When former England Coach Sir Bobby Robson famously labelled Paul Gascoigne ‘daft as a brush,’ anyone who had played against, with, or quite simply witnessed a fully-fit Gascoigne in his prime would have found more suitable superlatives for one of the most gifted players of their generation.
A quick search through YouTube or Google will present you more than enough evidence of this twisted genius. Gascoigne at his peak was capable of majestic, magical things that Serie A stars of today would be proud of. He could disguise a pass like Ronaldinho, glide with the ball at his feet like Kaka, strike a dead ball like Andrea Pirlo, lose his cool in the spotlight like Francesco Totti or produce outstanding individual brilliance like Alex Del Piero.
The alcohol ravaged, broken man who recently admitted drinking up to 30 cans of strong lager a day and ‘dying’ three times on a hospital bed during his lowest suicidal ebb, was a loveable rogue of the game. Happiest on the pitch with the ball at his feet, totally lost off the field without it.
Born in the Dunston area of Gateshead, Newcastle, Gascoigne followed the familiar route into superstardom via a working class upbringing, professional club rejection as a schoolboy and finally getting his big break at the beloved club he supported as a boy.
Gifted with guile, technique and ability that would belie his shapely appearance, Gazza was revered as England’s hottest property as his career saw him rise through the Newcastle United ranks, on to Tottenham Hotspur and break into the international fold. It was on Italian soil that the world was fully introduced to the genial Gascoigne as his performances during England’s Italia 90 World Cup run to the semi-finals rocketed his stature amongst Europe’s – and often argued, the world’s – footballing elite.
Running at and swiftly waltzing past opposition, displaying a range of passing and demonstrating his natural flair for the big stage, with England locked in a 1-1 extra time draw with the then West Germany, Gascoigne, having already received a yellow card during England’s second round victory over Belgium, showed his tenacity – and lack of restraint – as he committed a foul that led to a booking and next game suspension. If England won the match and were to reach the final, it was to be without Gascoigne. Television showed that he had tears in his eyes following the yellow card and there were further tears as the match culminated in a penalty shoot-out which the Germans eventually won.
Gazza’s performances and passion had won him an army of fans and admirers and the 24 year old was named in the Italia 90 All-Star team, returning to England to a frenzy that became known as Gazzamania.
Following the success at the World Cup, the stage seemed set for Gazza to excel. Like so many of the most naturally gifted showman – be it musicians, actors or professional footballers – Gascoigne appeared hell-bent on wrecking what should have been a trophy laden, legendary career. On the pitch he strutted and performed like the superstar, dug in and battled like a warrior yet playing the game with a smile and mixing moments of magic with moments of madness.
Having enjoyed the Gazzamania frenzy, helping Spurs to a domestic cup final and securing an 8.5m move to Lazio, desperate to leave Spurs on a high to show Serie A and the rest of the world how good he was, the temperamental Gascoigne put threat upon his dream move – and career – minutes into the game when he committed a dangerous knee-high foul that ruptured the cruciate ligaments in his right knee. The Serie A move was put on hold as Gazza missed the entire 1991/92 season while he recovered. Gascoigne was to later admit in his autobiography that those days of injury were some of his darkest moments. In another act of self-stupidity, whilst rehabilitating, he suffered a further knee injury in the Autumn of 1991 during an unsavoury incident at an English nightclub.
Overcoming the injury, Gascoigne finally joined Lazio for a reduced fee of £5.5 million, making his debut on September 27, 1992 against Genoa in a game televised in Britain as well as Italy. Channel 4 at the time had capitalised on the hype surrounding Gazza’s move abroad and the stranglehold Sky had taken by claiming British football from terrestrial TV. Football Italia offered English viewers the chance to watch live football from one of Europe’s greatest leagues where at the time, many of the worlds greatest players plied their trade. English viewers were now able to follow the dream of the cherished Gazza in his time abroad, although he didn’t feature in the opening match of the television coverage – a 3-3 draw between Sampdoria and Lazio.
When Gazza did finally make his debut he was true to form playing up in an act of humour and good jest. With the fans still to see the best of their mercurial record signing and very much aware of Gascoigne’s recent injury problems, midway through the first half, one of the Genoese players went in hard, leaving Gazza in a heap. Fearing the worst, the entire Genoa team grouped round the player lying prone on the field. After a while, a shaky Gascoigne got to his feet with his trademark grin and, as if to repay the opposition’s concern, proceeded to shake every Genoa player’s hand before leaving the field for treatment. This was classic Gascoigne tomfoolery.
In his first season at the Stadio Olimpico, his form and fitness were inconsistent but he scored his first goal in the 89th minute to equalise during the Derby della Capitale against Roma earning him an instant place in the blue Curva Sud hearts. Then of course there was THAT solo goal against Pescara, an effort of such majestic Zlatan Ibrahimovic-like close control and calm finish. Or that belch into a waiting media microphone that landed Gazza a £9000 fine. Yet without doubt, he possessed just as much heart as he did humour. Classic Gascoigne footballing was displayed most notably in his breathtaking display against a Fabio Capello-coached Milan.
With his fist-shaking exhortations to the heads that had dropped with Milan’s 2-0 advantage he immediately hauled Lazio back into a position where they were not only able to find an equaliser but to seriously threaten Milan’s unbeaten Serie A sequence, which then stood at 58 games. That one performance alone sparked admiration from Capello himself.
“Next season Gascoigne can be one of the Italian league’s great players,” Capello said, “but it’s important he works on his conditioning. He is strong and quick, gets away from players beautifully and has the talent to reach that mark. However, he must work hard every day on his fitness. At the moment he is OK but he should do better.”
Lazio President Sergio Cragnotti could not help but purr over the player who many had deemed a dud: “Whoever wants our Gazza should give up the idea that he will become available. He will be staying in Rome forever.”
Predictably however, Gascoigne failed to fully adjust to the culture or settle in Italy. Beset by media interest, the tomfoolery continued, whilst personal problems surrounding his relationship with partner Sheryl and injury, notably breaking his cheekbone in April 1993 and his leg a year later in a training ground challenge with a young Alessandro Nesta – an injury that kept him out for the majority of the 1994/95 season – cut short the Lazio adventure.
Whilst all the world knew just how good Gazza could be, Gazza behaved like a man who resented how good he should have been. Never wanting to, almost frightened to fulfil the god-given talent he possessed. The only thing that Gazza had in common with his new home was football – with his leg broken and a long spell out again, the common ground was destroyed and the man became lost. The Gazza success story wasn’t to be – not in Italy anyway.
Gascoigne is open and honest about his time in Italy – he loved playing football first and foremost but during that period of injury, he was lonely, struggling to adapt to his new life and the culture and sought solace in the wrong places. “For me injuries don’t come in threes, they come in 33s. I fought back, got injured again and I had to have another operation. I got down and depressed and I think I was drinking more than I should. Well, I know I was.”
Upon leaving Italy Gascoigne attempted to engineer a move to Manchester United but Sir Alex Ferguson, a master at schooling vulnerable and gifted youngsters, declined to gamble on Gazza. He continued his colourful career in Scotland with Glasgow Rangers where he appeared to capture his best form once more, winning numerous domestic honours and demonstrating on the big stage at Euro 96 just how gifted he was – his sublime volley against Scotland again supplementing his stature.
Omission from Glenn Hoddle’s 1998 England World Cup squad was the catalyst for a downward spiral into lower league football as far out as China and an even darker descent into alcohol, assault charges, drug addiction, suicide attempts, and mental health sectioning.
That Paul Gascoigne is widely regarded as a national treasure in England and is fondly remembered in Italy speaks volumes. Without Gascoigne and his time in Italy, who is to say other players, most notably Paul Ince, would have made the transition from Premier league to Serie A.
“My biggest regret? Not signing Gazza.”
Such a compliment from Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson following Gazza’s Italian exit should be enough to remind us all of the true footballing genius he was.
And the enigma he shall remain.