Almost twenty years after he last kicked a competitive ball in English football, Paul Gascoigne remains one of the nation’s most famous and easily recognisable faces. His battles with alcoholism are as well documented as his exploits on the football field two decades and more ago, and despite all his troubles and exploits, he is still held in deep regard, if not downright reverence, by large sectors of the public.
A running theme amongst those who have known Gascoigne intimately over the years has been an acknowledgement of his kindness of spirit and willingness to help anybody in need. His character is said to be a complex one with a basic personality of inherent goodness combined with high spirits, a need to be loved and a propensity for acting impulsively.
There seems to be a vulnerability about Gazza that people just can’t help warming to, and it is perhaps for this reason that he remains dear to many people’s hearts when others would have long been given up on.
Starting out and a date with Vinnie
Gascoigne, of course, made his name and breakthrough with hometown club, Newcastle United, and after coming through the ranks, he made his debut in April 1985 under manager, Jack Charlton.
Initially, Charlton is said to have his doubts as to whether Gascoigne had the necessary discipline and desire to make it in the professional ranks, but he was soon impressed by not only his undoubted talent and ability but also his single-mindedness and determination.
Quickly winning a regular place in the team, Gascoigne began to gain recognition on a wider scale and by the summer of 1987 he had been called up by the England U-21 manager, Dave Sexton.
1987-88 was Gascoigne’s outstanding breakthrough season as Newcastle, by now managed by Willie McFaul, began to struggle in the old First Division yet Gascoigne stood out head and shoulders above his teammates. It was a poorly kept secret that his days at St. James Park were numbered and that he would be moving on at the end of the season, with Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United said to be amongst the bidders for his signature.
All of that was to come after a career-defining meeting with a certain Vincent Peter Jones, however.
Vinny Jones had shot to fame a season or so earlier when he had made the jump from part-time footballer at non-league Wealdstone to scoring the winning goal for Wimbledon in a First Division match against Manchester United. He was also gaining a reputation as a hard player in Wimbledon’s so-called ‘Crazy Gang’ side.
When Newcastle United came to Plough Lane for a league game in early 1988, Jones was detailed to do a man-to-man marking job on the young Gascoigne. So effective was he that Gascoigne hardly got a kick of the ball all afternoon. More pertinent to the legend of both men, however, was a candid photo taken of the pair of them during the game.
As the players waited for the ball to be cleared from the Newcastle area, Jones found himself standing in front of Gascoigne. Sensing the Newcastle man behind him, Jones reached back and grabbed Gascoigne by the testicles, giving them a jolly squeeze for good luck. Unsurprisingly, Gascoigne was somewhat taken aback by this turn of events and emitted a squeal of equal shock and pain.
The picture has become an iconic snapshot of the era and encapsulates the legends of both men. There is the vicious snarl on the face of Jones, balanced by the open-mouthed vulnerability on Gascoigne’s, and as the years went by both characters seemed somehow locked into that picture, unable to break away from its symbolism.
Jones took on the persona and indeed traded upon the image of a neanderthal-type thug, while Gascoigne took on a ‘little-boy-lost vulnerability’ all of his own.
The leaving of Newcastle
That summer, despite Newcastle having had a decent season and finishing in eighth spot, it was time for Gascoigne to leave St. James’s Park. By now he was seen as a prodigious talent and had been described by no less a luminary as Jackie Milburn as ‘the best player in the world’.
There was no shortage of potential suitors for his signature that summer, with Liverpool reputedly being Gascoigne’s ideal first choice. However, Liverpool had the previous summer spent the war chest they had received from the sale of Ian Rush to Juventus on John Barnes, John Aldridge and Gascoigne’s ex-Newcastle teammate, Peter Beardsley, and manager Kenny Dalglish was having problems securing the necessary funds.
Matters were further complicated when the chance to re-sign Ian Rush arose. Dalglish asked Gascoigne to wait another year until the summer of 1989, but he was reluctant to do so and as a result, the bidding came down to a straight choice between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
In the summer of 1988, neither side was particularly strong on the field, although United had finished a distant second to Liverpool in the 1987-88 title race, and both sides were led by charismatic and persuasive managers in the form of Alex Ferguson and Terry Venables respectively.
The young Geordie found his head being turned first one way and then another. At one point he had famously decided to sign for Ferguson and United, but then at the last minute changed his mind and chose Tottenham and the bright lights of London.
Ferguson was, quite understandably, furious at the about-face and has always contended that Spurs were able to swing the deal on the back of a promise to buy Gascoigne’s sister a house.
Whatever the truth of the matter, this particular hypothetical ‘What if?’ has intrigued football fans ever since. Sir Alex is of no doubt that had Gascoigne kept his promise, then he, Ferguson, would have been able to keep him on the straight and narrow and so Gascoigne would have avoided the worst of the later excesses that so badly blighted his career.
Venables, unsurprisingly, begs to differ and contends that Gascoigne played the best football of his career under him at White Hart Lane and later, briefly, at England.
What Venables is perhaps too polite to say is that Ferguson was hardly very successful at the time in trying to get the likes of Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside under control.
White Hart Lane and the world at his feet
Nevertheless, it was to North London that Gascoigne headed and over the next three seasons he cemented his growing reputation and really gave every indication that he could go onto be one of England’s greatest-ever talents.
In this all-too-fleeting spell, he developed into a player of immense upper-body strength, with the vision, passing, shooting and tackling of a potential legend in the making.
It seemed that nothing could halt his rise and that only extreme misfortune, or, worse, self-destruction, could now derail him. Known even at this stage for a love of the night-life and a tendency to push the boundaries discipline-wise, noises of concern were already beginning to be voiced, but they were at this stage mere whispers rather than the echoes of doom they were soon to become.
Tottenham’s progress from 1988 to 1990 was steady rather than spectacular, but in the 1990-91 season the club put together a run in the FA Cup that led to Wembley for an all-North London clash with fierce rivals, Arsenal.
The Gunners were chasing the double of league and cup and were heavy favourites to prevail. With Gascoigne having missed several weeks worth of football due to injury not many neutrals were willing to lay out money on a Tottenham victory, but he was to turn in what was arguably the performance of his career and turned the form books upside down.
Awarded a free-kick 35 yards out after only seven minutes, Gascoigne put the ball down, sized up David Seaman in the Arsenal goal and promptly slammed it past him with a shot of such unstoppable force that those watching were momentarily stunned into silence. Then Wembley erupted.
With an unlikely early lead, Tottenham didn’t sit back and within a few more minutes had doubled their advantage. Again Gascoigne was involved, this time as provider for Gary Lineker. Although Arsenal pulled one back before half-time a late second strike by Lineker rubber-stamped a 3-1 victory and Tottenham were through to a cup final date with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side.
Spring 1991 and a date with destiny
By the closing weeks of the 1990-91 season, it had become clear that it would be Gascoigne’s last at Tottenham. In desperate financial trouble, the club had long been looking for a way to clear its mounting debts and so feelers had been sent out to clubs advising them of Gascoigne’s availability for transfer. Although not exactly enamoured with the idea of moving abroad, he recognised the opportunity to become financially secure at what was still a prodigiously young age.
It was thus agreed that the FA Cup Final would be Gascoigne’s last match before a record-breaking £8.5 million transfer to the Italian side, Lazio.
Having played against Arsenal with a perfectly controlled determination and discipline, there was no real reason to fear Gascoigne would fail to turn in a similar performance in the final. Instead what prevailed has, of course, gone down in infamy.
Hyped-up to the very brink of lunacy it seemed, Gascoigne ran about the lush Wembley field like a man possessed, but whereas the semi-final had seen this energy channelled in the right direction, this time there was no sense of control whatsoever.
With just a few minutes on the clock gone, Gascoigne was guilty of planting his studs firmly into the chest of Forest’s Garry’s Charles. Seemingly overawed by both the occasion and the transgressor, referee Gerald Ashby took no action whatsoever save for awarding Forest a free-kick.
Having failed to calm down, Gascoigne continued to act like a man on a mission and minutes later scythed Gary Charles down with such ferocity that one instantly feared for the man in red.
Yet, it wasn’t the Forest player who was in trouble as a result of the challenge. With Ashby once again failing to do anything other than smile and shake his head ruefully at Gascoigne’s antics, it was left to the Spurs medical team to indicate that their man was in serious trouble.
As Stuart Pearce slammed the resulting free-kick home for the opening goal of the final, it was clear that Gascoigne’s afternoon was over.
So too, it would transpire, was his time at the very peak of his powers.
In the second part of this look at Paul Gascoigne, we will examine in-depth at his international career and move to Lazio. We will also examine his later career and ponder on what could have been.