Paul Gascoigne at Tottenham Hotspur: the promise and the heartbreak

BY 1988, it was pretty obvious that Paul Gascoigne had already outgrown Newcastle and the entire North East altogether. In his palm, he has the hottest signature in English football at that point; so moving to a bigger club was inevitable. So the question is where?

On one hand, there was Sir Alex Ferguson who was building a dynasty at Old Trafford. Of course, Manchester United weren’t yet the team they were about to become in the following decade. But Sir Alex has envisioned and recognised what quality a player of Gazza’s stature can do for his team.

On the other, it was Tottenham Hotspur, who were too building a new chapter under Terry Venables. The gaffer has just returned to English football from Barcelona almost a year earlier. Venables needed a signing like Gascoigne to galvanise the North London side who had been struggling in the league. Thus, it would take a lot more than just football talk to persuade Gazza to sign with them. United had the promising team, but Venables knew exactly where to hit the right spot to swing Gazza into his favour.

For Gazza, family was everything. He didn’t played football so that he could fulfil his dream on the pitch but also to provide a better life for his Mum, Dad and siblings. This is the part where I felt Sir Alex missed out the most and did the trick for Venables.

Venables managed to persuade the owner the sign Gazza for a British record £2.2 million. Part of the deal also includes a home for his family. All this despite the club having to deal with mounting debts. Venables knew, it was all worth it in the long run.

I often ask myself, how things would have been different if Gazza had signed for Manchester United. Perhaps, the fortune of one of football’s most colourful yet tortured souls would have turned out differently. For us as football fans, this will continue to remain as of one the greatest what ifs in football.

Now Venables has got the man he wanted, it was time launch an assault on the league’s aristocracy. Ironically, Spurs’ first game of the season was away to Newcastle. Gazza couldn’t make an impact in front of the crowd that used to worship him in the past. He was substitute as the visitors trailed by two goals. Luckily Spurs fought back to snatch a point on day one.

A week later, he made his home debut against their North London rivals, Arsenal. If there was a match for him to make his mark in a Spurs kit, it was this one. The home side got off to a better start with Gazza scoring with his socks after losing his boots from an incoming tackle. Brilliant stuff from the young genius. Unfortunately, Spurs lost the game 3-2.

Now they had a tough task ahead with a visit to Anfield to face defending champions, Liverpool. They managed to come away with a 1-1 draw before finally securing their first win against Middlesborough (3-2). This early euphoria to the season didn’t last long though. Spurs found themselves second from bottom by the end October and enduring a win-less month. Gazza didn’t find the net since the Arsenal game. He did score two memorable free kicks against Queen’s Park Rangers and Millwall. On both occasions, he left the keeper looking dumbfounded.

In early 1989, Spurs had improved their league standings to ninth in the league. They had a positive run from February to May, which saw them only losing on three outings. This meant that Tottehnam would finish in sixth place in the league. Gazza had seven goals in 37 appearances, not a bad start to his Spurs career, which is only going to get better.

By now, he was also the centre of attention of another important figure. England’s manager, Sir Bobby Robson has been keeping an eye on Gazza. Slowly he was integrating him into his plan for England. Gazza scored his first goal in a World Cup qualifier against Albania in April, 1989. But first, he had some unfinished business with Spurs as they head into the 1989/90 season.

Once again, Venables has masterminded a hijack over a Manchester United target. This time he brought in Gary Lineker from Barcelona. With Lineker and Paul Stewart up front linking with Gazza, El Tel was hoping this could provide Spurs the much-needed help to challenge for the league title. But once again, they’re campaign got off to a false start. Notching just one win from their first six games.

Spurs did recover from that, thanks to a string of great results, which included beating Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United (twice!). That run propelled the club to finish in an improved 3rd place in the league. Gazza once again matched his total tally of seven goals for that season.

As England’s World Cup campaign ended in heartbreak and penalties, Gazza had to refocus on the new season with Tottenham. It would prove to be his most defining season in a Spurs shirt.

Gazza’s first two years at White Hart Lane has been an overwhelming success. The time seemed right to take it to another level. Thus a lot was expected for the upcoming season and had plenty of promise for the club. Things were looking great after 17 matches as Spurs were in third position in the league. Inconsistency came back to haunt them in the next 21 games which saw the North London club win just three! This meant that Spurs ended up finishing a disappointing eleventh place in the standings.

Eager to make up for their crestfallen season in the league, the club ensured they went out all in the FA Cup. Spurs defeated Blackpool, Oxford United, Portsmouth and Notts County. Gazza was at the forefront, scoring 5 goals. This also earned them a trip to Wembley to face Arsenal in the semi-final.

There were two reasons why this game was the most important fixture for Tottenham that season. First, it was their only chance of winning a trophy that and second, they had a great opportunity to deny their North London rivals a chance to lift the double as Arsenal would go on to win the league.

Gazza was so pumped up for this game. He knows a good performance here will seal his place among Spur’s luminaries. He didn’t need to wait that long though. Five minutes into the game, he blasted the ball from a 35-yard free kick, which left David Seaman looking miserable. Up to then, it was his most memorable moment at the home of English football. And surely wasn’t going to be his last.

Five minutes later, he had role in Spurs second goal. Gazza gave a delicate through pass to Ian Woan,, whose cross led to a scramble in the Gunners area. Lineker, at the right place at the right time, slotted the ball in. Spurs were now in dreamland. Arsenal did pull one back before half time but Lineker sealed the game with another goal in the 78th minute.

In the final against Nottingham Forest, Gazza didn’t hold back any of his emotions. He knew in himself it was his destiny to crown his finest mark at Wembley. But as fate would have it, Gazza’ involvement in the final ended prematurely. An excruciating tackle on Forest’s Gary Charles left him in agony, he did try to resume playing after receiving extensive treatment but left immediately after Forest had scored from the resulting free kick.

It wasn’t meant to be for Gazza but he still managed to collect his first major trophy in English football. Tottenham Hotspurs would go on to win the final 2-1 in extra time. Gazza later admitted that the sight of his teammates walking up the famous Wembley steps made him weep, a footballer’s dream denied by a cruel twist of fate.

As his stature grew throughout that season, so did speculation on major offers from abroad. This was the pre-Premier League era and it was something habitual of the best English talent to test the waters overseas.

Serie A side Lazio had been courting for Gascoigne’s for sometime. They finally got him to sign with them just before the FA Cup Final. However the cruciate ligament injury he suffered on his right knee meant that the move had to be postponed to the following year. The cup final against Forest would appear to be his last outing in a Spurs team. He sat out the entirety of the 1991-92 season recovering from that injury. Not the best way to end his time with the club after a chapter that was filled with so much of promise.

As he bid farewell to the Square Mile of London, it was time for the Eternal City of Rome to embrace Britain’s most talked about footballer.

By Sivan John with artwork by Ibrahim Bhatti

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