The pressures on Paul Gascoigne have been mounting since he first started to cause excitement on a football pitch and arguably they increased still further when he was simply unable to carry on playing the game he loves.
The decision to section Gazza under the Mental Health Act will, hopefully, see him finally get the professional support he needs.
It has been a very long time coming.
Yet it is only now, when this drastic course of action has been taken, that those who know Gazza, who played with him, managed him and called him a friend, seem to be ready to speak out concerning the problems and the demons that afflicted the ex-footballer for years.
These issues were, apparently, manifesting themselves whilst he was still playing. So why is it only now that the “football family” is uniting in its support, sympathy and understanding?
When it comes to the often serious mental health pressures its stars face, both during their illustrious careers and after they are forced to call it a day, most of our high-profile professional sports have a pretty dire track record of dealing with such issues.
Indeed, they are more likely to ignore such pressures, laugh them off, display crass ignorance, or a combination of all three.
Worst of all there is a reluctance to discuss such issues openly and maturely. Sport in general has a tendency to tip-toe inelegantly around the subject of its stars’ mental health and the support they are provided with whilst they perform with distinction and once their glittering career comes to an end.
With so much comment, speculation and opinion expressed on the return of Dwain Chambers to international athletics after he served a drugs ban, there was little if any mention of the personal pressures the athlete must be facing at present. The world and his wife is allowed to express a judgement on whether the sprinter should “morally” be allowed to continue competing at the highest level, but has anyone asked the man himself how he’s coping with such attention and vitriol that is being heaped upon him?
The prime example, before Gazza’s troubles, was the on-going mental health problems experienced by English cricketer Marcus Trescothick and the way no-one – apart from the player himself – seemed ready, willing or able to discuss the issues he was dealing with. Indeed, the way the English cricket authorities and the media in general dealt with the problems experienced by Andrew Flintoff during the Cricket World Cup suggests they had learned absolutely nothing from their dismal handling of Trescothick’s plight.
Paul Gascoigne was undoubtedly the most gifted English footballer of his generation – a classic example of a football-mad lad from an ordinary background who made the big time.
On his way up the slippery slope of football superstardom he made lots of “friends”, made vast amounts of money and lived the sort of closeted and pampered lifestyle that is part of the territory – he was a very rich boy in a big luxurious bubble. Yet once his fitness levels began to drop, his talent became compromised and his abilities called into question, the “friends” soon departed and that bubble burst.
Effectively alone in the real world for the first time, Gazza was bound to struggle and few seemed prepared to help and more inclined to laugh along with the player once affectionately described as “a clown” by an English manager. He was encouraged to spiral out of control rather than seek help, which makes some of the sympathetic noises now being made seem more than a little hypocritical.
At least we appear to have moved on from the shameful treatment meted out to Frank Bruno by The Sun after the ex-boxer suffered a serious breakdown, with the tabloid now doing its best to show its caring side alongside the lurid details of Gazza’s descent. Although it is fair to say we haven’t moved on too far, given the choice of photograph used by The Daily Star to accompany its Gazza story.
With many professional sports there appears to be a belief that our top stars get rewarded handsomely enough for their particular talent so they should simply live with all the consequences. That is a rather simplistic and ignorant attitude.
Professional sports people make huge sacrifices and they are, by and large, happy enough to accept the rewards, the plaudits, the adulation that we give them in return.
But should sacrificing their mental health be part of the bargain?
The depressing fact is that Paul Gascoigne is the latest to join an ever-lengthening list of professional athletes who have struggled with serious mental health problems and got little in the way of support.
It is a list that will continue to grow until sport in general faces up to one of its biggest taboo subjects – mental health.