There are usually two reasons why certain players find themselves embedded in the mind of supporters; either their talent is so outrageous it transcends the field in which they play on, or they have an odd quirk or trait in either their playing style or personality that it endears them further.
Paul Merson is a perfect example of the latter; if only he was as effervescent on the pitch as he was of a night time, comparatively Frank Lampard’s talent is undeniable, yet leaves you a little cold.
Pele falls firmly in the former – his clinical finishing and ruthless professionalism means he often occupies the top spot in greatest footballers lists, but away from the pitch few would argue that his personality lives up to the ideal of Pele the footballer.
But then there are the special few that tip-toe between the borders, dipping their toes in each pool to earn a special place in the minds and hearts of the masses.
Paul Gascoigne. A player admired for his skill but loved for his exploits. His flaws make him the person he is, and rightly or wrongly it is perhaps for that reason he is adored; he may fall out of a nightclub at three in the morning with a hooker in tow, but there is a chance they will turn up the next day and do something that no one else can. In that moment, all else is forgotten.
With Gascoigne, it is incredibly easy to get bogged down in the anecdotes in an attempt to describe the man and the footballer; Gascoigne himself admitted that a duopoly exists between the person and the persona.
“I look upon myself as two people: Gazza and Paul Gascoigne. Paul Gascoigne is the sensible, kind, generous, caring one, if a little bit boring. Gazza has been daft as a brush, but could be entertaining,” he once said. It is his greatest tradegy that the latter dominated the former.
Footballers with a destructive reputation often find a home for themselves on the pitch, a sort of shelter from the storm. However the two are almost impossible to keep separate. There is little doubt that Gascoigne’s football suffered for his flaws on the pitch and the fact he is idolised for his failings serves only to further ensconce the image of a cheeky chappy banging the birds before banging in the goals.
There is nothing romantic about Gascoigne’s rap sheet. He has suffered from alcoholism, gambling addiction, cocaine abuse and depression. He has allegedly assaulted his wife. He has often appeared dishevelled, confused and on the brink of collapse.
In an interview with Piers Morgan he said during a period of his life as his football career petered out his dependency on alcohol and drugs was so bad he once rang up his father telling him to pack his bags for New York because he had arranged a game of chess with President Clinton.
“And I rung him up again and said: ‘dad it’s OK, Bush is at Kings Cross he’s making his way now’ and I honestly believed it.”
Described on Newcastle’s own official website as a ‘chubby schoolboy” Gascoigne signed on schoolboy forms for Newcastle in 1980. According to legend, the manager Jackie Charlton saw Gascoigne play and threatened to kick him out of the club if he couldn’t shed the puppy fat quickly.
A slim-looking Gascoigne made his debut for Newcastle in 1985, and was awarded a professional contract at St. James Park, before going on to make over 100 appearances for his local club.
It was during his time with Newcastle that his reputation for trouble was born, most notably through a hit and run incident with Jimmy 'Five Bellies' Gardner for which he was fined £260.
Then came the record move to Tottenham. £2 million changed hands while Sir Alex Ferguson thought he had completed the deal to take him to Manchester United that he would later describe as the ‘greatest regret’ of his footballing life.
It was during this period of his life that Gazza the man and the character was born.
Described as the most naturally gifted of his generation, Gascoigne’s speed of though and natural ability put his ahead of most of his peers.
For Spurs he was the driving force behind the most successful team since the double-winning team of 1961. His manager at the time, Terry Venables knew he had stumbled upon something special when he saw him close up at training.
"When Gazza came to the Spurs training ground for the first time got the ball, went round 8 players as if they were not there and then smashed the ball into the net, he said.”
“Just to see him play like that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Everybody stood there and applauded him."
Two defining moments of Gascoigne’s career came in the early 90’s with England and Tottenham respectively.
The 1990 World Cup in Italy would prove to be both his crowning glory and perhaps his lowest footballing ebb, - along with being dropped from Glen Hoddle’s squad for the 98 tournament.
Later he would be named as part of the team of the tournament thanks to his virtuoso performances. The world’s eyes fell upon him for England’s semi-final game against west Germany.
The story goes that Gascoigne did not sleep on the eve of the semi-final against West Germany and, upon returning from a 10pm game of tennis, told manager Bobby Robson that the highly-rated Lothar Matthäus would be playing against the best midfielder in the world.
His performance was startling, almost finding the back of the net with an exquisite chip from distance inside two minutes, while his passing ability was demonstrated to be amongst the finest in the game.
Then came the tears. Lunging for a tackle on Thomas Berthold that was just beyond him with 99 minutes gone, Gascoigne picked up the booking that would rule him out of the final should England qualify.
One of the most iconic images in English football followed. Gazza wiped away his tears with his shirt as Gary Linekar motions to the bench to ‘have a word” with him.
In that moment, England had a new hero. And the iconic moments wouldn’t stop there. The free-kick against Arsenal in the 1991 F.A Cup semi-final against Arsenal before the historic final against Nottingham Forest that year and all the dramas that ensued. the goal against Scotland in the1996 European Championships was one of the finest in a Three Lions shirt.
A move to Italy followed in 1992 but his time with Lazio proved to be a failure. He switched to Rangers where became idolized and form there his career slowly deteriorated as his lifystyle took over.
Spells with Middlesborough, Everton and Burnley amongst others invariably ended with a whimper. By 2004, following a spell with Boston, Gascoigne hung up his boots for good, with a career ultimately unfulfilled.
When football was taken away from him, inevitably Gascoigne turned to his vices.
“I think the worst one was when I went four months without even water, four bottles of whisky a day. I think I went to about nine stone or something,” he told Morgan in an interview for his ITV show.
“I took two bottles of whisky to stop the shakes. When I went to a treatment centre it took me three weeks to start drinking water. I was so scared I thought water was going to kill me.
“You think, well, how did I get myself into a state like that. Especially taking cocaine. It was there on a plate and I thought I could try it and I couldn’t stop.
“I looked myself in a hotel room for six weeks. I’d probably have 16 lines of coke in a day which is a hell of a lot.
“Football is what I lived for. It was what I woke up for, and that was gone. It was taken away and you think ‘oh s*** what now?’
For all the distractions and drama around him, Gascoigne lived for football. Like a schoolboy on the pitch his enthusiasm was infectious, his smile and passion radiating every time he played.
The tabloid stories of addiction and excess followed him and it soon became hard to distinguish between the man and the idea but for a brief moment, he shone brighter than any other footballer on the planet.
His flaws may have hindered him but they helped make the man. He wasn’t perfect but for a while he was the best. After all, it's better to burn out than fade away.
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