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Gazza, it was twenty years ago

Early in the 88/89 season I went to Anfield to watch Liverpool v Tottingham Hotspurts.  Back then every close season saw a flurry of spending by clubs  trying to compete with Liverpool.  Spurs always seemed to be at the forefront of the spending and in the summer of 1988 saw Spurs buy the young prospect Paul Gascoigne. 

1988 was the days before every single moment of every single football match was filmed and each tackle pass and fart analysed by cameras placed at six different angles.  As a result, we knew there was a young talented portly player named Paul Gascoigne from Newcastle and some of his goals were shown on Saint and Greavsie, and he was a bit of a character who loved Mars Bars, but we weren’t as clued up on him as we would be now.  Nowhere near in fact. 

At Anfield, The first time Gascoigne got the ball a collective gasp seemed to encircle Anfield. Was this fat Geordie lad any good?  Well, yes he was, in fact he was better than anyone could have imagined.  He joyously sprayed accurate passes around and whenever Liverpool attacked seemed to be the one who received the ball to initiate a fresh wave of possession. He’d gleefully skip past opponents, ball at his feet, and his grateful teammates would know an incisive pass was on the way.   The Spurs supporters cheered him warmly and if they didn’t he told them to, then emerged with a big grin.  When The Kop chanted to tell him that he was a fat bar steward, he smiled waved and did a silly walk.  The endearing thing about Gazza at this time is that he clearly loved being a footballer.  At the end of the game (it finished 1-1) he ran up to the Kop with a big smile and they responded in kind and chanted his name.  This was in the wake of Englands 1988 European Championship calamity and new talent and faces were needed for 1990 so Gazza was a breath of fresh air. Paul Gascoigne could become a superstar, and he’d enjoy every minute of it. 

After several appearances in England’s  friendlies he gradually established himself. Bobby Robson described him as being “As daft as a brush”.   This wasn’t a personal criticism it was more meant with affection to show what a livewire character he was around the camp.  He eventually cemented his place in the World Cup squad.   He was a special player at Italia 90.  The real pivotal point was during the game against Holland when he turned his man with skill on the byline and crossed for Lineker. A top quality player who could make the difference for England.  And he often did.  So much went through Gazza, his hyperactive presence charging around Italian football pitches.  We left it late against Belgium, dodged a bullet against Cameroon and finally found ourselves in a semi final against West Germany, and we all know what happened next. 

This week saw the 20th anniversary of that huge landmark game. We’ve never been that close since (will we ever be that close again?) to landing the ultimate prize.  At the end of the extra time, and with Gazza sobbing his broken heart out, Bobby Robson tried to console him by assuring him that “You’ve got your whole life in front of you, this is just your first”.  Of course, Robson wasn’t to know, but it was also his last.  He’d never have believed it as he left that tear drenched Turin pitch, but that proved to be his last ever game in a World Cup Finals.  Sadly, That was the highlight of Gascoigne’s England career. He never seemed to fully recover from The self inflicted injury he recklessly acquired in the 1991 FA Cup Final.  In Euro 96 we saw some flashes of brilliance and in assorted qualifiers we got some difference making moments but we hardly ever saw the happy excited Gazza that used to illuminate football grounds with a flick of a  Geordie boot.

In the build up to the 1998 tournament Gascoigne was clearly unfit. Glenn Hoddle made huge headlines by omitting him from the squad.  But what initially seemed a controversial decision turned out not to be controversial at all.  More just an obvious management decision that simply had to be confirmed.  Gascoigne’s lack of fitness and drinking had become a serious problem, and being  photographed buying a kebab didn’t help.  In his autobiography Paul Gascoigne described his own violent reaction to the news and that his mindset at the time in itself was enough to justify the decision.  He was clearly unhinged and being at close quarters with the squad for a month could have led to all sorts of problems.  And him being too unfit to play effectively meant it just wasn’t worth the risk.  Paul Gascoigne’s life had been unravelling for several years and in Hoddles room at La Manga his England career finally reached a sad undignified end.

Since he finished playing Paul Gascoigne’s numerous problems have been well documented.  He’s rarely far from the headlines and I,like many others, fear the worst when I see his name in a newspaper headline.  As Terry Venables has said “Only Gazza can save Gazza.”

So much has surrounded him but as we acknowledge  the 20th anniversary of that epic night in Turin, and a turning point for English football, I prefer to think of the great Matt Busby’s words when talking about George Best……  “We had our problems with the wee feller, but I prefer to remember his genius” And when I think of Paul Gascoigne I like to think of the Geordie who charmed Anfield and ran Cameroon ragged and scored that free kick in the FA cup semi final. 

20 years.

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