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Gascoigne – The Construction of a Fallen Hero

July 13, 2015


(Gascoigne, Jane Preston 2015)

At the beginning of this documentary about Paul Gascoigne, released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Italia ‘90, the tournament in which his career was played out in implosive microcosm, Gary Lineker observes that Gazza the player and the person is defined by vulnerability. It’s a point that’s both so right it’s disarming to have it dropped it so early – everything about the way Gazza played and lived was enabled and destroyed by a doomed emotional naiviety – but also one that the film clings to so firmly that it fails, in the end, to look into the consequences of this vulnerability for anyone except Gascoigne himself.

Still – there are things the film does well. It allows Gascoigne to talk, and in talking to remember with a clear and still-ringing incomprehension the miracle journey from back-alley obscurity to global stardom. Watching his interviews catches you in a double-bind of pity – for the bright, impulsive talent incapable of grasping the enormity and potential of his situation, and for the damaged, reflective survivor looking back on a player who is both him and not him, who was something great and far from all he could have been.

There’s plenty of straightforward nostalgia at work, for an English man in this 30s – me, essentially – looking back on a pre-Premier League landscape of football and footballers. In this tight-shorted era England make the closing stages of major tournaments despite – or because of, in rigid defiance of Murdoch-dollar hype – uncomplicated non-stars like Walker, Pearce and Platt, and the head of England’s most expensive player can be turned by the offer of a house for his parents (this detail, which sealed Gascoigne’s move to Spurs, sets out the galling inevitability of his trajectory, given his starting position).

This somehow adds up to more than just a pleasing look at probably-better (or at least younger and keener) days. The way I experienced these tournaments in ‘86, ‘90, ‘96 – the way we all experienced them – was as a burst of hope, as if the efforts and contortions of young men hundreds of miles away engaged in a sport that’s important only because we have decided as much could really improve the way we felt and treated each other. If the film has a trick it’s in pulling Gascoigne into meaningful focus as a great cypher of English football, recognising that his bluster and impact – those tottering runs, a rolling contradiction of balance and delayed catastrophe, those strikes that look like an impossible collection of repeat-flukes – were an embodiment of how football could, on those rare occasions, make us all feel: a fleeting, fragile touch of promise.

Maybe simply watching Gazza play says all this anyway – the romance of the unachieved, the righteousness of trying so hard you break yourself. He became, for a generation that included me, a model of athletic ambition – if not to win, then to lose gloriously, exhausted, battered and honourably bewildered in the face of opposition who had found some more nefarious path to victory than brute force or emotional investment. Gascoigne played football with all the insight of a man who wore fake plastic breasts to a national homecoming held chiefly in his honour, a tragic figure of unguarded striving whose undoing – the image-fixing yellow card which led to celebrated tears, the career-defining injuries which led to depression and addiction – was to overstretch, quite literally, and to want more than he could do.

The film’s key achievement, in other words, is to recognise self-defeat as the motif of Gascoigne’s career, and to see the terms of his talent – raw and, as Lineker observes, vulnerable – as the mechanisms of its collapse. But what it fails to do entirely is extend this observation past the valiant losing semi-finalist – Gazza, the emblem of English football – to his private life, to Gazza the domestic abuser. While the highlights of Gascoigne’s England career are recounted blow-by-blow, his ex-wife Sheryl (who still supports a perpetually-recovering Gascoigne, while campaigning for victims of domestic abuse) is excised entirely.

It’s an unforgivable omission, from a film willing to explore the damaging dysfunction of Gascoigne’s talent and exposure only to the point of constructing a wistful image of an excruciating almost-man. The loss can be football’s, it can be Gascoigne’s, and most selfishly it can be ours – but it can’t be the loss suffered by a beaten wife, or their scared children.

Admitting their relationship to this history wouldn’t even contradict the film’s portrayal of Gascoigne the self-saboteur – it would only deepen it, forcing a reckoning of how a man capable of these inspiring acts can be capable of these inexcusable others, and asking what the connection between the two might be. And the film already has half the answers, drawing attention to our need to find heroes like Gazza and live in some orbit of surrogate glory around them. His most touching memories are of scoring specific goals, not for the technique or skill involved, but the crowd’s surging response to them. The film’s most astonishing scenes are of Lazio fans, after his transfer to the Rome side, swarming his car in a frenzy of uncomprehending proximity.

And yet the final connections aren’t made – between a mode of embattled masculinity cheered by a crowd, a community, a nation, and the violent misogyny that masculinity spawns. There is no irony perceived, even when discussing Gascoigne’s disgraceful treatment by the tabloid press, of the need to grant our heroes certain flaws and cleanse them of others. It leaves Gascoigne the film telling a narrative of Gascoigne the man that fails to challenge or even acknowledge the cultures and entitlements that made him want to be a footballer in the first place, that valourize endeavour and glorious self-destruction, and turn a blind eye to abuse when it’s inconvenient enough not to take place on a football field.

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