The Captain: Gazza and the fifth Beatle
9:39am Friday 15th March 2013 in Sport
After everything was said and done, after all the media attention, after the prying eye of the public was banished from behind the curtain of his hospital room, the fifth member of the Beatles, the man so idolised by men and so adored by women died pleading with the world to learn his lesson: "Don't die like me."
His final words to the public should have served to shock the sporting world into accepting an ugly truth - that British culture is complicit in encouraging alcoholism in our sports stars.
The very public and very painful manner in which George Best died in 2006 clearly hasn’t resonated in any meaningful way with some of the current generation of sportsmen and women.
Paul Gascoigne’s revelation that he narrowly avoided dying in rehab last week, with the doctors describing his condition as the worst they had ever seen, highlights the shattering emotional impact life after the limelight can have on many faded stars.
Picture: Gazza in happier times
But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that the blame lies not only with British sports stars themselves, but with British culture.
Roberto Mancini had to step in very early on in his reign as Man City manager to educate his squad about the dangers of alcohol and the effect excessive drinking can have on shortening the length of a player's career.
It followed a rather ill-advised decision by some of the club’s British players to drink themselves into a stupor at a student party in 2010.
Adam Johnson, Gareth Barry, Joe Hart, and Shay Given were the guilty quartet who incurred the fiery Italian's wrath on that occasion, but it prompted Mancini to publicly exclaim his astonishment at what he perceived to be a fundamental problem in the UK.
He said: "I think this problem is not only for us, it is for many players. For British players, it is part of the culture."
Worryingly, Mancini entered the fray at a time when binge drinking was being aggressively addressed by our politicians. As a result, what he saw was if anything a diluted version of the way things used to be a generation ago.
But the problem is still there, and not just in football. How do we as a society celebrate? How do we mourn? What do we do when a baby is born? The initial reaction is to turn to alcohol, and the burden that places on society in general is staggering - sport is no exception.
Picture: Mark Ramprakash
Former England cricketer Mark Ramprakash highlighted some deep rooted concerns in the modern game last year in the wake of the tragic death of Tom Maynard, who was electrocuted after wandering on to train tracks whilst under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
In a leading broadsheet Ramprakash made the observation that rewarding young players with big salaries without having a strong example to follow, or mentor to guide them through the early pitfalls of sport stardom, can have catastrophic results.
Take Andrew Flintoff. Great player though he was, Freddie encapsulated the best and worst apsects of that kind of behaviour.
He was never far from controversy, and played the role of 'lovable rogue' with aplomb, combining on-field brilliance with off-field antics that include needing to be rescued from a drifting pedalo at the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies after a few too many shandies.
Although it can be viewed as an isolated incident the public response was not one of condemnation. Quite the opposite. It actually made him more of a cult figure in our eyes, someone we could all supposedly relate to. Drunken Freddie was the ‘everyman’ who just happened to be a superb cricketer.
Picture: Freddie Flintoff
And, who can forget the midget throwing antics that blighted the Rugby World Cup in 2011, and served to further highlight the problems we have with a drinking culture that fills police cells every weekend and causes more deaths a year than any other drug combined.
Steps have been taken to combat this, but not enough to actually tackle the problem at source.
The issue of drinking to get drunk is something that will permanently blight our cultural landscape until we all change our attitude towards it.
Paul Gascoigne may have dodged a bullet on this occasion, but statistics would suggest that even if Gazza recovers - and let’s all hope he does - it’s only a matter of time before the back pages are filled with the next booze-addled high-profile sporting casualty.
The man whose ghost should permanently haunt Gazza as he recovers, the late, great George Best, gave a simple, stark warning less than a decade ago as he lay jaundiced and dying in a hospital bed: "Don't die like me."
We can only hope that this generation of athletes were listening.