As a young football sensation, he soared to the top of his game, setting a record for the most expensive transfer deal in 1992 and winning legions of fans.
But after the highs came mammoth lows for Paul Gascoigne; a bitter battle with alcoholism – all played out in the public eye – at the centre of it.
At just 48, the former England star’s troubles are etched on his face. But, despite numerous ups and downs, he’s come through the other side and is on fine form today, a wink and a smile and his cheery Geordie lilt shining through his weather-beaten brow.
We’re meeting to discuss Gascoigne, a new documentary film about him, written and directed by film-maker Jane Preston (DVD out on Monday). It charts his rise, from a young lad kicking a tennis ball on the streets of Gateshead, through his momentous career, marred by injury and much-hyped transfer deals, and overcoming the lows of his addiction.
So where to begin?
Gascoigne signed as a schoolboy with his local team Newcastle United. Despite not looking quite as athletic as the average footballer, he soon got into shape and quickly impressed with his creative play and goal scoring success, and was sold to Tottenham Hotspur in 1988 for £2million, winning the FA Cup with the team in 1991.
The film celebrates his talents as a player, as well as being a natural entertainer.
“All my life, I wanted to be a professional footballer and just play in front of the fans,” says Gascoigne. “I did something that I loved doing, getting paid for it.
“I like to think I gave a lot back to the fans. You don’t see many players doing that these days. I did.
“One of the main things for me is to go out and entertain the fans and win them over. All the away fans that I played against, they’d give us a bit of stick for five minutes, and then all of a sudden, I’d win them over.”
Playing the class clown – Gascoigne recalls in the film how he once stole an ostrich from a zoo and brought it to practice – made the cheeky Geordie a hit with teammates and fans alike.
Following the 1990 World Cup, ‘Gazzamania’ took the nation by storm and Gascoigne’s celebrity status spun out of control, with merchandise, promotional appearances and even a chart single, a cover of Fog On The Tyne.
He has embraced his popularity, but Gascoigne is modest about being hailed a “legend”, “national treasure” and “cultural icon”.
“I didn’t realise when I was younger that all this would happen,” he says. “Everyone’s watching and talking about you and saying you’re a famous icon, but I never see myself as that.”
It was Gascoigne’s appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 1990 that propelled him from being just another football player to a star.
During England’s semi-final against West Germany, Gazza was handed his second yellow card of the tournament. Realising he would now not be able to play in the final even if England got through, with the world watching, he burst into tears.
“That was hard, the crying side of it,” he admits. “I didn’t do it deliberately. That’s just me. I’ve got so much to give. And I appreciate the love that the fans have given to me, whether they’ve been football fans, or just the normal general public, they’ve been fantastic.
“Even to this day, even when I did wrong, they’ve stood behind and supported us and not kicked us in the teeth,” he adds.
PITFALLS OF FAME
While there’s been endless support from fans, he feels the same can’t be said of the UK media, and over the years, some of his darkest moments have been splashed across newspapers.
At one point, he was sectioned by his family after growing paranoid that his phone was being hacked – but earlier this year, Gascoigne had the chance to explain just how much of an impact this had had on him, as one of the celebrities awarded damages by the High Court in the Mirror Group Newspapers hacking scandal.
The paranoia that comes with his mental illness is only exacerbated by being watched wherever he goes.
“I can be sitting in the house, being happy, been fishing or had a game of golf or been to the gym, I come home and I’ve got three guys sitting outside my house.
“And that’s when you lose your temper. I should just ignore them,” he continues. “Because some players that have retired love it. I’m not one to love it. I don’t want bodyguards round us.”
The documentary also sees him open up about some of his darkest times and most painful memories, including having his childhood friend die in his arms after being hit by a car. That was the first time he was sent to therapy.
Gascoigne admits it wasn’t easy talking about those things on camera.
“When I’m in treatment, I’m speaking to my therapist. Now this is not just one guy, I’m talking to the whole country, the world probably. I’ve given stuff in this movie that I’ve not told anybody, I’m welling up now . . .
“I just wanted to do this for the reason that not everything in my life was rosy. Even from a young age, what I’ve had to cope with, what I’ve had to put up with and still come through it, whether it be injuries, whether it be rehab, whether it be taking drugs years ago – and I’m not wanting to be proud of . . . some of the things,” Gazza adds. “I’ve let myself down.
“But the football side of it, people forget. I had 20 years of playing football and entertaining fans.”