It would be nice to think, as they rest up in their home cinemas ahead of this weekend’s Premier League fixtures, or do a couple of lengths in their basement pool, that the footballing inhabitants of England’s millionaire’s row raise a glass of sparkling stuff to the man who made it all possible. Sparkling water, obviously. And how Paul Gascoigne could use their sympathies right now. Not to mention a bit of their cash.
It may have been done unwittingly, it may have just been a lucky coincidence, it was certainly done without forethought (not much he has ever done has been planned or thought through) but there is no doubt of Gascoigne’s importance in the origins of the competition which has enriched so many.
Sure, it may have been the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Alan Sugar and David Gill sitting around in committee rooms charting the course for a breakaway super league. Sure, the detail came from the pointy heads and accountants who negotiated the subsequent television deals. But of this we can be certain: it was Paul Gascoigne who gave them the idea which fundamentally drove the Premier League revolution. Or rather Gazza did.
Because what the galloping, carefree, happy-go-lucky Gazza did in 1990 was remind those with economic power what football could be. When he went to Italy for the World Cup the game was in a parlous state. The previous year 96 people had been killed at Hillsborough through the toxic mix of neglect and institutionalised mistrust. As England headed to Sicily that summer the English game was a pariah, reckoned a rump pastime for hooligans and morons.
While the rest of the world went to the mainland to party, we were sent to the island in exile, like we were some sort of sporting bunch of Napoleons. Pete Davies chose for the title of his brilliant memoir of that World Cup a phrase which summed up the wider feeling towards the game: it was All Played Out. The feeling was that culturally it was over.
With his child-like, innocent enjoyment (and his tears) Gazza showed everyone what those who loved the game already knew: that it was fun. It wasn’t violent or dangerous or horrible, it was a laugh. More important, it touched the soul in a way that millions could enjoy.
Sure Gary Lineker, Des Lynam and Pavarotti all helped, but it was Gazza who largely pulled the nation to its television screens: 28 million of us watched him sob through that semi-final. And, as he blubbed, those looking for content for the new era of digital television suddenly realised football could be just the thing.
The way he lifted the game from the back pages to the front and middle, the way he got those who had never thought about it to pay heed, the way made it the subject of discussion for the whole country: thanks to Gazza, the wealthy and powerful saw what this game could be. It could be entertainment for all. He was the light bulb that lit up in a hundred influential heads.
Not that he knew what he was doing. It is not certain the poor guy has ever known what he is doing. I met him a couple of years ago and I have never encountered such a nervous, distracted person. Never mind his nails chewed to the quick, his fingers were, too. His thumb was covered in scabs that he picked at continuously as he talked. Or rather gabbled. At the time he was convinced he was going to make a fortune out of News International in compensation for having his phone tapped.
“They all thought I was mad when I told them someone was listening,” he said. “Now they know someone was.”
A fortune in compo was never forthcoming. But what was clear as he spoke was that he didn’t need phone tappers to disconcert him, he was a man pursued by internal demons. That is why he has for so long drunk to excess: not to be stimulated, but to quieten those nerves. It is not so much self-medication with Gazza as self-anaesthesia.
And he is clearly now in a desperate place. When I met him he was in the first tentative stages of recovery in a clinic in Bournemouth. It didn’t last. He absconded and went on a bender, culminating in his shambolic performance on stage in Northampton, a horrible freak show of an event. But his agent, who arranged for him to make that appearance, suggests it was necessary to provoke him into action. He needed to see he had hit rock bottom. Because unless he did, he was never going to sort himself out.
Now he is in Arizona, for a rigorous last-ditch treatment which we can only pray will gain a foothold in his consciousness. There is so much going on in his head he will need something as powerful as alcohol to help him still it.
Like his stay in Bournemouth, the fees for the Arizona trip are being met in part by the PFA. When I saw him, the last thing I said to him was that football had been good to him, in the way it had assisted him financially. To which he replied: “Aye, but then I’ve been good for football.”
He was right there. Without him the game may well not be where it is today.