THE best friend of former Rangers star Paul Gascoigne was jailed for six months after admitting possession of an unloaded air pistol at Newcastle Crown Court yesterday.

Jimmy ''Five Bellies'' Gardner was told by Judge Guy Whitburn that the use of firearms was a serious matter which the courts could only address with a custodial sentence.

Gardner, 34, of Bensham, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing.

Police had stopped him in May, and he was carrying a target air pistol. He said he had been drinking and was returning home when he was taunted by a group of youths.

Character references from celebrity friends, including radio DJ Chris Evans, were produced for the judge before sentencing yesterday.

But Mr Whitburn said the use of firearms was prevalent in society and Parliament had taken steps to discourage them.

Gardner, who appeared nervous throughout the hearing, looked shocked as he was led away after sentencing.

Friends and family were in court, but Gascoigne was not present, although his father, John, was. He left after sentence was passed, telling reporters he had no comment to make.

The footballer's younger sister, Lindsay Goodacre, was led away in tears.

The court was told of Gardner's charity work and also the pressures of living in the media spotlight as Gascoigne's friend.

Mr Geoff Hunter, defending, told the judge that the ''offence was wholly out of character''.

He gave the judge references from Middlesbrough Football Club chief executive Keith Lamb, Torquay United manager Wes Saunders and Virgin Radio boss Chris Evans.

Mr Hunter said: ''The gun was never seen by anybody save when it was handed over to the police.

''It wasn't used, it wasn't waved about. Nobody was threatened with it.''

Gardner, he said, who was a tireless supporter of local charities, particularly those associated with disabled people, had been provoked by the taunts of youths because of his weight.

Famous for being a famous person's friend, Gardner's celebrity has often appeared dubious, but his close and often calamitous friendship with Gascoigne, aided by his nickname, made him a headline writer's dream.

The pair were pictured together throughout many scrapes and stunts.

As Gascoigne moved between Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio, Rangers and Middlesbrough, Gardner was never far behind. But he rejected the suggestion that he was ever a minder for the England midfielder.

Both shared a penchant for nights out and high jinks and Gardner was often the butt of his friend's practical jokes.

During one night out the footballer wagered #1000 that Gardner could not withstand a lighted cigarette held against his nose for 10 seconds. Gardner won but suffered a one-inch burn for his troubles.

On another occasion he parachuted from 12,000ft after reportedly being dared by Gascoigne.

Their friendship was not appreciated by everyone, however, and during the footballer's time at Rangers, the then manager Walter Smith banned Gardner from Ibrox.

In February 1997, Gardner was fined #500 at Paisley Sheriff Court after being found guilty of assault during a brawl in a pub in Houston, Renfrewshire, after an Old Firm game.

Sheriff Bill Dunlop said the offence, in which Gardner punched a Celtic fan in the face, did not appear to be all that serious, but added that in its context there had been a sectarian element which made it more serious. Gardner admitted he had punched the man, but claimed he had only lashed out in retaliation.

Despite his nickname, Gardner went on a fitness drive earlier this year to lose weight and asked not to be known by his nickname - but the tag has stuck.

His associations did, however, bring some rewards and his stature as a celebrity was confirmed when he was asked to switch on the Christmas lights in his native Newcastle.