Poor old Gazza


"MEN are we and must mourn when even the shade of that which once was great has passed away." The poet Wordsworth was hardly referring to Paul Gascoigne, but the words alas seem almost appropriate. For, the 35-year-old Gazza, in his desperation, was recently snubbed even in China, where the Liaoning Bodao club of Beijing initially rejected him in the most humiliating manner. "His physical fitness could not meet our demand," they publicly announced, "and his passing is awful." Then they seemingly relented and generously agreed to extend his trial period. How indeed had the mighty fallen. Even if the club did change its mind.

Former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne, who has been out of the game owing to injuries, has travelled to China to resurrect his career. - Pic. REUTERS.-

Had it really come to this, one wondered. How could he be impugned on the basis of his passing when, in his prime, and indeed as recently as last season when one saw him play so well for Everton at Blackburn Rovers, he was surely the finest English passer of a ball of the last 20 and more years, better even than his predecessor at Tottenham Hotspur, Glenn Hoddle. Gazza's passing indeed was of the highest and rarest possible quality. He had the masterly ability to make in an instant, often on just receiving the ball, the kind of devastating pass which even those of us watching from the stand could not conceive until he actually made it.

Perhaps he lacked acceleration, but as an inside forward — the term midfielder is too inexact — there was little or nothing else he couldn't do. His right foot was phenomenally powerful, enabling him to score such spectacular goals as the one he got in an FA Cup semifinal against Spurs' eternal rivals, Arsenal, from 30 yards, beating the England 'keeper David Seaman to the wide.

Wembley, you might say, was for better or worse the epicentre of his career. It was at Wembley shortly before the 1990 World Cup that he went out under enormous and insensitive pressure from the England coach Bobby Robson, who'd called him with some reason "daft as a brush," to rip the Czech defence apart and gain his place in the England World Cup squad for Italy.

This, Robson had tactlessly announced, was going to be the make or break game for Gazza, whom that season he had been treating as England managers and selectors through the years have treated brilliant mavericks: with mistrust and scepticism. Before the kick off that evening, Gazza, in his wrought up state, was seen to be kicking the walls of the tunnel as the teams waited to take the field. But once he was on it, he was irresistible.

But it was, alas, at Wembley that he so severely damaged his knee and his career with a shocking act of self-destruction; an act, which could easily have led to the destruction of another career. That of the Nottingham Forest right-back Gary Charles. Quite what, on that melancholy occasion, had put Gazza into so violent and aggressive a mood, who can say? But he had already committed one bad foul before he launched himself gratuitously and unforgivably at Charles, wrecking the cruciate ligaments of his right knee in the process and putting himself out of the game for the best part of a year. Spurs won that 1991 Cup Final without him.

The truth and trouble is in such cases that football intelligence and general intelligence are two quite different things. On the field, Gascoigne, from a problematic family in the North East of England, had what we'd call a football brain of phenomenal quality. Off it, there were those who liked and still like to say he had no brain at all. Or none to speak of. His behaviour, with its louche practical jokes, its occasional eruptions of violence, its minimal attention span, seemed often that of a simpleton.

Let me declare an interest. Like Jackie Charlton, Gazza's first manager at his original local club, Newcastle United, I was an admirer of Gazza from early on: strictly as a player. But when, as he recovered from that Cup Final injury, it was bruited that he might well join Lazio in Rome. I warned: "Wrong city, wrong player, wrong club," and he never forgave me. I'd praised and defended him back in 1988 when he wasn't chosen by England for an ill-starred European Championship finals tournament in Germany. I was pretty much a lone voice then, but after the 1990 World Cup, Gazza became an international star.

Perhaps I'd never have gone as far as the Lazio chief executive Celon who apostrophised Gazza's advisers — they would never call themselves his agents — solicitor Mel Stein and accountant Lew Lazarus (now ditched by Gazza). Celon despised them and the laws of libel prevent me from quoting what he said in the Italian Press. Those two claimed they never took a percentage of Gazza's earnings; they just charged by the hour. Not least when they both flew to Rome! Recently, after so many years, Gazza would ditch them.

At Lazio, when he eventually got there after many a hitch and controversy, Gascoigne was revered by fans who gloried in his excesses, and hugely appreciated his still undiminished brilliance on the pitch. The Lazio players loved him. When he belched into an Italian TV reporter's microphone there was a small scandal, as indeed there was when he broke wind during a TV interview. But such antics simply endeared him to the Lazio fans, whose lunatic fringe was notorious for its racist neo-Fascism.

Meanwhile, there was Sharon, the blond divorcee whom he married and whose son he treated as his own. Together they spent fortunes in Rome, $30,000 in one swoop on designer clothes, most of which were stolen in a burglary. But there was always a very dark side to Gazza, who eventually had to admit that he had beaten up Sharon and inflicted serious injuries. The marriage would end in divorce.

When I appeared at the Lazio training ground, Gazza greeted me with the welcoming words, "You can — right off!" We never met again. But, his old self-destruction to the fore, he suffered another severe injury when, in a typically mad moment, he turned to stop the then young reserve Alessandro Nesta, due to become a major star-defender, shooting in a mere training game. Gazza's leg was broken again and many more months were spent out of action.

Perhaps you might say that it was almost to his credit that he never cut off from his dubious Geordie friend such as Jimmy "Five Bellies," his virtual minder. But after Everton, Middlesbrough and Burnley where was there left to go? How sad. Now he's joined Gansu Tianma of China's second division.