Gazza Documentary – BBC – i-Player click here 

A shuffling, gaunt old man drags his body away from us and towards a lake where he stands alone on the other side, out of focus. Isolated, distant, alone. The camera fades and cuts back in time. More than 30 years back in time, to another fisherman. Young, full of energy, charismatic. Bouncing towards us. The same man, different men. Both strangers to us now, strangers to one another.

Re-watching the BBC’s recent Gazza documentary at the weekend – there’s only so much Botman-infused, Fender-fuelled positivity a miserable old heart can take – the overwhelming emotion is sadness. At what might have been. At what came to pass. At what that young, infectiously enthusiastic, supremely talented young man has become.

The only real enjoyment to be found in what is ultimately a grim two hours are the occasional long-forgotten on-field gems. Scoring his first Spurs goal against Arsenal with his right sock, a winning header in the Rome derby for Lazio, the twenty-yard thunderbastard (to use the modern parlance) into the stanchion (oh yes!) against Palace at St James’ in the FA Cup.

Plus, of course, the late 1980s curiosities from his all-to brief time at United. Defying physics to glide across a bog of a pitch or back-heeling on the old training pitches and then effortlessly finding the corner of the net, as Willie McFaul looks on in a Black-and-White woolly hat.

The more famous on-field drama is there too, albeit briefly. The FA Cup semi-final at Wembley and making Seaman look an idiot from a range that not even Shelvey would consider, Italia 90 and an impact that would transform the game in this country, and Euro 96 and that glorious adrenaline-soaked goal and celebration. But even in the less familiar off-field shots of training ground high jinks, sozzled nights out, and his parents’ Tyneside semi, Paul Gascoigne the man remains curiously peripheral.

Constructed almost entirely out of archive footage and with contributions presented only in voiceover, it’s an impressively understated production. That light editorial touch allows the subject matter to speak for itself. And the real subject matter is not Gascoigne, but the immoral workings of the press, whether setting up fights in night clubs, nefariously befriending Sheryl, or hacking phones. That Rebekah Brooks and Piers Morgan are never far away from the action in this modern-day morality play comes as no surprise.

This is the story of Gazza as national and public property, caught up in the furious red-top battle between The S*n and The Mirror. It is a story in which Paul Gascoigne is ultimately little more than collateral damage, hopelessly out of place and entirely without the tools to cope. Someone swept away, dragged under, and eventually drowned in the filthy cesspool of the English tabloid press.

Of course, as with all tragedies, the hero’s fate is foreseen from the outset, predestined by his own character flaws. In the opening minutes an anonymous cockney voice, instantly recognisable as Glenn Roeder’s, warns of Gascoigne’s “complicated character”, one that needs good people around him. Perhaps if he had found himself under Ferguson’s tutelage, instead of Venables’ indulgence, things might have been different. Perhaps not. We’ll never know.

But there’s something else telling that emerges unwittingly from the film and its approach to Gascoigne’s story. This is not a film seen through the eyes of Tyneside, but one shot entirely through the lens of the national (that is, London) media. To watch is to realise just how far the country was tilted inexorably to its south-eastern corner in the late 1980s, a black hole of economic and cultural power pulling everything into its bleak core.

Inside the first five minutes, Gascoigne is on his way to London. And, from then on, it is a tale not of a young lad born with an incredible talent growing up in a city craving a hero of its own, but a parallel story of a young man uprooted, displaced, decentred from his own life. He is a figure who is robbed of all agency. Someone who has things happen to him, rather than steering his own course.

Watching the story play out this way, you realise that Gazza’s fate is not one ultimately explained by his personal flaws, of which there were many. Nor by the ethical vacuum at the centre of the tabloid press, even if the film makes a compelling case for that line of argument.

Instead, it is a story of much wider relevance, of the economic and social forces unleashed in the 1980s, of a regional decline and neglect so complete that it was simply unthinkable for the city to retain its most talented sons and daughters. And that was a decline reflected unmistakeably on the pitch and on the terraces at what was a bleak and dilapidated St James’ Park.

Whatever else, we can only hope that the renewed sense of pride of the club and city ought to prevent that ever happening again.

The final word – the final “what if?” – goes to Gazza’s mother.“What would it have been like if Paul had just been your average footballer, playing for an average team?” she asks, “I wish that had happened, I really do.” 

Looking at the broken figure standing by the lake, it’s impossible to disagree.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731