“When we got him, my god, it felt like Jesus Christ was arriving”
This was a comment made by a Lazio fan in the summer of 1992 upon the English midfielder’s arrival in Serie A – no small statement in the devout catholic nation of Italy. Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne was no Jesus, though it is understandable why the Lazio faithful thought of their new star in such a way. He was a flair player who announced himself to the world during the 1990 World Cup. In a league heralded for its stalwart defensive play, those with the ability to excite in attack were revered. Lazio were a big club, although often they seemed to be in the shadow of their city rivals, AS Roma. In Gazza, they had the opportunity to turn Rome blue.
By today’s standards, Paul Gascoigne is a man with a severe alcohol problem and an array of complex mental health issues. He has been sectioned under the mental health act on several occasions and has been admitted to clinics to help him work through his addictions. Unfortunately, in the early 90s the issue of mental health was painfully downplayed. Gazza was seen only as a “thick lad”, and someone who “liked a drink”. His immaturity was merely shrugged off with excuses such as “he left school young” and “all footballers are a bit stupid, aren’t they?” being bandied about. Binge drinking was simply part of the culture at the time.
As a footballer, Gazza was one of the most talented players of his generation. His ability to beat a man in midfield was astounding and his link from midfield to attack was sublime – particularly in an era where a flat 4-4-2 was still the norm. On the pitch, he earned his move to Lazio through some stellar performances for Tottenham Hotspur and England, but it quickly became apparent that mentally, this move to Italy may have been a step too far.
Gascoigne missed the entire 1991-92 season due to a ruptured knee ligament. His move to Lazio had been agreed in principle prior to his injury, suffered in the 1991 FA Cup final. Gazza was never the same player after this knee injury, but Lazio weren’t to know this. Nobody could have known. Adapting to any new style of football is hard but adapting to Serie A after missing over a years’ worth of action… that would have impacted any player.
The intense media hounding in his new country was overwhelming. He landed in Italy to a sea of cheering, expectant faces. Their new signing had arrived and they were happy to see him. The fans weren’t the problem. The problem was the reporters. Screaming and shouting at him, each one more desperate than the last to earn a second with the Englishman. They made him feel small and stupid, they invaded his privacy and that of his family. The Roman reporters were fiercely loyal to their team, even if that meant throwing each and every player that dawned the club crest under the bus to prove that no one player was bigger than S.S Lazio.
The reason that Gazza’s time in Italy is perceived as so underwhelming was not down to him failing to make the grade. Nor was it down to his injuries, as horrible as they may have been. No, the reason that Gazza struggled to crack Serie A was down to the fact that he was a susceptible human who was struggling with mental health issues before anyone, even him, knew about it. He was essentially bullied by the media for years. His time in Italy can be seen as a series of pranks and japes, interspersed with the odd goal. In reality, it was guy acting out at breaking point, crushed by this ludicrous pressure.
When Gascoigne moved to Italy he could barely run, such was the damage of his injury. He trained hard, however, making his debut against Genoa in late September 1992. He was rusty for sure, but there were flashes of the old Gazza in there. The longer the game went on, the more confidence he gained. At one point he took a colossal hit from defender Mario Bortolazzi and the viewers held their breath. He was shaken, but he got up; he played on.
He built on this performance, playing well and endearing himself to the fans. Playing well against teams like Genoa, Parma, Atalanta… this was to be expected. But it was against the big teams that the Lazio fans expected a step up, in particular against their fierce city rivals, Roma. This derby is monumental and the pressure was really on, especially given that Lazio had lost two winnable games in a row. It had to be really drilled into Gascoigne the importance of this fixture. “I thought derbies were derbies”, he was quoted as saying. Derby della Capitale is not life and death, though it is not far off…
He may not have been aware how big a derby this was going into the game, though he certainly felt it 86 minutes in, as he headed the equalising goal past Giuseppe Zinetti and into the goal, much to the elation of the blue-clad members of the 74,000 capacity crowd. He was a hero.
The press were touting him as the best attacker to grace Italian football since Maradona and he couldn’t do anything without the paparazzi snapping a shot of him. Gazza wasn’t a huge fan of this reaction when he was the hero, and when he was portrayed as the villain, he felt utterly powerless.
In January of 1993, the player had been dropped for a match against Juventus. The reasoning: poor fitness – an issue which the media and fans had been hounding him over since day one. The reporters chased after the Englishman following the full-time whistle to get Gazza’s perspective on his treatment. The player remained silent, ignoring the barrage of questions. Eventually, one question proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Gazza turned to the reporter in question and instead of uttering a word, burped. He belched into the microphone and stormed off.
It was a snap-decision, a lapse in focus, yet his reputation plummeted. He was fined £9K for this error in judgement and was on thin ice with the clubs’ hierarchy. A stunt like that could be forgotten with relative ease when the goals were flying in, but on a vein of poor form and questionable fitness levels, he was lambasted by media and club officials.
For months the Italian press pursued Gazza. He finally caught a break in February 1993 in an away match against Genoa. He got tangled up with Genoa’s #8 in the middle of the park, throwing the player to the turf in a moment of rashness. A minor brawl ensued between players from both sides and the referee ran over brandishing the inevitable red card. To his credit, Gascoigne went over to help the player up, shake his hand and walk off.
It appeared that Gazza had grown up and the media appreciated it. The player upped his game upon his return to first-team action and got himself amongst the goals, notching against Milan and Atalanta. The media acknowledged that perhaps his loutish behaviour was a thing of the past, and that there was an English gentleman trying to breakthrough. His upped form helped Lazio to a fifth-place finish in Serie A, qualifying them for European football for the first time in 16 years.
It had been a rocky year for Paul Gascoigne and certainly not quite the fairytale he had hoped for, but he got through it, and put Lazio back in European football in the process. He was still a regular for England, though it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Fans of Lazio would have hoped to see the club push on the following season: European football would bring about more money and more glamour signings, and they had seen flashes of Paul Gascoigne in the second half of the 1992-93 season that made them think the player had turned the corner. They hoped that he would come back with a determination to push the club towards a top-four finish. Their hopes were dashed time and time again in the 93-94 season.
Gazza came back from his summer break overweight. The unrelenting issue that had caused so much friction between player, coach and media in year one had reared its ugly head once more. His manager, legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff, informed Gazza that if he didn’t shed two stone then he would lose his place in the team.
He went on an extreme weight-loss diet to shift the pounds and to his credit, lost a lot of weight, but by now the media were back on his case. They were a swarm of sharks and his cumbersome appearance was the drop of blood that they needed to attack him. An attack of character by his England manager Graham Taylor followed soon after, followed by the shocking news that his former personal assistant, Jane Nottage, had released a book entitled “Paul Gascoigne: The Inside Story”.
Nottage went behind his back to divulge deeply personal information about the player to the media. It was a gross breach of trust and it hurt Paul. He claimed that he struggled to trust people for years after this event. It was yet another pressure point that the media could latch on to. They were relentless in their pursuit of Gascoigne, suffocating him with their constant barrage.
He was losing weight, by request of the club, but his fitness was still not up to scratch. In three months Paul Gascoigne didn’t complete a full match. Gascoigne was playing less and less, yet the team was thriving. He was part of the Lazio side that crashed out of the Coppa Italia to 3rd division Avellino – booed off the pitch by the same fans who paraded him like he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ a year before.
His form picked up briefly around the turn of the year. Allegedly he went and spoke to his manager and told him that the system simply didn’t fit him. The coach allowed Gascoigne more freedom and this paid off short term with the English midfielder raising his game and helping his team to a string of positive results. As was the way with Gazza in Italy, the good times were short and often a prelude to an unfortunate event.
Gascoigne hit a photographer. The pressure simply got to him and he snapped. He later admitted that it was a mistake, though still believes that the photographer was wrong to invade his personal space that way.
Things got worse in March 1994. Gazza was injured in a feisty Rome. Bullish midfielder Valter Bonacina chopped down Gazza forcing the player to be taken off. Gazza travelled back home to England for a couple of days to rest and recuperate, as well as unofficially clearing his head. With his time back in England coming to an end the midfielder knew that he wasn’t close to being fit enough for the game on Sunday.
He asked the Lazio hierarchy for an extra day at home, seeing as he couldn’t play, but this request was denied. The player took offence; he had been up front and honest with the club and they had flat out refused. He was feeling very low at this period and the lack of support from the club hurt him greatly. In the end, he revolved, taking the day off anyway. He was fined 15K for his antics.
Paul Gascoigne was hardly thriving whilst he was playing and he was even more despondent whilst he was injured. The player suffered an inordinate amount of niggling injuries throughout his career, however in April 1994 he suffered one of his worse injuries yet. It was an innocuous challenge from a young Alessandro Nesta, just a normal tackle, but the effect was a double fracture to his right leg. He was ruled out for approximately eight months and this all but spelt the end for Gazza’s time in Rome.
Questions were asked whether this would end Gazza’s career, but if anything, he came back stronger… just not for Lazio. By the time the player returned Dino Zoff’s time in charge of Lazio was over, replaced by Zdeněk Zeman. The coach did not see eye to eye with Gascoigne, not impressed by the Englishman’s fitness levels, with Gazza thinking the fitness regime asked of the players was unreasonable. He only managed four games in the 1994-95 season before he returned to Britain, signing for Glasgow Rangers, where he would enjoy a resurgence.
Undoubtedly the standard of Scottish football helped the player: attacking teams like Partick, Motherwell and Kilmarnock certainly lent themselves to a more fruitful display than facing off against the legendary defences of AC Milan and Juventus, yet one of the biggest changes was his state of mind. Yes, the press were still evident, you cannot play for a member of the Old Firm and not have media scrutiny. This was a walk in the park compared to the torment he received in Serie A.
The media bullied him relentlessly for the duration of his spell in Italy and it wore him down day by day. Even the praise was coated with a layer of spite and he felt crushed and suffocated by life. He acted rashly. He got into fights with the press. He lost his temper. He shouted. He cried. He admitted to hitting his wife. Going to play football in Italy should have been a dream come true, but in reality, it was a nightmare.
Gascoigne performed well on the pitch for Lazio. Perhaps not with the degree of consistency that he would have wished, but well enough to be considered, if not a success then at least a risk worth taking. The injuries were unfortunate and despite the questions over his fitness, it would have been hard for anyone to reach peak physical condition with so many injuries hampering his recovery and development. It was mentioned at the start that Gascoigne has been battling some demons for years, and they certainly reared their head in Italy. It would be unwise to simply chalk all his misdemeanours down to his mental health; some of his antics were beyond any sort of acceptable line. It is worth remembering that at the end of the day, he is human. He made mistakes. He was never the saint that the Lazio fans proclaimed him as, though when he picked up the ball in midfield and ran towards goal it would often take divine intervention to stop him.