After winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award, big clubs came calling. This is where the Gascoigne timeline splinters into three separate ‘what if?’ scenarios: Gascoigne preferred a move to Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool (what if?), but with no offer forthcoming he agreed terms with Manchester United (what if, though?). Fergie, safe in the knowledge that he’d bagged his man, went on holiday to Malta – only for Tottenham Hotspur to steal in with a British record £2.2 million bid, the story going that they promised to buy Gazza’s family a house (and his sister a sunbed) if he signed for them. And lo.
The received wisdom in football is that under the tutelage of Ferguson, Gazza’s head could have aligned with his legs to become the world beating complete footballer his potential predicted he would be (this is, though, ignoring Paul McGrath, similarly cursed with glass knees and chronic alcoholism and blessed with world class footballing talent, who Ferguson lost patience with the same year he tried to sign Gazza and instead shipped out to Aston Villa for £400,000 – Fergie, pre-treble Fergie, pre-knighthood Fergie, would not have had the tolerance to nurse a wounded bird like Gazza to the dizzy heights he was capable of reaching). But at Tottenham Gazza found the coach that you feel, with hindsight, was always the greatest fit for his precocious talent: Terry Venables, the perfect blend of fatherly arm-round-the-shoulder come-on-Gazza and tough-talking pull-your-bollocks-up-and-score-a-fucking-goal-son. Slotting into a team that was sprinkled with touches of talent – Mabbutt, Lineker, Nayim – but with a fair helping of anonymous cloggers, young Gazza immediately became the team’s heartbeat, the star midfielder, as they completed sixth then third place finishes. In 1991, his spang-the-fucker-past-David-Seaman unstoppable free kick took Spurs past Arsenal to the FA Cup final.
Before that, though, was the small matter of the 1990 World Cup. Hindsight again fools us into thinking England were doing better than they were – this was a team that struggled to qualify at all, with a departing Bobby Robson as manager, caught in a tempestuous relationship with the tabloid press – they spun his mooted move to Barcelona after his England stint as being some Judas Escariot-type betrayal of his country, and branded the team “donkeys” after the 0-0 draw with Poland that secured qualification. This was an England team reliant on age – first-pick goalkeeper Shilton was 40 at the start of the tournament: Bryan Robson was 33, Lineker 29 – and smatterings of creative talent (Waddle, Barnes, Beardsley) to elevate an otherwise anonymous team. Into that, Gazza – on just 11 caps, his England career in its infancy – was considered a maverick pick to be agonised over by the more conservative Bobby Robson.
It was a squad that became more than the sum of its parts to reach the World Cup semifinals. There was that element of something Other that took them there: a slow group stage started with a ground-out draw against Jack Charlton’s Ireland; eking past Belgium with a last minute Platt wündergoal, going the long way round to beat Cameroon in extra time. Listen to the wrong people and they’ll tell you England skipped and dribbled through the World Cup until they were stopped by the Teutonic, joyless Germans, spoiling the party and shitting on our destiny to win the thing, but not so: it’s only through stars aligning and sheer until-you-taste-blood running that England got anywhere near the semis. England’s tactics for the tournament may as well have been, ‘Alright, lads, I wanna go the pub now: next goal wins, yeah?’
Gazza was having a ball in Italy. He always loved linking up with the England squad – for a player so defined by his banter, he rarely seemed to hang out with his team mates at club level, preferring instead to live at nearby hotels, to go out on the piss with Danny Baker – but with England, he found kindred spirits, i.e. lads who were good at football and didn’t mind getting the ales in. Gascoigne turned 23 beneath the Roman sun, his England team mates bringing him a birthday cake during one of the tournament’s rest days and smearing it all over his face, and he celebrated by putting Ruud Gullit in his pocket and running him around the pitch for 90 minutes against Holland. For a hint of that special something, that hint of something Other that made that England team so good, it’s no push to look to Gazza as that secret ingredient: Gazza in his beautiful personal prime, cheeky child’s face, still a touch of puppy fat about him; his chirpy presence galvanising the team, his engine on the pitch was something for them to build around when they lost Bryan Robson to injury. Gazza was the glue and he was the fabric. By the time he wept on the pitch in Turin, Gazza was an icon. He was also, unassailably, the best young midfielder in the world.
Because such is the legacy of Gazza that we forget how well Paul Gascoigne played. Watch some highlights back from his Rangers days, where the video is fuzzy and he's wearing uniconic close-cropped plain brown hair, and you feel like you're watching some lost talent, a This Is The Best Player Never To Be Capped By England reminisce. Gazza, like no other player since Maradona, played football with his torso: often maligned for his weight during his career, Gazza played with his chest, with his arms, upper body strength crucial to keeping defenders a half-inch further away than they wanted to be before his feet kicked in, will-o'-wisping the ball between their legs, Cruyff-turning them down to the dust. Gazza ran primarily with his arms while his legs caught up: his body was an engine. And then his footwork: fucking hell, his footwork, Gazza’s trick being that unteachable sixth sense of knowing exactly when to pass the ball and when to keep it, running through three players, four, five, guarding it with his feet, entirely under his thrall. Gazza was the greatest forward passer in the world; it's just he only ever passed from the 86th minute onwards, when he was too knackered from keeping the ball to himself to run anymore. His feet and the league-issue Mitre football had an intimate love affair. They danced together while defenders watched, while Colin Hendry's heart ceased beating in his chest. He was as light on his feet as a ballet dancer until he didn't need to be, until he pirouetted into space and saw great fields to run in, so he surged forward, Gazza the ultimate playground footballer, running with the ball with his foot half sideways, lazily, cockily, like you always dreamed you'd play the night before PE, before you were played off the park by the bigger boys, Gazza taking on two or three more defenders than any English coach will advise, Gazza the wrong nationality, surely, check and double check, are we sure an Argentine didn't fuck his way around Newcastle in the early 1960s?
It was this continental flair (and Italy’s lingering post-World Cup Gazzamania) that took him to Lazio in 1992, at a time when Serie A had every best player in the world. But before that, Gazza had to fuck it up: the initial negotiations were made in the build-up 91 FA Cup Final, where Gascoigne gave way to Gazza, ran onto the park on a breakfast of adrenalin and very little else, feet in here, rough pull there, kicking too hard, running too hard, a kid who’s been held in detention for most of his lunch break but is determined to score a goal in the last seconds of the hour, until, fifteen minutes into the first big match he could've won anything in, clunk: ruptured cruciate, out for twelve months at least, and that £8.5 million transfer slips off the table. And right when he was recuperating, right when that leg had just scarred over, the tendons in his knees rebuilt, hundreds of hours in swimming pools jogging slowly, clunk: Gazza goes to a Newcastle nightclub, gets chinned, lands on that knee again, feels it in horror as it turns to jelly beneath his desperate check-it’s-still-there thumbs. Now it’s sixteen months, the rest of the season gone. Another hobbled step backwards. Another renegotiation. That – Gazza on the floor of a nightclub, thumbs squishing into the almost healed tendons of his own prized, newly fractured kneecap, not quite processing that his career was delayed again, sticking to the story that some lad clocked him out of nowhere but we’ll never really know, will we, we’ll never really know – that was the other time we approached peak Gazza, ultimate Gazza, the perfect clash of Gazza and Gascoigne, Gazza half-pissed and Gascoigne distraught, both men having to deal with the immediacy of this setback.
It was in these injured spaces that the Gazza side of Gascoigne so thrived: they gave him space to get bored, to get restless, for his mind to wander; you feel that, without Italian defenders to dump on their arses, he needed another way to show off, prove his worth to those around him. Gazza had a number of documented vices, but one of his weaknesses was the need to please people: extravagant family trips to Disneyland, his persistent habit of getting drunk and gifting his dad his new car, re-recording Fog on the Tyne with fucking Lindisfarne. Given time, left to his own devices, given more money than he could possibly spend, Gascoigne receded and Gazza was amplified. Hours on his back on the treatment room allowed that beast to take over.
Italy made him a hero – a debut goal in the Derby della Capitale made him a fan legend forevermore, and coach Dino Zoff loved him ("He ate ice cream for breakfast, drank beer for lunch, and when injured he blew up like a whale. But as a player? Oh, beautiful, beautiful. I loved that boy," Zoff once said. "He was a genius, an artist, but he made me tear my hair out."), but injuries, homesickness, and that unsettling feeling those closest to him were starting to turn (Gazza’s Italian translator did a tell-all book about his time at Lazio; his long term agents were constantly undermining him financially) and it was time to come home. He chose Rangers, the adoring crowds and the chance to be a hero again, and played out the last three decent years of his career there, before winding down through Middlesbrough, Everton, Burnley and Gansu Tianma. Paul Gascoigne’s career was never meant to end with four get-the-gate-up trot outs for Boston United. He was a hall of famer trapped in a bricky’s body.
In many ways, Gazza was a player who was born five years too soon. If he’d came through at Newcastle in 1993 instead of 1988, he would have slotted into that team of entertainers, instead of being a fish too big for a small pond of cloggers hurtling towards relegation. In 1990, he was the sole spark of youth in Bobby Robson's team of donkeys, but shift a generation forward to Euro 96 and it could have been Gazza with good legs and that Manchester United midfield against the world, and we could have won it. Watch Gazza back now and he seems a man out of time: a cultured midfielder in the dying dregs of the meat and potatoes era, the only man making slide rule passes in a league of biff it up to the big man. Peak Gazza in the glitz of the burgeoning Premier League would have been a superstar, shunted up into an attacking role instead of that rove-from-the-middle-but-let’s-not-leave-the-midfield-exposed-boys CM position he always played from instead. What England would give for a Gazza now. In a time of trequartistas and false 10s, imagine the things a fit Gazza with a free role and a decent poacher to ping it through to could do. Gazza was a generation too soon. Gazza was a luxury midfielder before luxury even existed. He was a Bentley Continental on a mud path of carts and horses.
The closest we ever got to seeing the culmination of Gazza was that Euro 96 tournament. Fresh off the back of a Double winning season at Rangers, reunited with Venables, he was, finally, surrounded by a squad with the potential and talent that matched his own – Shearer and Sheringham up top, a midfield bustling with Ince and McManaman, Merson and Adams propping up the bar, a peerless Seaman in goal – with talented youngsters (Gary Neville, Sol Campbell, Robbie Fowler) peeking through. This was a year or two before the Class of ’92 truly bedded in, and you wonder what an England squad with Beckham, Scholes, and Butt could’ve done alongside Gazza, the cross-generational midfielder, the last great English maverick. It was Glenn Hoddle who fucked that up – he cut Gazza from his 30-man England squad before France 98, ending his international career at 30, despite the fact that it was his mature performance in the 0-0 draw with Italy that got them qualification in the first place – but there, on the green grass of Wembley, at least for one last time we got to see Gazza at his best. We got to see Teddy Sheringham squirt Lucozade on him.