Ending in tears
Boarding a plane home is normally the simplest of exercises. You check in, get a few nasty looks from the security guards, get ripped off at the airport cafes and squeeze into a seat that was made with no one else in mind other than a three-year-old amputee. Easy. Unless, that is, your name is Paul Gascoigne, who, despite gaining fame and fortune - and doing his best to lose both - has still not figured out that it's not just the pilots who are prohibited from having a tipple or 20.
Wherever Gazza has gone in the past 10 years or so, it seems some interminable disaster has gone with him, invariably sticking like gum to his staggering footsteps. When he was in Malta some months back, I had arranged to interview him. I turned up at the allotted time at his hotel, only to be told by the red-faced hotel manager that they couldn't find him. He had not even managed to occupy his bed that night. This would have been a forgivable misdemeanour, except that he was here on a promotional exercise for them.
When I learnt that last Wednesday week Gazza was due to visit the offices of The Times and The Sunday Times, I took the news with a bucket-load of salt. So much so that I was not even paying attention to the time he was due to arrive. Suddenly my phone went: "Gascoigne has offered to be interviewed, you'd better come down now," said a colleague. So I found two batteries with a bit of juice, slid them into my recorder and duly went to the other editor's office, where I set eyes upon this overly-tanned pale shadow of a man - if you'll forgive the oxymoron - that was a Goliath the last time I'd seen him on football pitch. That was in 1991.
The thing is with Gazza that whatever he's done wrong - and he's done a lot - people have always been able to forgive him. For most women, it's because he's a loveable rogue. For most men, however, it's the pure delight of nostalgia. When he took to the field of play, football wasn't just a beautiful game; it was a passionate one, overflowing with drive and determination. As well as a little fun: When England stood beside their opposing team for the respective national anthems during the 1990 World Cup matches, most players could be seen singing along as the camera flashed past them, with a fair old dose of patriotic gusto. Gazza stuck his tongue out, quite naturally upsetting some people back home.
The England manager at the time, Bobby Robson, laughed off the 23-year-old's actions, and famously said that the sparkling jewel in his rather dull crown was "as daft as a brush". As if to prove the point, Gazza got booked in the late stages of a delicately poised semi-final against Germany - which meant that he would miss the final if England got there. A penalty shoot-out ensured he would have done so anyway, but it was at that moment that the cheeky Geordie etched his name onto the heart of a nation. Quite unexpectedly he started to cry, and suddenly he became a sobbing talisman for a stoic nation.
From there it was a rollercoaster of interviews, TV appearances and commercial opportunities. But he didn't lose his touch on the pitch either: almost single-handedly guiding a relatively mediocre Tottenham side to an FA Cup final the following year and scoring a wonder goal against the mighty Arsenal in the semi-final. Shortly before the biggest game of his domestic career to date, the London club sold him for a hatful of money to the Italian club Lazio. Glory beckoned for Gazza, who was destined to be the star of the next World Cup.
But then he went haywire. With barely quarter of an hour gone in that cup final, he lunged wildly at Nottingham Forest player Gary Charles. He got to his feet briefly, but collapsed in a heap as soon as the opposing team scored from the resulting free kick and was carried off the field with a serious knee injury. He had pushed the self-destruct button for probably the first significant time in his life. But unfortunately for him it was far from the last. Although he would resurrect his football career in the years to come, it never quite reached the heights his incredible ability should have elevated him to. And in one of the great ironies of football, he never again got the opportunity to play in a World Cup.
It was not just on the field that things started to go wrong for him. As the years rolled on, his once wonderful relationship with the press was in tatters as they chased him around every nightspot in London, and reported extensively on a public falling out with his wife, whom he admitted beating. To soothe the pain he turned first to drink, then to drugs, then to everything at the same time. It was a recipe for disaster and, as recently as last May when he celebrated his 40th birthday, Gazza was admitted to hospital with a perforated stomach ulcer.
Gone are the boyish looks, the chubby frame, and the ever-present grin that made young and old love him. They've been replaced by bleached hair, ridiculous tattoos, a weather-worn face and a guarded approach. The 'brush' has lost much of its bristle, and the hard realities of life at the top and life at the bottom mean it is not daft - at least in the innocent sense - anymore.
A flash of humour is still there at least: "Take a chair," he says, as he sits in the editor's seat with me across the table, before a hint of his old chuckle creases his once chubby cheeks. "When you play football all your life, you miss the game. Still do... but the chance to play with players like (Franco) Baresi again, you never think it's going to come round. It's a challenge and its nice because you might be sitting at home thinking what am I going to do this week and then you're here in Malta - staying in lovely hotel, everyone's being fantastic, being well looked after and there's a game of football at the end of the day which is fantastic. And I get to visit The Times. You know, there's a swimming pool back at the hotel, nice gym, sauna... and I come to The Times... No, it's fantastic.
Gazza has recently been trying to get himself into physical and mental shape, yet again, by training with the apprentices at Newcastle football club, his home club which gave him his first big break in the game. Is there a future for Paul Gascoigne in football, or is he done with it? "You never say never. Not playing, because obviously the injuries took their toll... I'm going to be doing my (coaching) badges again, so that'll be nice. I've sent my forms away. I was half way through last time and now I have to start half way through again and work on the badges."
His last attempt at coaching was at lowly Kettering Town two years ago. But it came to an end after just 39 days when the chairman accused him of drinking at the office. Shortly after he was arrested after allegedly assaulting a photographer at a London nightclub popular with celebrities. Relations between him and the press have worsened over the years, as they have done everything to publicise his problems.
"It's always the same isn't it. You know, I go down the High Street and someone will take a photo of us and there's been a lot of lies written about us. There's nothing I can do about it. The only thing I could do is take them to court. But if I took the lies that have been in the newspapers to court, I'd be in court every day. I've let myself down a bit in the past, but some of the things that have been written...
"I was down in London once with a few friends and the next thing I know is that five or six (football) players were in a club till four in the morning. But obviously they never get in the papers, and I get in the papers if I have a chicken kebab. That's life and that's what happens when you're in the public eye. When things are good, you take them on board; and when they're bad, you have to accept them."
However, despite looking a little on the thin side, he says he is in better shape now than four or five months ago. "I'm taking more care of myself than I have in the past and these things (the legends match) help.
Yet he says he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life yet. "I'm one of these guys who doesn't like to know what the future holds. Sometimes it's nice to know but I like doing things off the cuff and if something comes up, that's good and I'll do it. The good thing now is that I can pick what I want to do and don't want to do. I think about things a lot more before I get into anything. Like you said, I've had tough times and I've had good times. I just make sure that when I do have a good time, that it is a good time and I make the most of it."
Gazza's approach to the game that gave him so much - and took away so much from him too - has also changed. His aim isn't to get involved at all costs anymore, but to try and find the right moment and opportunity. "It's always nice to be involved in a big football club. When Freddy Shepherd was chairman of Newcastle United, it was fantastic. I was invited to the games and sitting among them, which is great because you feel wanted. But it all depends. Is the chairman good, is it the players there that are fantastic, what's the atmosphere like within the club... it doesn't have to be a big club either. I'll just take things as they come if I want to be a manager or a coach."
Football has, of course, changed since he left the scene. It's more popular than ever and the stadiums are packed every week. Yet Gazza does not necessarily think that bigger is better. "The characters have gone out of the game, that's for sure. It's really serious now. It's tough on the referees because they have the fourth person, somebody judging them in stands. Then you've got Sky and other TV channels, so everyone's monitoring everything. When the referees are under pressure, they put the players under pressure. It's just one big pressure game.
"And there's a lot of money in the game. I think sometimes some players are just happy to get their wages and sit in the stands. Which is a shame. Football's not football anymore, it's business. Some games I watch, and some games I'm not really interested in - whether it be the Premiership or the fourth division. But it's always nice to get back and watching games, especially if it's a good game."
Is life for Paul Gascoigne impossible without football? No, not at all," he retorts. "There's other things I can be interested in as well. Obviously football has been a big part of my life; since I was a young kid. Sometimes I still think I want to play or I can play. And sometimes I just want to get over that.
"It's hard sometimes when I watch a game. I'm (not good) at watching games. I want to be playing more than anything. But there's still life after football. It's just what I choose and what I want to do."
Some people still argue he would not have got into so much trouble off the field had he not suffered such a bad injury during that 1991 FA Cup Final - which provided him with so much troublesome time on his hands before he could walk onto a pitch again. So what would he do if Gary Charles was running past him on the edge of the penalty area today? "Run out the way!" he blurts out with laughter. "That was an important challenge. People say it ruined my career. But I went on to win three championship medals with Glasgow Rangers and won player's player of the year twice."
He had also played a major role for his nation in the Euro '96 tournament, in which he scored a magnificent goal after ensuring that the posterior of one of Scotland's finest ever defenders made rather rapid, though intimate, contact with the hallowed Wembley turf. "So I won seven medals and scored one of the best goals of my career... I won awards and kept collecting them," he goes to pains to point out.
No one can, or wants to, deny any of that. It's just that the cups he's picking up these days aren't made of silver anymore.