Time called on tearaways

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They buried the king of the footballing tearaways last Saturday, an occasion of such over-the-top mawkishness that, given the opportunity, the deceased would have been the first to duck out and head for the nearest bar.

To mark the occasion, the heir to George Best’s title decided to have a drink or several. Whereupon Paul Gascoigne was sacked from his job as manager of Kettering Town. The chairman, Imraan Ladak, claimed that during his reign as manager, Gascoigne had been involved in 37 different drinking incidents “before, during and after” matches and training sessions. He had been in the job precisely 39 days.

Actually, if anyone had been offering spread bets on the length of time Gazza was likely to last at Kettering, respected members of what is in effect English football’s sixth division, 39 days might have been considered on the optimistic side.

It is customary for columnists to complain about the excesses of Premiership footballers, whenever – as happens regularly – there is an incident involving some combination of sex, drugs, drink, violence and the constabulary. But modern footballers have a lot of both money and disposable time, a combination that has proved a recipe for personal disaster throughout history. And these incidents take place generally round night clubs rather than football clubs. The average Premiership player who turned up for work drunk would have a career-expectancy measurable in minutes.

Gascoigne’s conspicuous and incorrigible excesses seem to me to represent some kind of throwback. Generally, as sport gets more scientific, more serious and more businesslike, the excesses are starting to fade away. Within a generation, one suspects, sport will have mutated into rock n’ roll, whose practitioners now more often devote themselves to good works rather than trashing hotel rooms.

The change has already come, quite spectacularly, in rugby. Lions tours used to represent the apogee in the kind of behaviour usually regarded as hooliganism if perpetrated by the lower orders but high jinks if it involves young gentlemen of quality. In the 1950s it was common for players to spend the night before Test matches in night clubs (or whatever passed for night clubs in New Zealand or South Africa at that time). Into the 1980s incidents involving fire hoses and screwing doors off their hinges barely merited a mention; beds thrown into swimming pools from eighth-floor windows perhaps a mild, private, tut-tut. They certainly never made it into the newspapers.

The most famous incident involved Ulster hard man and Lions captain Willie John McBride, who was being warned by a nervous hotelier in some benighted Afrikaans town that he would send for the police. McBride’s response came in the slowest of drawls: “Will there be many of them?”

Cultural historians of these matters believe rugby’s change to goody-goodyism predated the beginnings of professionalism.

The most publicly drunk sportsman this year was Andrew Flintoff, rat-arsed in Trafalgar Square and Downing Street in September, the day after England won the Ashes. But note that was the day after. The time has passed when Denis Compton would remove his dinner jacket in the dressing room and go out to bat.

In a match between Central Zone and England at Indore, India, in January 1982, Ian Botham scored 122 in 55 minutes, including a drinks break. According to well-placed sources (next to him at the bar), a drinks break was the last thing he needed. He hadn’t actually been to bed. And there was very little brandy left in Indore. Botham’s famous innings at Headingley the previous summer came after a Sunday rest day which he did not spend following an official diet and relaxation regime either.

And Botham was merely following a long line of cricketers who drank on the scale that used to be called heroic. Above all, perhaps, there was Compton’s buddy, Bill Edrich, who was a real hero: he won the DFC for a daring daylight raid as a bomber pilot. And he could drink for England, to an extent that finally exasperated the selectors, who kept him off the tour to Australia in 1950-51. Called to account for his behaviour, he reputedly reminded them of his pre-war double century in South Africa: “I was pissed as a fart, then,” he pointed out.

It is in the nature of things that, while Gascoigne’s behaviour seems pathetic, Edrich’s behaviour now seems amusing. That’s partly the weathering effect of time. And I have no wish to be flippant about Gazza’s problems. He is a sad man in danger of drinking himself to oblivion, just as Best did. And he had far more intelligence and self-awareness and far fewer illusions.

But something has been lost. Heroic physical capacity can manifest itself in many different ways: the man at the heart of the scrum is far more likely to have a system that can cope with a dozen pints then the rest of us. Yes, sport is far more sensible about alcohol than it used to be. It also takes itself more seriously. Too seriously.

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