When I tell Sheryl Gascoigne to close her eyes and hold out her hands she trembles, then gazes at the two books I’ve just given her. Suddenly her grey-blue eyes shine bright with tears. On the day we meet, I am delivering the first, heavily embargoed copies of the explosive memoir by the original Wag, the ex-wife of the legendary England footballer and former Rangers star Paul Gascoigne, to her Hertfordshire home. I am the first person to interview her about the book, and the first outside her immediate circle to have read it.

She nervously holds up the hardback for her son Mason, who is having a glass of wine with his best friend to celebrate his 20th birthday, and Sheryl’s father, Ricky Failes. Mason says he hasn’t read it. “There’s stuff in there I don’t want to go over again and I’m sure there’s stuff I don’t know about and never want to know,” he says. Failes is silent.

Sheryl opens the book and turns immediately to the photographs -- colourful snapshots that seem to tell the story of a happy, well-off family enjoying the good things in life. But the powerful words in Stronger: My Life Surviving Gazza are another story. They relate a terrible account of mental cruelty and physical abuse.

While a photograph of Sheryl and her tanned, fit-looking husband in a smart restaurant is the very picture of two people in love, she claims it was customary for Paul, whenever the couple were eating out, to pull the flesh at the top of her thigh, twisting and turning until it was black and blue. She is smiling in the shot, but her eyes are dead. Sheryl had learned to suffer in silence, giving no outward signs of the hell she was living through.

She calls this period her “rag doll years”. Paul might have viciously torn the diamond earrings from her lobes, head-butted her, punched, slapped and bitten her, but her beautiful face remained untouched.

During one prolonged attack, the night before Paul’s sister Anna’s wedding in the early 1990s, she recounts how he almost killed her. “It is a miracle I am alive -- I could have died that night,” she says, succumbing to tears. When able to speak again, she smiles nervously and says: “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry during this interview.” But she weeps several times when we talk about how she finally found the courage and strength to walk away with her head held high, after more than a decade of violence. Just as her ex-husband was addicted to alcohol, it would appear that Sheryl, on some level, was addicted to him.

She’s open about the fact they had an amazing sex life -- reported to involve having sex up to 10 times a day -- which carried on until 2003, five years after their split in 1998 after two years of marriage. “It was mind-blowingly brilliant,” she says. But if the pair couldn’t get enough of each other, theirs was ultimately a toxic mix.

“The world got Gazza the charmer and I got Paul the abuser,” Sheryl says now. “They’re two different people.”




Her book is a disturbing and distressingly sad story of the daily horror of domestic abuse and what it means to live with an obsessive-compulsive alcoholic. It also reveals how Paul was protected by the macho world of football while the wife he bullied and beat remorselessly was ignored -- even in the wake of the infamous Gleneagles incident in 1996, when Sheryl was attacked by her drunken husband at the luxury hotel.

Stronger is a story that unfolds with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Sheryl tells in her own words (the book was not ghost-written) of loving someone who walked a fine line between genius and madness. Once famous for his clownish antics and endearing tomfoolery, Paul Gascoigne is still regarded as perhaps the most gifted footballer of his generation. But that was Gazza, “not the monstrous, manipulative, divisive, bullying drunk my children knew as Dad,” says Sheryl.

The book is also a riposte to Paul’s best-selling autobiographies (Gazza: My Story, in 2004, and Being Gazza: My Journey To Hell And Back two years later), in which she believes she was demonised.

The Gascoignes can go on blaming her, she says, but that won’t keep Paul alive. “So many lies have been written about me anyway, with me referred to as a ‘wicked vulture’ and a ‘gold-digger’,” she says. “I’ve kept quiet for too long. But I don’t want anyone to buy this book thinking it’s a complete hatchet job on Paul.

“People are going to say I’ve been nasty about him, but I don’t blame Paul and I don’t blame myself either, although I’m sorry I put my children through years of pain and conflict under the misapprehension that in taking Paul back I was doing the right thing for them, because they wanted a dad.

“Please look closely at all the photographs in my book,” pleads the 44-year-old, who, with her elegant bone structure, is still lovely to look at, despite the fine lines that the years have etched around her eyes.

On the dust jacket of the book there’s a holiday snapshot taken in America, of her with Paul and the children from her first marriage, Mason and Bianca (now 22), who were later adopted by Paul, and Regan, their son together (who is 13). “I love that photograph,” she says quietly. “It shows there were the good times as well as the bad and the mad. There were laughs.”

Indeed, that sunlit picture sits alongside many others displayed in the stylish open-plan kitchen cum living room in her spacious, detached house on a leafy private road near Hemel Hempstead. All those family snaps are, of course, a striking contrast to recent images of a painfully frail Paul weeping at the memorial service for his mentor and “second dad” Sir Bobby Robson at Durham Cathedral last month.

Yet even those pictures of an apparently profoundly sick man aren’t all they seem, she claims. “Yes, he’s thin -- but his neck’s sticking out of his shirt collar because Paul always buys clothes that are too big.”

Images were the currency of the Gascoignes’ turbulent, traumatic relationship, lived out in the glare of the tabloids and celebrity magazines. One remembers their wedding photographs in Hello!, with Paul in gold brocade and the buxom bride spilling out of a low-cut peach tulle meringue. It was happy-ever-after stuff. Only, as Sheryl confesses, the love story was a lie.


‘A thousand promises and one stupid dream’


The wedding took place on July 1, 1996. Come October, another photograph was splashed across the red-tops: a picture of Sheryl at The Gleneagles Hotel with a black eye, her face bruised, her fingers dislocated and her arm in a sling. That night, she writes, Paul “broke a thousand promises and one stupid dream”. He’d sworn to her that once they were married he would never hit her again, despite the fact he’d been beating her regularly for six years. Over dinner in the “hushed, almost reverential atmosphere” of Gleneagles’ restaurant, he said she’d called his mother, Carol, a whore.

“That’s not a word that is in my vocabulary,” she says now. “I’d never use it about any woman. Who knows why he attacked me, but my version of what happened at Gleneagles is the God’s honest truth. It’s embarrassing, it’s ugly, but it’s true,” she says.

We are sitting on a striped velvet sofa in her newly refurbished family room, sipping hot drinks brewed by Mason. In the book, Sheryl describes the attack in detail, disclosing that the then 10-year-old Bianca, in an adjoining room, could hear her mother crying helplessly, pleading for the violence to stop. After begging the nanny to let her in, the child boiled a kettleful of water to throw over her father.

After the assault, Sheryl says, she went to hospital, where she told doctors she’d fallen down the stairs. Of course, she says, nobody wanted to know.

Few people spoke to her, apart from her close friend Jan McLaren, wife of the Rangers defender Alan McLaren. “Jan was furious,” she says. “People at the club knew what had happened but no-one ever said anything to me. I certainly didn’t get any calls asking if I was all right. I was so angry.”

She was locked in her hotel room, she says, while Paul -- “by now in the bosom of Rangers” -- was playing against Ajax in Amsterdam. She watched him acting the merry fool as the game was televised. Asked to leave by hotel management, she and the children were taken down in the service lift and out through the kitchens. The car in which they were driven home was then followed by paparazzi. Meanwhile, Paul was protected by Rangers’ press and security teams, she claims. “He was cossetted,” says Sheryl, who adds that many people thought the attack was her fault, not his. “That’s not uncommon in crimes committed against women. Rape, domestic violence -- we all had it coming.”

I wonder if she felt abandoned by Rangers. She writes about how the manager, Walter Smith, and his wife Ethel saw the Gascoignes in Florida in 1995, where both families were on holiday. “I liked the way he included me and the children,” she writes of Smith. “I hadn’t come across that in football before.”

Yet she puts her head in her hands, then runs her fingers through her ash-blonde hair. “It’s so difficult, but yes, like everyone, they turned a blind eye,” she says. “I was disappointed in Walter and Ethel. I wasn’t their responsibility but I would have liked a little bit of support from them; I never got it.” When asked for a response to these claims, Rangers FC declined to comment.

“After Gleneagles, I was made to feel the lowest of the low,” she adds. “For many years I felt the entire football industry was against me, against my family.”

When Sheryl made the cathartic Channel 4 documentary Surviving Gazza last year, the crew tried to return to Gleneagles to end the film and exorcise some ghosts, but when they arrived they were refused permission to film. “That was fine -- I wasn’t that keen to go back anyway, but I resented being made to feel like a social leper again,” she says. “It’s weird, but why did I get angry with everyone else but not with Paul? That’s why there’s one particular airline I’d never fly with, because there were flights when Paul would spit in my face, shout foul abuse at me, head-butt me. No-one ever lifted a finger, because he was Gazza, which made him a god.”


Tears and promises


Sheryl Kyle was a single parent on £63 a week benefit when she met Spurs footballer Paul Gascoigne in a bar in 1990. She had no idea who he was. She’d recently split from her husband, Colin Kyle, the father of Bianca and Mason.

The golden Geordie boy wooed and won her, telling her she was “far too beautiful to be a woman”. He would turn up at her house with bags of food from Marks and Spencer to feed the family, for which she says she’ll be eternally grateful to him. “He made my heart sing and he set my pants on fire,” she says. She loved his devilment “and the back of his neck. He was a hero to me.”

After the early beatings he would shower her with tears and gifts and promises -- and then it would all start again. “So many lies,” she murmurs. He would tell her she was “a big-headed blonde bitch” (she suggested this as the title of her book, but her publishers thought it too negative) and constantly remind her that she was pushing a pram when they met, that she’d come from nothing.

So why, given he “beat the shit” out of her, as she puts it, did she keep going back to him? “I’d tell myself I was going back for the children, but I wasn’t,” she says. “I was selfishly going back for myself. Time after time, people asked me what I was doing. Yes, I do think I had Stockholm Syndrome, where as the victim you come to sympathise with your abuser. I didn’t think I was a battered wife. I had this hope that I would get the love back that we’d had for the first seven months of bliss we had at the beginning. I genuinely believed he loved me, and I think he still does -- as far as he understands the meaning of love.

“Also, like all women think with their men, I believed I could change Paul, that I could fix him and we’d be happy ever after.”

Although her book catalogues endless abuse and the family’s increasingly desperate attempts to help Paul conquer his demons -- including having him sectioned in psychiatric units and organising several stays in rehab -- it is ultimately an inspirational story, and a redemptive one in terms of the victim finally striking back by walking away. Sheryl is now a powerful voice for Refuge, an organisation that protects victims of domestic abuse.

These days, she says, she finds it difficult to imagine embarking on another relationship. She has been on dates, but the minute a man asks, “What time will you be home?” it’s over. “I think, ‘Why are you trying to control me?’ It’ll be a very, very long time before I can trust, let alone love another man -- if ever.”

The book finishes with Sheryl on her own, with her three children, all of whom she fears have “issues” they’ve yet to come to terms with. “I left Paul because I needed to heal my family -- I still do. I’ve put them through enough hell.”

Bianca, who lives at home, is a surgically enhanced glamour model and reality TV personality, winner of Love Island and Gladiators. “It’s certainly not the career I’d have chosen for her,” says Sheryl, who looks at today’s Wags and their high-profile careers with some astonishment. “I’d never have been allowed to do that. I was offered The Big Breakfast but Paul said no wife of his would ever go out to work. Paul actually started divorce proceedings, not me, because I defied him and modelled at a fashion show.”

The children dominate Sheryl’s life today. Mason is a successful estate agent, who has conquered a brief addiction to gambling and moved into a flat of his own, while Regan -- a dark-haired spit of his father -- attends stage school. “He’s the most amazing dancer,” says Sheryl proudly. Later, Regan tells me he dreams of becoming an actor and buying a farm, where he can live with his mother and lots of animals.

“I love all my children fiercely and I’d defend them with my life,” says Sheryl. They have heard from Paul only twice since making the heartbreaking TV documentary, which he instigated and which ended with the family following him to Portugal as he went on a bender round Europe.

“We pull out all the phone lines,” she says. He last called in August. “Regan answered -- Paul was paralytic.” He is allegedly drinking heavily again, downing six pints in 20 minutes according to one recent tabloid report. Sheryl shakes her head in despair.

She has already told me she believes Paul loves her, but does she still love him? “What is love?” she asks, her face filled with sorrow. “Paul really was the love of my life, and look where that got me. All I know is it’s time to start living. We’re free of Paul now.”

So does she hate him? “No, although Paul finds it easier for us to hate him, and the reason for that lies deep in his childhood, which was tough. His family is strange, enigmatic, close.”

Does she pity him? Again, her eyes brim with tears. She looks out into the garden and hesitates. “I can’t use that word. He would hate me to say that about him. I just can’t say that.”

Stronger: My Life Surviving Gazza by Sheryl Gascoigne is published by Michael Joseph, priced £18.99