It was a time when rarely a week would pass by without Middlesbrough seeming to strengthen their squad in preparation for a promotion push that would go down to the final game of the season. In the final week of March 1998, with the club well placed in the league table and preparing for another trip to Wembley to face Chelsea in the League Cup final, the club entered the transfer market once again, this time adding Paul Gascoigne from Rangers for £3.5m. It is fair to say that the move, on the back of a fragmented twelve months of football for Gazza due to injuries and suspension, represented something of a gamble for all concerned.
Gascoigne, hoping to reignite his career and impress national team manager Glenn Hoddle ahead of the upcoming World Cup in France, would make his debut a few days after signing, coming on as a substitute at Wembley as Boro lost 2-0 to The Blues after extra time. There was an early display of Gazza’s kindness as he offered long-serving midfielder Craig Hignett, the man whose place in the cup final squad he had taken, his losers’ medal.
Whilst it was unfair to expect a far from match-fit Gazza to come off the bench and have a decisive influence on the outcome of a high-profile game against top-level opposition such as Chelsea, the eight remaining league fixtures offered him the perfect opportunity to showcase his talents as he set about cementing his place in Hoddle’s World Cup squad. Though it took some time for the imperiously talented midfielder to find his rhythm, it was in his fifth league game for the club, a televised fixture at home to relegation-threatened Manchester City on a Friday night, where we saw a glimpse of the Gascoigne of old. On the angle of the box and surrounded by City defenders, Gazza’s drop of the shoulder engineered a slither of space and a driven left-footed cross was thumped in by Alun Armstrong at the back post to give Boro a precious three points. It was a typical second-tier battle, with several flare-ups and a red card for Steve Vickers, but that one outstanding moment of beauty tipped a crucial game in Boro’s favour.
There were several other fleeting moments of class during the final fixtures as Boro clinched automatic promotion but nothing as decisive. Gazza, though, had played his part in a season that saw Boro somehow manage to call upon the services of Gascoigne, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Paul Merson, Emerson and Marco Branca at various points of the season despite being outside of the top flight.
Boro were still celebrating when the midfielder suffered the first real setback of his spell on Teesside. His struggle for consistency on and off the field meant that Glenn Hoddle selected clubmate Merson in his squad for the World Cup and, whilst it was a surprising omission in some respects, the difficult truth is that Gazza hadn’t done enough to merit inclusion. Merson, however, had undergone something of a personal revival, becoming an increasingly influential figure as the season progressed and orchestrating the majority of Boro’s attacking play with an irresistible sense of poise and purpose. By the end of the season he was oozing confidence, his inclusion for England validating his decision to drop down a level and join Boro from Arsenal the previous summer.
The more optimistic Boro supporter may have hoped that Gascoigne would use that crushing disappointment as a source of motivation ahead of a first season as a Premier League player. The reality, however, was that missing out on the World Cup squad had a pronounced and lasting impact on a man who frequently struggled to contain a self-destructive streak. Several off-field issues over the following months ended with a brief spell in rehab, though by Autumn he’d worked his way back into the team as Boro went on to establish themselves as a solid Premier League side. Gascoigne became a reliable presence in midfield and, as the season wore on, supporters began to become accustomed to an improbable line-splitting pass or clever set-piece routine replacing the adrenaline-fuelled, lung-busting charges deep into opposition territory of yesteryear as he attempted to adjust and refine his game.
The 1998/99 season saw Gascoigne clock up 26 league appearances, scoring three goals, with his form by mid-December intriguing enough to convince England assistant manager John Gorman to travel to the Riverside to watch him turn in a man of the match display in a 1-0 win against West Ham United. There were several moments of outstanding quality across the season, not least the time he ran the show as Boro hammered Sheffield Wednesday 4-0. There were aesthetically pleasing side-footed goals scored from distance at The Dell and Filbert Street. Though a return to international football failed to materialise, Boro went on to finish a highly respectable 9th with Gazza, once again, playing his part with a solid contribution to the cause.
The following campaign saw the start of a steep decline in fortunes for Gascoigne as he battled another series of off-field issues, resulting in a dramatic collapse of form and fitness that brought about a long, drawn out end to his Middlesbrough career. He made just a handful of appearances, the last of which, on February 14th 2000, ended with him being stretchered off in tears following a violent forearm smash on the jaw of Aston Villa’s George Boateng that left him with a broken arm. It was a sad end to his time on Teesside. He left just shy of 50 overall appearances, having scored four goals and appeared in one cup final as well famously crashing one brand spanking new team bus. It was, in many ways, textbook Gazza.
The overall sense was one of lingering frustration, a sense that a player of such extraordinary talent should leave the club having been unable to display the prodigious skill and vision of his younger years, though it would be unfair to critique his time with Middlesbrough as a complete disappointment. Gascoigne’s transfer represented a gradual shift in approach from Bryan Robson as the Boro manager sought to avoid the trauma of relegation in 1997 by building around a core of vastly experienced, largely British players in an attempt to firmly establish the team in the Premier League. Boro went on to play eleven seasons of top-flight football until relegation in 2009 and Gascoigne did his bit, certainly across large parts of the 1998/99 campaign, to enable that.
His overall footprint on Middlesbrough’s footballing history may be far from indelible but those fleeting moments of genuine class, those moments where he appeared impervious to the inability of his legs to keep up with his brain, where a subtle drop of the shoulder and a surge of adrenaline, like a bull in ballet shoes, could momentarily transport 30,000 people back to one of those splendid evenings in Naples, Bari or Turin the best part of a decade earlier, were enough to remind you why you fell in love football in the first place. There are only a few players who have ever been blessed with that sort of ability. Paul Gascoigne, though rarely able to showcase it with Middlesbrough, is certainly one of them.