Being Gazza

Paul Gascoigne possessed a magnificent right-foot, adept in swerving free kicks from a distance past bewildered goalkeepers.

“To know why Gascoigne did that,” he opined, “we would have to get inside his head.” Which prompted me to write in a newspaper column that were we to do so, we would find on one side a remarkable football brain, on the other, shades of what Groucho said to Chico in a classic Marx Brothers film: “Barabelli, you’ve got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it.”

There could hardly, indeed, have been a more extreme example of the difference between a football brain and one that was not than Gazza’s. His attention span was that of a gnat. He was simply, naive, deeply immature. But football was another story; put him on the field and his mind worked like lightning. He was a supreme strategist as well as a glorious ball player; possessed moreover of a magnificent right-foot, adept in swerving free kicks from a distance past bewildered goalkeepers. Something he did with extreme skill and power when playing for Tottenham Hotspur against Arsenal in an FA Cup semifinal at Wembley. But, alas, it was at Wembley in the FA Cup final of 1991 that he impulsively and violently put himself out of the game for a year.

Spurs were playing Nottingham Forest and the game was young. Already a plainly fired up Gazza had gone into a reckless tackle on an opponent with no serious consequences. But now he launched himself outrageously at the Forest full-back, Garry Charles. He could have injured Charles seriously but in the event it was he himself who came off worse, smashing up his right knee so badly that he was out of the game so long and, when he came back, though still formidable, could never hope to be quite the same player.

People called him a boy-man. There were other Wembley moments and memories. Such as the game between England and the Czechs, a friendly, just before the England team for the 1990 World Cup finals was announced. Bobby Robson, England manager and Gazza’s fellow Geordie — or North Easterner — with exquisite insensitivity announced that this would be Gazza’s last chance of being picked. He had already deemed him, not without reason, “daft as a brush” and, earlier in the season, isolated him on the left-wing for an England ‘B’ team match at Brighton.

Gazza was so overwrought before the start that, as the teams waited in the tunnel, to go on to the field, he kicked a football again and again against the walls. But once in action, he enjoyed a superb match, scoring a goal and creating a couple of others. He then went on to become a global star in the World Cup finals.

Also at Wembley, five years after his appalling injury in the 1991 Cup final, Gazza scored an astonishing goal for England against Scotland in the finals of the European Championship. Whipping the ball past the big Scottish centre-back Colin Hendry with his left-foot, he smashed it into the net with his right.

Gascoigne was born in the North Eastern town of Gateshead, near Newcastle. It was in a Newcastle hotel late last February that he seemed to go berserk, terrorising the guests, threatening violence. It was in Gateshead that he was detained and stationed under the provisions of the Mental Health Act. It wasn’t the first time that he had been involved in violent incidents in his native North East, where he had begun his remarkable but tormented career with Newcastle United. There, as a youngster, he had gained the wondering admiration of the then manager, Jackie Charlton, ex-England World Cup winning centre-half and another North Easterner, himself.

Having emphatically made his name at Newcastle, he moved South to London and Tottenham Hotspur though many thought at the time and have thought since that he might have been better off moving to Liverpool, where the discipline would have been tighter. At spurs, the manager was the more indulgent Terry Venables, once a Spurs player himself and later to manage Gazza with England. Gazza was always extremely loyal to his Geordie friends, not least to a huge bruiser nicknamed Jimmy Five Bellies for his girth, and who would even accompany Gazza to Rome.

His eventual marriage to the blonde divorcee, Sheryl, was as tumultuous as might be imagined. Rows were perpetual, though when in Rome he was known to take her into the city and buy her £30,000 worth of clothes. Eventually, back in England, he would cruelly beat her up, but escaped a prison sentence when she refused to testify against him. The Roman football journalists detested her and grave, dignified Dino Zoff, Italy’s 1982 World Cup winning ’keeper and later manager, then coaching Lazio, was reported to dread her arrival, with its effects on Gazza.

His transfer from Spurs to Lazio was a protracted and prolix one: a London restaurateur played a crucial part in it, though the then chairman of Spurs, Alan Sugar, attempted in vain to deny it. Gazza’s affairs were damaged then by Mel Stein and Lew Lazarus, who insisted they didn’t, like normal agents, take a percentage of his earnings. Instead, however, they charged heavily by the hour. Lionello Celon, the chief executive of Lazio then, detested both of them.

Back in England, Gazza would play for Middlesbrough, Everton and very briefly and disastrously became manager of the non-League Kettering Club, whose owners sacked him accusing him of excessive drinking. Gazza even had a short, unhappy time playing for a Chinese club. So to retirement and predictable disaster.