
So he hasn't changed? He grins. "Not really. I still get up to my pranks. I do everything I did when I played football. I just don't drink."
And does he think he has beaten the desire to drink? His smile disappears. "No, I'm never confident. When I finish this interview, I might go on the drink. I just know I'm not going to be drinking in the next 10 minutes. I know that for a fact. I don't know about tonight. Any time I get too confident about not drinking, I end up drinking. So I have to stay on my toes."
The cheek Nottingham Forest – 18 May 1991. I was way too hyped for the match but there was nothing anyone could have done to calm me down. The night before I couldn't sleep; I was kicking lampshades pretending they were footballs. Eventually someone called the doctor who gave us a Valium. That did the trick, but it was short-lived. It was the FA Cup final. Before the match, I said to the lads I was going to ask Princess Diana for a kiss, but they didn't believe me. Then it came to my turn. "Can I have a kiss, your Majesty?" I didn't really know how to address her. She said yes, so I made a bit of a move to get in there, but she stuck out her hand. Oh, well, better than nothing. Afterwards, I heard that the Queen had put a stop on me meeting Diana again, just in case.
The pranks The Rangers player Gordon Durie had stitched me up over something, so I asked to borrow his car after training one day. I'd been fishing early that morning, and I had a couple of trout with me. I put one in the boot. I knew that's where he would look once the smell started. But I squeezed the second one in between the back seat and the floor. A couple of days later, Durie handed me the trout from the boot. "Good try, mate." Three or four days after, he came up to us again: "My car still stinks. I can't understand it." When he found out, he went mental, but it was worth it. The chairman wasn't too chuffed, though. The car was a sponsored one, provided by the club. I think it had to be scrapped.
The drinking We were due to play Sunderland on 12 January 2002. That night I drank three and a half bottles of wine, took 11 sleeping tablets, woke up at 6am with the shakes, took a couple more tablets, finished off the wine, fell back asleep, woke up again at 9am, had a treble brandy, another sleeping tablet, a smoke and went to the game. I was in a terrible state, so I had another treble brandy, took another tablet and went out and played a blinder. Afterwards, I went home and fell asleep. Next morning I asked Jimmy ["Five Bellies", pictured below] how I had done. "Look at the table," he said, pointing to a bottle of champagne. "You won man of the match."
Extracted from Glorious