Paul Gascoigne at Rangers: Life in the Cabaret

IT was a bolt out of the blue. One day in June 1995, with no prior warning, Walter Smith asked his assistant Archie Knox a simple question: “Should I sign Paul Gascoigne?”

At that point, Gazza was out of favour in Rome having weight issues and personality issues with the dogmatic Zdenek Zeman. Knox started by reeling off all of the reasons that it would be a bad idea and Smith cut him off by repeating the question.

The answer was: “Yes”

A few hours later, Smith was in Rome knocking on Gascoigne’s door and approaching the player directly to gauge his interest. He was directed to the back of the house and there he saw the man himself for the first time – riding a quadbike around the garden attempting to mow down Jimmy Five-Bellies. Once distracted from attempting vehicular homicide, Smith asked Gascoigne if he wanted to play for Rangers. His reply?

“Aye, that’d be great.”

Perhaps the best description of Gascoigne’s time in Scotland came from the voice of Scottish football, Archie Macpherson: “a combination of a cabaret act and a ruthless destroyer”. During this three-year spell of Gascoigne’s career, fans would see some of the most extreme examples of the Englishman’s personality both on and off the pitch. Whilst the ruthless destroyer that on-the-pitch Gazza could be showed itself at the most opportune moments, the oft-pitiful cabaret act of his personal life was never far behind.

Three years later, Gazza would be back in Middlesbrough and on the brink of his first visit to the Priory. Somewhere, something had gone terribly wrong in Glasgow.

Rangers didn’t really need Paul Gascoigne to win the league but signing Paul Gascoigne was never about that. It was about trying to take over Europe. This was a side packed with talent – Richard Gough, Gordon Durie, Ally McCoist, Brian Laudrup to name a few. A fortnight after Gascoigne signed, Rangers then picked up Oleg Salenko – the golden boot of the 1994 World Cup. Money wasn’t an object for the club’s voracious (and ultimately self-destructive) hunt for trophies beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Gascoigne was signed not because the club should, but because they could.

That will sound mad to younger readers – a Scottish team signing England’s best player just because, well, why on earth not? But that was the Rangers M.O. in the ‘90s: they established dominance not just on the pitch but by their audacious dealings off it. After all, what did it matter if Celtic signed Andreas Thom if Rangers had Paul bloody Gascoigne?! How could anyone think the two Glasgow giants were possibly on the same level? How could you not consider Rangers part of Europe’s elite when they had Gazza as the headline act?

The first year of Gazza in Glasgow was productive to the extreme – his highest league goal scoring return of any season of his career, his only ever Player of the Year award, his first ever league trophy. Yet the image of that season that still resonates today isn’t a goal or a run or a pass – it’s the moment he picked up referee Dougie Smith’s yellow card from the ground in a 7-0 festive pasting of Hibs, jokingly showing the ref the yellow and then getting booked himself for dissent. The Guardian once ranked it the worst refereeing decision of all time, an opinion that fails to refer to Smith’s version of events where Gascoigne had actually previously been asked for the card back and refused, played on a little and set up the whole incident; something that video footage backs up.

That this moment should be the image that has travelled down the ages is a pity (especially if you’re Dougie Smith) because that first year at Rangers is, perhaps, Gascoigne’s true peak – fully fit for the first time in over a year and just before his alcohol consumption really started to get out of control.

After all, who remembers Gascoigne’s other contribution to that 7-0 thrashing of Hibs – anyone remember him picking the ball up 35 yards out, driving a mazy run past three players and slotting it under the goalkeeper to make it 4-0 on the day? Didn’t think so. Therein was the paradox of Gazzamania in Glasgow – the cabaret act would almost always place the ruthless destroyer in its shadow.

But when the ruthless destroyer showed itself, it was truly spectacular and at no other time was it better shown than in April 1996 against Aberdeen at Ibrox.

Eight in a row. What an incredible achievement for any team. For Rangers, it wasn’t just an incredible achievement, it was one step closer to exorcising a demon. Celtic got to nine in a row so, for Rangers to be the pre-eminent force in Scotland they had to get to ten. Not stop at nine, but go for the ten.

Gascoigne sealed Rangers’ eighth successive title with a virtuoso performance at Ibrox in the penultimate game of the season. The 1995/96 season was the first in many in which Celtic had gotten themselves together and challenged Rangers to the last, losing only one game all season but a surfeit of draws did for them. Rangers fell behind early against the Dons but, as is so often the case with the truly great sides, this served only to prick them into action and none more so than Gascoigne.

It began with a cleared corner to Gascoigne about 22 yards out. Given time to control the ball and rushed on by Billy Dodds and Dean Windass, Gascoigne drove past them easily before finishing past Michael Watt in Aberdeen’s goal. It was a highlight reel goal but was nothing compared to what he did later.

With ten minutes to go and a win needed to secure the title, Gascoigne picked the ball up deep and ran.

“My legs were so tired on that run that I wanted the guy to bring me down. I didn’t think I could keep on going. But he missed me and I managed to finish it off.”

Turning from just inside his own half, he was tracked all the way by two Aberdeen players but kept going and going. 45 yards later, he passed it into the net in possibly the greatest goal of his Rangers career. The ruthless destroyer had gone beyond his fitness and beyond his natural limits to score a goal of true genius. He would round off a hat trick from the penalty spot soon after and the title, Gascoigne’s first, was won. On the same day, he would also be named player of the year. Three weeks later, Rangers would absolutely stomp all over Hearts in what became known as The Laudrup Final.

Rangers’ dual geniuses had delivered when it mattered and delivered a double. Next would surely be Europe but, before that, there was the little matter of Euro 96.

Cabaret act. Ruthless destroyer.

The prelude to Euro 96 was the former, as Gazza was thrust into the Dentist’s chair in a boozy Hong Kong session. When playing Scotland in the group stage, he would be thrust into it once more after bursting through the Scottish midfield to get onto a ball from Darren Anderton, flicking it up over Colin Hendry’s head (at that stage, perhaps the most formidable defender in the UK) and slamming it low past Andy Goram, his team-mate at Rangers. He then went on to score the shootout winner vs Spain before his agonising lack of contact late vs Germany forced England into that shootout and the rest is history.

After the Scotland game, the Daily Mirror would issue an apology for having ever been mean about Gascoigne: “Gazza is no longer a fat, drunken imbecile. He is, in fact, a football genius”

Within two years, that football genius would be permanently exiled from the England team. This was the genius’ peak.

The cabaret act never went away and his antics in Glasgow became legend. Stories such as using Jimmy Five Bellies as a shooting practice target and paying him £100 every time he hit the target. Or when Gazza made Ally McCoist’s car forever unclean by getting an engineer friend to hide a dead fish in the engine. Or intentionally mistranslating Ally McCoist’s request to calm down in training to Gennaro Gattuso resulting in Gattuso tackling McCoist as hard as possible and studding McCoist in the chest.

And while you could go on all day and ruin the material of innumerate after dinner speakers by listing those antics, they began to wear thin on Walter Smith. Smith’s relationship with Gascoigne was, at times, almost fatherly (to the point of twice inviting Gascoigne around for Christmas Dinner) but even his patience would give way as tolerance of Gascoigne’s cabaret act began to turn into a genuine concern over Gascoigne’s own mental health, something which only grew in 1996 with tabloid press coverage.

In October 1996, the cabaret act took on a sinister turn as Gascoigne’s wife beating was revealed. Any pent up frustration, any insecurity, anything at all – it was taken out on Sheryl as pictured at Gleneagles and splashed on the front of the red tops. When his abusive behaviours were revealed, he no longer could use his fists to release pent up frustration so turned to the only other crutch he knew – alcohol. And he would anger Walter Smith after taking his frustrations out on the pitch and getting himself sent off for an off the ball kick on Winston Bogarde in a loss against Ajax in the Champions League.

This didn’t just harm Gascoigne. This harmed Rangers. This harmed owner David Murray’s obsession with European success. A 4-1 loss to Ajax more or less sealed Rangers’ exit from Europe that season and harmed the fragile psyche around the club. Walter Smith famously said it best when he described a “Protestant Superiority Complex” around the club and that meant that Rangers just couldn’t deal as well with the concept of failure from the 90s onwards as other clubs and fans do. The natural ebb and flow of superiority just wasn’t meant to happen to them.

1996/97 was still a productive season for Gascoigne. A League and League Cup double sealed the coveted nine in a row. But the cabaret act started to outweigh the ruthless destroyer and people were noticing.

Brian Laudrup: “I believe he is one of the biggest talents the English game has ever produced. Yet what he has done is not healthy for him or the club. I just hope he opens his eyes and sees what he’s about to destroy. The players here love him – he’s a fantastic player when he’s not drunk”.

His weight started to fluctuate. His marriage was hurtling towards divorce. He started getting little injuries here and there and lost form and, crucially, Walter Smith’s instincts were less consistent as he dithered over whether to indulge or excoriate Gascoigne. That was until Gazza’s antics went too far.

Way too far.

1997/98 was Gascoigne’s last season at the club, leaving just halfway through, but he packed so much into the half he was there. He would get injured in a friendly six a side tournament. He would get a five-match ban for an elbow in the face to Morten Wieghorst against Celtic in October but it would be the New Year’s meeting between the two at Ibrox that determined his fate with the club.

It would begin 36 hours before the game as Gascoigne flouted a 48-hour pre-game drinking ban by staying up to the small hours drinking on New Year’s Eve but it came to a head during the game itself.

Warming up on the sidelines in front of the Celtic support, Gascoigne pranced along for a couple of seconds imitating playing the flute. He had done it before, against Steaua Bucharest in 1995 to a more muted reaction because, at that point, he didn’t really know the connotations that came along with it. But doing it in front of the Celtic support, fully aware that this would be seen as an exceptionally provocative loyalist symbol imitating Orange Walks in the death throes of The Troubles to the supporters of a club forever connected with Irish Republicanism? Well, that was opening Pandora’s Box.

What Gascoigne underwent then was truly disgraceful – with death threats from the Provisional IRA and the police showing him how to check under his car for bombs. Celtic’s board would write to the SFA to demand a ban (which, incredibly, never actually happened –he got just a £20k fine) and Gascoigne would be hauled over the coals by the press. Soon after, Gascoigne would be snapped by paparazzi on a mammoth three-day transatlantic bender. With interest from England, this was the point at which Walter Smith’s patience snapped and he decided now was the time to cash out as Gascoigne cast a shadow over the team who went through terrible form until he finally left the building.

Paul Gascoigne signed for Middlesbrough on 26th March 1998 but his Rangers career was over well before then. His last goal for the club had been over 5 months prior and finally he had managed to find the straw that broke the camel’s back – his form had dipped, his problems had taken over and Walter Smith didn’t have the answers any more.

Smith left Rangers at the end of that season, having announced (temporary retirement in October 1997, after Celtic stopped Rangers getting their ten. Gascoigne’s problems coincided with injury to previously white hot striker Marco Negri and the uncertainty of the club post-Smith was to send the side in a tailspin in February and March. Celtic would plug along and, under Wim Jansen, eventually secure the title on the final day of the season. Ten in a row was gone. David Murray’s hope of surpassing Celtic in the record books was gone.

The fragile psyche the club carried around it, that superiority complex, shattered into a million pieces beginning a cycle of events that would eventually result in the club’s liquidation 14 years later.

Gascoigne and Rangers were a match made in heaven until they really, really weren’t. The man represented the pinnacle of David Murray’s ambition before his ambition soured into avarice. The club, and Walter Smith, represented the perfect environment to nurture Gascoigne’s talents in a period early on where his mental state was relatively stable.

Gascoigne’s stormy times were Rangers’ too. As his mental health deteriorated so did Rangers’ luck. At its worst, just prior to Gascoigne leaving the club, it affected Rangers to the point they lost the title – the biggest title in their history, the title that would have given them the Ten. Both club and player parted and descended into a decline, which never seems like it’s going to bottom out or turn around.

Gascoigne was always treading a fine line between cabaret act and ruthless destroyer. When this yin and yang were in balance, he would be the best player in the country bar none. Walter Smith was not just able to harness it, he was able to nurture it. And, as much as Gascoigne’s decline was due to the media spotlight being turned against him, it was Gascoigne’s own shameful marital abuse that made his private affairs front-page news. Walter Smith’s (and Rangers’) support network was there to help Gascoigne be happy and produce his best football rather than to keep him on the straight and narrow – the short-lived shelf life of a sporting superstar took precedence over the long-term health of Gascoigne the human being. For all there were those at the club who clearly cared (and still do) about the man himself, the short term needs of the club always came first in an environment where success had become an addiction.

But Gascoigne has only himself to blame for his abusive behaviour which begat a spiral of alcohol and acting out in ways that entertained and appalled the masses in equal measure. Once that darker side was revealed, it couldn’t be put away because of the guilt Gascoigne carried and the only solace he found was at the bottom of a bottle. Nor, for that matter, could the lighter side of his personality excuse it. If anything, the gentle and positive characteristics of Gascoigne – loyal to a fault, generous with his money and his hospitality – were the characteristics that prevented him from stopping his spiral downwards in Glasgow before it was too late.

That spiral down has been played out in the media for a generation. Because the biggest cabaret act of all was Gascoigne ruthlessly destroying himself.

By Richard Wilson with artwork by Ibrahim Bhatti

If you enjoyed Richard’s work as much as we did, please check out his website for more brilliant content here.

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