LONDON — It is rare that a television program involving football makes you feel so uncomfortable that you turn it off.

“Surviving Gazza,” Channel 4’s documentary about Paul Gascoigne, was painful viewing. Documentary maker David Clews entered the Gascoignes’ lives after Paul was released having spent six weeks sectioned under the mental health act.

It was excruciating fly-on-the-wall viewing and after 30 minutes I could take no more.

I first met Paul Gascoigne when he was a promising youngster with Newcastle. He was playing for England in an Under-21 tournament in France 20 years ago.

Gascoigne was engaging company even if he broke one of the rules of life by actually being in a good mood at an airport at 6:30 a.m.

Here was a guy with a permanent smile, usually because he was hatching some trick that would see you embarrassed in public and while it may not sound so in print, yes it was invariably funny.

Gazza would tap you on the “other” shoulder so when you looked around no one was there. You would return to your hotel room having apparently complained it was cold and three heaters were going full blast to an extent orchids could be grown. Whatever accusation you can level against Paul Gascoigne, boring is not one.

Maybe the child in him remained. He had the attention span of a grasshopper and never seemed to or even needed to sleep.

Gazza — who we now know is a very different person to Gascoigne — was acceptably mad, a guy who could somehow speak to children from countries he would never had heard of in a language he seemed to invent. And how the kids laughed and loved this mad stranger.

Most of all, as a footballer he had a talent that all but a few can only dream about.

* * * * *

PAUL GASCOIGNE was badly affected by the death of a friend when he was a kid. Running to an ice cream van across the road to buy a lolly for Paul and himself, the lad’s enthusiasm meant he did not see an oncoming car.

It left a permanent mental scar on Paul.

My impression of the teenage Gascoigne was that he was a complicated but essentially decent person, a one-off who needed special handling both on and off the pitch.

Sadly, too many people saw Gascoigne as an easy, quick money-making machine and Gazza being Gazza said yes to advice that was designed to benefit them rather than him.

His injury-hit career with Tottenham, Lazio and Rangers meant he did not reach the heights his supreme skills deserved, not long-term anyway. The tears of the Italia ’90 clown when he was cautioned in the semifinal against West Germany, which meant he would have missed the final are an indelible image of Gascoigne (of course, the Germans did what they usually do at major finals and beat England on penalties).

There will be those who are unsympathetic to someone who has drunk himself into a dark place, but alcoholism and depression should be treated with sensitivity rather than cynicism.

Gazza, 41, is now a human wreck, a million miles (and drinks) from the finest English footballer of his generation.

Rather than offering an intelligent insight into the despair experienced by many families battling to live with a loved one’s addictions, “Surviving Gazza” knifed a person crying for help in the back.

For reasons best known to herself, Gazza’s ex-wife Sheryl allowed their 12-year-old son Regan to criticize his father’s alcoholism.

Regan, who perhaps unsurprisingly hates football, told the television cameras that, “I don’t think there’s any point in helping him and that “he’s probably going to die soon.”

He added: “Everyone thinks he’s Gazza, but because he’s a top player doesn’t make him a good person, or a good dad, does it? I don’t think there’s any point in helping him.”

They are words that will haunt his father forever. They should also haunt his mother, but as she was happy for them to be broadcast one assumes Sheryl will sleep easily.

It takes a very special type of mother to allow a son to say this about his father, whom she is allegedly trying to help. Heaven knows what Sheryl would have allowed to be said to the world if she wanted to hurt Gascoigne.

When he saw the footage, Gascoigne said: “It is beyond belief that a TV documentary has allowed an interview with a kid of 12 to be broadcast like this. How can a 12-year-old understand the things I’ve gone through? He is 12, for God’s sake.

“I don’t blame him one bit. He is my son and I love him and I always will. This is all down to Sheryl. She has turned him against me and his mind is now poisoned against me.”

Quite why Sheryl married Paul in the first place remains a mystery.

Sheryl’s children by a previous marriage, Mason and Bianca, who were 1 and 3, respectively, when Gazza came into their lives, love their adopted father in a way that brought tears to the eye. They could not and did not try to condone what Gascoigne has done, “but he’s our dad and we love him,” was their joint view.

Mason would stay awake until 5 a.m. in case Gascoigne rang, his fear that if he missed the call he would be unable to ring his dad back.

* * * * *

BY NO STRETCH of the imagination has Paul Gascoigne been the best husband and father, far from it. He is lucky that Mason and Bianca are so forgiving and loyal to someone who has done so much to destroy himself and with it the family unit. It is impossible to excuse many of his excesses and it would be easy to sympathize with Sheryl wanting to seek retribution.

But to demean herself in the manner she did and bring the sort of attention to her children that they will surely regret as the years pass served little purpose. Sheryl destroyed Gascoigne further while exonerating herself from blame for any worst case scenario.

“He’s the father of my children,” said Sheryl. “If it’s not my responsibility to help him, whose is it?”

She calls what she allowed to be broadcast “help?”

* * * * *

ONE FEARS for Paul Gascoigne, who is walking an emotional tightrope. A few months ago there were unfounded rumors that Gascoigne was dead — no one would have been surprised had they been true.

For George Best read Paul Gascoigne — outrageously gifted footballers with a self-destruct on a hair-trigger.

There are many alcoholics with similar problems so why does Gascoigne deserve to be a special case?

Because he gave so much pleasure to so many people who love the world’s most popular sport. Having been given entertainment, excitement, exhilaration and moments we shall never forget by Gazza, we must hope he is not deserted in his hour of need by those who can be with him as he battles his demons.

I once asked a friend who is a recovering alcoholic when he finally sought help. His answer was chilling: “When the pain becomes unbearable.”

Gascoigne seems to have hit that particular pain barrier but the worry beads remain on red alert for a troubled soul.

“The drink and drugs nearly killed me, not once but a few times,” said Gazza. “And getting sectioned was the worst thing ever. A little bit of me died when I went in there and I am never going back. The difference this time is I know what I have got to do. I know I can never drink again otherwise it will kill me.”

Gascoigne needs help, he needs friends, but what he did not need was the cheapest shot of a program that would have pushed him further into a dark hole.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.

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