Paul Gascoigne: England’s Vulnerable, Precious and Exuberant Talent

MILLIONS upon millions of words have been spoken and written about the career of Paul Gascoigne; the glory and the gormless, the poetry and the prose, the joys and the tears. If one aspect of the career of Duston’s finest ever sportsman epitomises his footballing life however, it is surely the time he spent wearing his country’s national shirt. It was that most rare of occasions, when a young English footballer burst onto the scene offering up the promise of a talent so extraordinary that it created a dream of glory, but then crashed and burnt in flames that consumed hopes and talent without mercy. There’s a phrase that’s often referred to when talk of Gascoigne and his time with England arises, so I’m going to borrow it from Gary Lineker. Let’s “Have a word” about Gascoigne playing for England.

At just 21 years of age, Paul Gascoigne entered the international arena for England during a Friendly against Denmark in September 1988. At this time, he had already made his mark with the U21 side, highlighting his outstanding potential with a goal from a free-kick in his debut, a 2-0 victory over Morocco. He would garner a dozen caps for the under-age team, scoring five times, but now it was time to join the ‘big boys’ game.

The call had come from England manager and fellow Geordie, Bobby Robson. Positive reports had come forward from Dave Sexton, then heading up the U21 squad, that there was a talent within the slightly chubby Gascoigne frame that could be honed into something special. He wasn’t awry in his assessments, and the Newcastle United starlet was one of four hopefuls making their international debuts on that day. Gascoigne was both the last of the debutants to enter the game, and the one that would be the most significant. England were a goal to the good, thanks to a Neil Webb strike when Robson waved the youngster into the action, replacing another Geordie, Peter Beardsley. Five minutes, plus a little extra at the discretion of the referee was hardly sufficient exposure to startle the world, but it was enough to encourage Robson to mark the midfielder down for another opportunity.

The next game for the Three Lions was a home qualifier for 1990 World Cup, against Sweden, and not unsurprisingly, the manager considered it prudent to go with more experienced players, forsaking the potential of Gascoigne for less testing scenarios. A goalless draw may however have suggested that it wasn’t the best decision. Ironically, despite the hiccup caused by the Scandinavians, England would qualify, and it would be in that very competition, that Paul Gascoigne would display his full panoply of skills to a waiting football world.

The next game was a Friendly against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh’s King Fahd II Stadium, and Gascoigne got the last ten minutes, this time replacing Chris Waddle. It looked like Robson was keen not to over balance his team with players from his home city. It wasn’t a practise that would last. This was the game after which a number of tabloid newspapers launched a vindictive campaign to have Robson sacked, but things would get better from here, and Paul Gascoigne would have an increasingly influential role in that improvement.

The next two qualifiers would be home and away against Albania. A stodgy, but ultimately efficient 2-0 victory in Tirana, was followed by the home rubber in April. Robson would give Gascoigne his head after an hour, with England three clear. Revelling in the time he had to show off his abilities, Gascoigne would deliver the sort of cameo performance that underscored impressions that here was a player who could provide dynamism in midfield, absence since the days of Bobby Charlton. An ability to run forward with the ball and beat a player on either side will always disrupt a defence. Throw in the ability to see and deploy passes beyond the vision of so many others and the steely-eyed finishing of a striker and you can capture the essence of Gascoigne’s promise on that night. It was an evening capped by both scoring and making a goal.

Just half-a-dozen minutes after entering the game, a long cross found Gascoigne beyond the far post. Adroitly avoiding the enticing, but surely forlorn, attempt to try for goal from such an acute angle, instead, he nodded the ball square for Chris Waddle to head into an unguarded net. If that was the hors d’oeuvres, the main course was not long in coming. Receiving the ball from Paul Parker just inside the Albania half of the field, Gascoigne strode past one challenge, drove into the area brushing aside other efforts to dispossess him, and slid the ball into the far corner. “Hello, world! My name’s Gascoigne!”

From that point, although not playing in every game for a variety of reasons, the Newcastle midfielder would become more and more a part of Robson’s plans moving towards the World Cup in Italy. After a substitute appearance in a prestige friendly against Brazil, Gascoigne started against Czechoslovakia on the 25th April as Robson hardened up his thoughts for the squad that would contest Italia 90. Three assists – the second a pinpoint through ball smashed home by Steve Bull – and a goal himself, meant he had a hand in all four goals netted by England that evening. It was a strong case for inclusion and appeared to have convinced his manager. He would start in the following games against Denmark, Uruguay and Tunisia. By the time the squad got to Italy, Gascoigne had convinced the manager. To many, starting the precocious talent from the off may have looked like a gamble. Robson had decided however that the gamble would be more pronounced if he were left out. Such an assessment was validated.

The story of Gascoigne’s World Cup exploits is one of exquisite highs and disappointing lows. The first game against the Republic of Ireland was hardly the stuff of dreams and ended in a less than pulsating 1-1 draw. In the second game however, when Robson changed his formation, playing three at the back, the extra time and room afforded to Gascoigne freed a player, just 23 years-old, to state his case for being one of the tournament’s outstanding talents. The game ended goalless, but Gascoigne was the star of the show, overshadowing opponents such as Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. He even had the audacity to dance away from a group of opponents after pulling a ‘Cruyff Turn’ out of his tool-bag, against the Oranje who had given birth to the extravagant manoeuvre. It may not be overstating the scenario that Paul Gascoigne had served notice that he was truly world class, not potentially, but actually.

In the final group game, it was his free-kick that allowed Mark Wright to head the winner against Egypt and send England into the knockout stages, and a game against Belgium. Guy Thys’s team had their own mercurial midfielder in Enzo Scifo and the game seemed destined to be decided by which of Scifo or Gascoigne could most influence the game. With just seconds left of extra-time, it seemed that neither could perform the necessary oracle, but Gascoigne was convinced it was his time.

Driving forwards, his run was brought to a halt near the halfway line. With barely time for the free-kick, conventional wisdom would have required a flighted ball towards one of the big men up from the back. Gascoigne’s brain never operated along conventional lines though. Instead, he spotted David Platt and played a ball to him that allowed the Aston Villa man to spin and volley home. England were into the last eight of the World Cup. During the game however, an over-enthusiastic challenge by Gascoigne on Scifo was deemed worthy of a yellow card by referee Peter Mikkelsen. In the hullabaloo of victory such apparent trifles were forgotten, but it lay there, sitting on the table, awaiting fate to play the card at the most inopportune moment for England and their maverick midfielder.

The quarter-final confrontation was against Cameroon, in a game strongly influenced by penalties. Leading 1-0, Gascoigne chased back to help out his defence, but his exuberance and enthusiasm only conceded a penalty from which the Africans equalised, and just four minutes later they led, and England were heading out of the World Cup. A penalty by Lineker seven minutes from time brought the scores level though, and in extra-time, it was a Gascoigne through ball that put the striker in on goal before being brought down in the area. He got up to convert and England were in the last four of the tournament, where they met West Germany.

Although always tense, after an initial period where the Germans were on top, England settled into the game, with Gascoigne at the forefront, prodding play forwards, cajoling the strikers to make runs for his penetrative passes and causing panic in the German defensive when he sallied forwards with the ball at his feet. After 90 minutes, the game was tied at 1-1, and in the first period of extra-time, fate laid down that card. After a Klinsmann header was saved by Shilton, Gascoigne drove forwards again. After pushing the ball slightly too far in front of him, he lunged to retain possession. Thomas Berthold was a half-second too quick though and whisked the ball away, just before Gascoigne’s challenge knocked the defender to the floor. Had Berthold sprung to his feet, Gascoigne may well have been saved, but as the German rolled on the turf, Brazilian referee Jose Ramiz Wright, picked up the card that had been sitting on the table and brandished it in front of Gascoigne. It meant that if England won, England’s talisman would be banned from the World Cup Final. Tears flowed. “Have a word,” pleaded Lineker to Robson, but there was little that could be done to console the distraught Gascoigne. Of course, penalties did for England. Gascoigne, together with his team-mates, headed home to a heroes’ welcome, but hiding the hollow feeling of deep sorrow with a broad smile and a fake chest. His international career would never hit such heights again. Perhaps he knew it.

Thanks to some foot-in-the-mouth oratory from the FA, Robson would leave his post and be replaced by Graham Taylor. If his time under fellow Geordie Robson would see Gascoigne’s best moments on the international field of play, it would be far less the case under Taylor. Robson’s ability to coax and cajole, understanding the complexities of a player and personality such as Paul Gascoigne would not be repeated, and the consequences would be very much as expected.

Gascoigne started in the first game under the new manager, a 1-0 victory over Hungary in September 1990, and again against Poland in a European Championship qualifier the following month, but he was dropped for the next game against the Republic of Ireland, with Taylor preferring Gordon Cowans, reportedly for what the manager described at the time as “tactical reasons.” He would return for a Friendly against Cameroon in February 1991, but in the FA Cup Final of the same year, a cruciate knee ligament injury would cause him not only to miss more than 20 England matches, but also the European Championships the following summer. Bereft of Gascoigne, England slumped badly, losing all three group games and ending bottom of the section. Perhaps more importantly than that in the longer term though, many have argued that the injury deprived Gascoigne of the searing burst of pace that had taken him past a defender within a couple of strides. So many times afterwards, when previously he would have accelerated away from a defender, his inability to do so resulted in elbows and arms flung wide to prise open a gap that, previously, would already have seen him clear. The loss of such a potent weapon would inevitably diminish his play. That the injury was self-inflicted, caused by a reckless challenge on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles, only adds to the poignancy of the situation.

Gascoigne also suffered a setback on the road to recovery in September. A scuffle in a Tyneside nightclub resulted in further damage to the injury, requiring fresh surgery. There was even talk at the time that his career may be over. Aside from the personal tragedy that such an outcome would be for the player himself, the loss to England would be of major significance. When the game against Cameroon took place, England were third in the FIFA rankings. It would be 14 October 1992 when the midfielder returned to the international fold in a World Cup qualifier against Norway, by which time, that ranking had dropped to sixth. There were undoubtedly a number of reasons for the tumble, but equally undoubtedly, the loss of Gascoigne was one of them

The next qualifier was also at Wembley against Turkey, and Gascoigne scored twice in a game where the loss suffered by his absence, was exacerbated by the forcefulness of his return. Further victories followed with Gascoigne leading the midfield, before he needed to be substituted at half-time in the qualifier at Wembley against Holland. A random elbow from Jan Wouters broke his cheekbone. England were ahead at the break, but with Gascoigne sent for an X-Ray, a late Dutch penalty levelled the game.

The remainder of the qualifiers were a struggle, and despite a 3-0 victory over Poland, with Gascoigne again on the scoresheet, a 2-0 loss in Holland – when Gascoigne was absent – meant England would miss out on the 1994 World Cup Finals in the USA. It was the end of Graham Taylor’s reign. The man who replaced Taylor though would reinvigorate England’s faded star. Terry Venables took over the hot seat for England on 28 January 1994, with the expressed intention of taking the Three Lions as far as possible in the upcoming European Championships taking place in England.

Now in Italy with Lazio however, Gascoigne suffered a double-fracture of his right leg during training. It meant another twelve months out of the game. Later it was reported that his relationship with long-time partner Sheryl Kyle was in trouble with reports that he had submitted her to bouts of bullying and physical intimidation. It was a dark time, and it would take a full 18 months before he returned to international football, but still with a dark cloud in tow gnawing at his heels.

Ahead of Euro 96, the Umbro International Trophy, served the same purpose as the Confederations Cups do ahead of World Cup Finals today, testing out facilities and preparedness of the hosts. In June 1995 though, the competition also gave Paul Gascoigne an opportunity to wear an England shirt again, as he came on as a substitute in the opening game against Japan. Further cameo roles followed against Sweden and Brazil, but in September he was back in a starting eleven against Colombia in a Friendly.

Fortunately for Gascoigne, Venables’s management style was more akin to Robson than Taylor, and Gascoigne responded in kind. Two further appearances in Friendlies against Switzerland and Portugal seemed to set him on course for a part in the manager’s Euro 96 plans. Such aspirations seemed imperilled though in May of 1996 when, along with a number of other players, Gascoigne visited a nightclub in Hong Kong when on tour with England. A session in the infamous Dentist’s Chair made all the tabloid headlines and more than a few po-faced commentators suggested that this was not the sort of behaviour expected of an England player, and that Venables should consider omitting his from the squad.

Perhaps sensibly, Venables ignored such entreaties, and although Gascoigne was substituted after 77 minutes in a disappointing opening 1-1 draw against Switzerland when the tournament got under way. The next game, against Scotland, would see Gascoigne strut onto centre stage in all his pomp. Already a goal to the good, thanks to an Alan Shearer strike, the midfielder conjured a signature strike with ten minutes remaining. Receiving the ball running towards the Scotland penalty area, he flicked the ball over the head of centre-back Colin Hendry, ran past him, and then volleyed home. A mock of the Dentist’s Chair in celebration was all that was needed to bring the tabloids back onto his side. The following day, the Daily Mirror ran an editorial headed: “Mr Paul Gascoigne: An Apology.” It went on to say, “Gazza is no longer a fat, drunken imbecile. He is, in fact, a football genius.” The capricious nature of fatuous newspaper reporting may not have been lost of Gascoigne, but perhaps it should have been. Fair weather friends are no shelter when the rains come, and for Paul Gascoigne, umbrellas were often needed

Ultimately, the tournament ended in disappointment. England were eliminated on penalties – of course – to the Germans in the semi-final, but not until after Gascoigne had come within a hairsbreadth of winning the game when a cross by Shearer just eluded his outstretched studs with the goal gaping. Another tournament passed England, and their talismanic midfielder, by despite some outstanding performances. It would be the last major tournament Paul Gascoigne would feature in for his country. Having one of their greatest talents available for just one World Cup Finals and one European Championships is a quantity paltry enough to leave England fans feeling both frustrated and cheated in equal measures.

Venables was replaced by Glenn Hoddle, and although the sort of talent that never received full international recognition during his time as an outstanding midfield player himself, there never seemed an easy fit between manager and player. Gascoigne would play 14 games for the former Spurs player, scoring a couple of goals and taking a full part in the qualification tournament that took England to the 1998 World Cup Finals in France. A truly disciplined performance in the deciding rubber away to Italy, probably being the highlight. He would appear just four more times for his country though.

As preparations for Hoddle’s squad selection progressed, more adverse tabloid headlines followed. Nights out on the town, and inappropriate “refuelling” hardly endeared the player to Hoddle, and it became clear that his place was in jeopardy as games ticked by without him completing a full 90 minutes. In the final Friendly, he completed the game against Saudi Arabia and may have thought it as a positive signal. He would be disappointed.

At England’s training camp, Hoddle called him into his room to deliver the news that he hadn’t made the cut for the squad. Reports have it that Gascoigne then wrecked the room in anger, before being restrained and storming out of England’s reckoning, never to return. Paul Gascoigne had played a mere 57 games for England scoring 10 goals. He was 30 years old. Whether Hoddle was right or not is a matter for discussion. The consequences of the decision however were surely predictable. This was the very essence of the precious, vulnerable talent of England’s Paul Gascoigne. Those dark clouds broke and the rain came pouring down. It washed away the international career of Paul Gascoigne.

Like some shooting star, Gascoigne had lit up the aspirations of England fans. Italia 90 had seen the first full flowering under a manager who understood how to draw the genius from him. In 1996, there was a similar, but less wonderous flaring. The question is whether England fans should lament the lost times and missed opportunities that a full, uninterrupted career of Paul Gascoigne, with a century of caps to his name should have given to us, or instead should they rejoice at his coming and accept the inherent sorrows as merely two side of the same coin? I guess that’s for each to decide.

Earlier, I borrowed a phrase of Gary Lineker’s to introduce this piece, so it’s only fair that I let him “Have a word” as well. The ex-England skipper seems to lean towards the latter option in the question above. “Part of his genius, part of his magnificence, is the fact that he was so vulnerable. Without that vulnerable side, without that carefree side, without all the things that come with Gazza, I don’t think Paul Gascoigne would have been the player that he was.” It’s difficult to argue with that, and I, for one, am not minded to do so.

By Gary Thacker with artwork by @IRBhatti10 

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