IN any other era, the dull thud of a heavy football against a house wall might be enough to send its housebound residents screaming to the council authorities. As it is, apart from the obligatory prohibited ball games sign, not much is said. This after all is the early seventies and this is the North East of England. Gateshead specifically, cast in the shadow of the great football city of Newcastle, whose young tear aways on street corners and school fields constantly hammer footballs into makeshift goals and cast an inquisitive eye to the distance and the hallowed stadium of St James Park – the epicentre of everything in these parts, their sporting church.
One such young ‘un is Paul Gascoigne. They would joke around the streets of Gateshead where he lived that it would take a surgeon to medically remove the ball from his right foot – such was his utter devotion to the game. In many ways though professional football was always the working class dream in Tyneside – the only escape ticket for those brought up on their dad’s chasing work and cursing capital politicians who had long forgotten them like fish whispers. The late seventies and early eighties hadn’t been kind to Gateshead either. There was poverty and there was laughter in no particular order. That’s just the way it was and if you were Paul Gascoigne and his two sisters – the adventures to be had in creaky properties far outweighed their lack of future modernism.
Paul was never in anyway, if the truth be told. By the time he was starring for Gateshead boys at football he’d found his future path. Not that dedication was his default setting. Daft choices and daft situations went par on par with his sublime skills on the pitch. Heading up to Newcastle wasn’t just about a pilgrimage to St James Park, there was mischief to be had. Daftness really, but an early addiction to fruit machines and an emotional backlash to rejection hinted at a future darkness to come. A failed trial at Ipswich Town showed that like most in the North East, things would never be handed free on a plate either. You had to graft your talent on to the world as a Geordie. What you give, as the Weller song famously said, is what you get.
By 1980 and aged thirteen however, the future superstar of English football began his ascent. Signing schoolboy forms for his beloved Newcastle United not only fired his passion for the game but also gave him certain kudos in the great, black and white city, even at that young age. Newcastle never was a great cultural melting pot of the arts but its symmetry with its football team was always huge. To pull on that famous shirt at any level could be regaled for decades after in smoke filled social clubs and bait cabins. Not that Gascoigne’s success was ever going to be that fleeting. He could glide past opponents with the pomp of a beach Brazilian even as a Newcastle schoolboy. He could also have the back room staff pulling their hair out too. ‘George Best without the brains,’ he was described by a member of the St James hierarchy after he tried to drive a tractor into a dressing room. The tears of a clown would come almost a decade later. A sense of constant drama too. First however, there was something of a revolution at his hometown club to consider.
Gascoigne was perfectly placed within the club as the resurrection landed. 1982 and the arrival of Saint Keegan would revitalise the Gallowgate and the city. Gazza would take it all in from the terraces, King Kev and the second coming. Which young player could fail to be moved by that. If only he could of focused himself for more than five minutes. Paul Gascoigne’s talent wasn’t in doubt but he was never going to be one to participate gleefully in the draconian English coaching methods of the early eighties. Endless shuttle runs and piggy backs up hills that would have European coaches sighing with sadness when they turned up in the mid nineties. A sense of boredom would sometimes kick in for Gazza then, and in those moments getting into mischief with his best mate Jimmy Gardner would seem more fun than glorified circuit training. Like many a gifted player, hard work and temperance was never his thing. Give him a ball and he could send lightning bolts around it. Without it, and his psychological clock was ticking.
It would actually take until the 84/85 season for the shackles to be thrown off a player, who from that moment would never look back. Captaining the Newcastle United youth side to a FA cup trophy was a proud moment for Gascoigne and it began to get him noticed by those in the St James dugout too. First manager Jack Charlton would hand Gazza his debut against QPR, which would quickly lead to him signing professional terms with his hometown club. It was a huge deal for the young midfielder, not only did it validate his dreams of being a top class footballer but also gave him the opportunity to provide financially for his immediate family. Growing up in Dunston had been a struggle for the Gascoigne’s, but from that moment on the generous Gazza would make things a lot easier for those around him. It showed that beneath the future clowning and headlines his heart wasn’t just sporadically in the right place, it was pretty much cemented there.
Whilst on and off the pitch things looked rosy for the young midfielder however, there was trouble looming for Newcastle United. A sense of stasis had kicked in before the start of the 85-86 season, seemingly forcing them back to ground zero when it came to club ambition and terrace optimism. Firstly one of their most brilliant talents Chris Waddle was sold on to Spurs, which was a huge blow to their future prospects on the pitch. The appointment of Willie Mcfaul was hardly a marquee one either and did little to ease the tension at home games amongst the fanatical support. The sense that the Newcastle board lacked progression would be bore out that season. An eventual 11th finish would paper over the cracks. Only the performances of a young Gazza kept those on the Gallowgate from a full revolt. ‘The greatest young English player of the last thirty five years,’ would be club legend Jackie Milburn’s view. With eleven goals to his name for that campaign and a string of man-of-the-match performances – the young midfielders stock was certainly rising.
By the time Newcastle United would face Manchester United the following year in fact the praise of Gascoigne would reach a cacophony. Alex Ferguson would watch on, as Gazza would rip an opposing midfield of Robson, Whiteside and Moses to absolute shreds. Within the framework of a lacklustre Newcastle side it had become the norm. Gascoigne carrying his team mates, who would probably have been relegated without him. The astute Ferguson sensed not only a brilliant player but a frustrated one too. He urged his chairman Martin Edwards to do everything he could to sign the player. Alongside Spurs, the race was on to sign the top divisions most precocious and brilliant star.
From that moment on it was the death knell for Paul Gascoigne at Newcastle. With the departure of Peter Beardsley to Liverpool, he probably looked around him and saw a lack of investment and ambition at the club that was bordering on criminal. Stripped of its prize assets and struggling to even remain in the top flight it would force his hand. He would eventually settle on Terry Venables Spurs as his next destination. It would be the beginning of meteoric highs and stratospheric lows for the genius midfielder. But it was always with a tinge of sadness that he had to leave his hometown club to fulfill his ambitions. A club who never really realised the gifts on the pitch they possessed till sadly they all departed like brilliant phoenix’s departing into the night.