Gazza – The Talent, the Tears and the Road to Perdition Part Two of Two

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Paul Gascoigne -Fans -Glasgow Rangers.j

Walter Smith’s 1995 summer capture of England’s star of Italia 90 was seen as an absolute coup de maitre.  His arrival at Ibrox captured the imagination of the obsessive Gers fan base and stoked up expectations to white hot level.  And despite Gazza’s appalling injury record and a much maligned battle with his erratic weight gain, the ‘Geordie Galactico’ proved to be as successful as the manager who signed him by amassing the biggest trophy haul of his career; two League Championships, one Scottish Cup and one League Cup.  Furthermore, he secured a place in the greatest ever Glasgow Rangers team and was also rightfully inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame.

/Paul Gascoigne -Glasgow Rangers.Gazza’s first season at Rangers was simply magnifico.  He lit up the Scottish game with his captivating brand of football and was rewarded with the 1995-96 Sportswriters Player of the Year and PFA Player of the Year Awards.   But his debut goal in Rangers 4-0 pre-season tournament victory over Steaua Bucharest was marred by media over-reaction to his ill advised flute playing goal celebration.  The gesture, a Loyalist symbol, evoked fury amongst the Scottish tabloid media, who typically over played the incident and who overnight, transformed Gazza into public enemy number one in a region consumed with sectarian division.  The Geordie maverick from England had much to learn about football politics north of the border if he was to succeed in the politically volatile environment of a religiously divided Glasgow.  But succeed he did and only four games into his Rangers career he cemented his place in the annals of Rangers folklore.  In his first Old Firm derby at Celtic’s Parkhead, he ran the full length of the field and slotted Ally McCoist’s low right wing cross past the Celtic keeper to seal a 0-2 Rangers win and secure bragging rights for delirious Gers fans.

The Gazza effect was quite remarkable.  After a traumatic finale to his Lazio career, he’d quite simply fallen in love with the game again.  He was arguably playing the best football of his controversial career.  He controlled games, wooed the crowd with his trickery, scored sensational goals and was chief provider of assists.  He was the complete package.  

Paul Gascoigne 3-1 Aberdeen - Rangers needed to beat Aberdeen at Ibrox in the penultimate game of the 1995-96 season to secure their eighth league championship in succession.  But Aberdeen deviated from the script and took an unexpected early lead.  Nerves became frayed and Rangers were struggling to get a foothold in the game.  Then just before HT….cue Gazza time!  Cue spectacular goals and cue the completion of a spectacular hat-rick and the title, Gazza’s first, was duly signed sealed and delivered.  The adulation pouring from the stands was immense and elevated Gazza to hero status.  A common theme with every club he has played for.       

England’s failure to qualify for the US World Cup in 1994 ensured the hasty departure of Graham Taylor, with whom Gazza had a fractious relationship, and saw the rejuvenated Geordie reunited with his old boss Terry Venables.  With the dream team back together again and Gazza in dazzling form, fans had good reason to be cautiously optimistic.  But the run up to the finals was dogged by controversy.  And true to form football’s clown prince was right in the thick of it.  Prior to Euro 96, on a pre-tournament tour to Hong Kong, the gaffer gave the green light for the England players to have a night out to help them unwind.  And they did, in the notorious China Jump Club adjacent to the team hotel.  Soaked in beer, wearing ripped tee-shirts, with the exception of team minder Bryan Robson, who was left wearing only a shirt collar after the rest of it was ripped off his back by Gazza, the players partied into the early hours.  The focal point of the evening was the now infamous ‘dentist-chair,’ where all the players took it in turn to have neat liquor poured down their throats.  Defcon alert 5,4,3,2,1.  Bedlam and bed time.  

Paul Gascoigne -Gazza - Hong Kong- Euro 96.j

The players awoke to find photos of their Hangover-esque bash splashed all over the front of UK papers.  Gazza was portrayed as the ringleader and bore the brunt of the fierce criticism levelled at the players.  Highly respected sports writer Jeff Powell wrote, "England must sling out Paul Gascoigne on his earring.  They must devise a way to play without this playboy relic of what once might have been a great playmaker."   Harsh words he would later regret after a Gazza inspired England brought the country to a stand still with some breathtaking and gutsy performances.  They saw off the Auld enemy in the group stages in a game that Gazza scored one of the greatest goals in European Championship history, making a fool of Colin Hendry with an audacious piece of skill before coolly volleying past his helpless Rangers team mate Andy Goram.  Cue the cheekiest of goal celebrations, the re-enactment of the dentist-chair stunt and a two fingered salute to those who dared to criticise.

England topped the group with a stunning 4-1 demolition of the fancied Dutch and sneaked through to the last four in a tense penalty shout-out against the Spanish, before succumbing to those bloody Germans on penalties again.  Football didn’t come home but it did become fashionable, accruing an influx of sycophantic Z-list celebrities and a posse of liggers.  Football’s elevation to blue chip product coincided with a further decline in Gazza’s already erratic behaviour.

Despite a summer of disappointment and over-indulgence Gazza returned to Ibrox a newly happily married man and in good spirits.  Rangers were chasing their ninth league championship in a row and Gazza was in destructive form.  Sadly, his penultimate season with Rangers was scarred by ill-discipline, injury, alcohol abuse and allegations of wife beating.  Gazza’s personal problems began to mount and his physical and metal health spiralled into decline.  He was relentlessly followed by rogue reporters and paparazzi looking to trip him up at the first sign of impropriety.  Nevertheless, Gazza remarkably soldiered on and was absolutely instrumental in Rangers securing their historic ninth title in a row and a second league and cup double.  He made over 30 appearances and scored 19 goals.

/Paul Gascoigne -Glasgow Rangers -Flute MimeGazza’s final season north of the border was opaque and often intemperate.  In addition, his tempestuous personal life was being played out in full public glare and the club’s hierarchy had become increasingly concerned with Gazza’s over reliance on alcohol and frequent booze-ups with newly acquainted celebrity friends.  Within three months of the new campaign Gazza’s appalling disciplinary record caught up with him.  His Old Firm red card for violent conduct took his points tally over the 16 point threshold to 21 and he was hit with a five match ban by the Scottish FA.  In January 1998, shortly after his return from suspension he was once again severely reprimanded by furious FA chiefs.  In retaliation to Bhoys fans incessant wife beater taunts, Gazza upped the ante and was caught live on TV re-enacting his infamous flute mime whilst warming up on the touch-line during the Old Firm game at the Republican fortress Parkhead.  It was an incident that was to have far reaching consequences.  He was condemned by both clubs, fined £20,000 and received IRA death threats that led to anti-terrorist training from specialist police officers who taught him how to open letters and parcels and how to check underneath his car for explosives.

With his marriage in tatters, his injury problems escalating and his personal problems having a profound effect on his behavior, rumours circulating the streets of Glasgow suggested that Rangers were looking to off-load their troubled star.  In March, there were press reports of a three day drinkathon in New York with his celebrity pals Chris Evans and Danny Baker.  This it would appear was the straw that broke the camel’s back and signaled the end of the road for Gazza.  On 27 March 1998, he was sold to Bryan Robson’s Middlesboro for £3.4 million.  Rangers went on to finish the season with nothing and Celtic succeeded them as Scottish League champions.

Gazza made 103 appearances for Rangers and scored 39 goals from midfield in a topsy-turvy career that could well be described as the good, the bad and the injured.  When he was good he was bloody magnificent.  When he was bad he was bloody frustrating.  When he was injured he was he was desperately missed.  On his own admission, his first two years at Rangers were the best of his career.  He was truly loved and his exploits and achievements have ensured that he will be forever enshrined in Ibrox folklore as one of the greatest players ever to don the blue shirt.
What they said….“At heart, he's still your Geordie boy. But on the pitch he's still the only England player with genius potential.”  But…. “Sometimes you could strangle him, like when he went on the radio with that Chris Evans and gave out my phone number to the whole world. Other times you just want to cuddle him, like when he heard me say my wee lad wanted a goldfish and he climbed over our garden fence one night and left a Mickey Mouse fish tank full of fish, a budgie in a cage and a white rabbit in a hutch and would never admit it was him who did it.”
Ally McCoist – Ex-Glasgow Rangers team mate

”He was a genius, and with geniuses there’s always a little bit of craziness.  Paul was crazy, but in a good way.”
Brian Laudrup – Ex Glasgow Rangers team mate.

The £16,000 a week move to Middlesbrough was completed in time for Gazza to make his debut in the 1998 League Cup final defeat to Chelsea at Wembley.  He came on as a late substitute and in true Gazza fashion he gave his losers medal away to team mate Craig Hignett, who he’d felt deserved it more than he did as he’d played in previous games but had failed to make the squad for the final.  But that was Gazza.  A selfless and generous guy who’d give you the last shilling he hadn’t got.  

After a lengthy period of niggling injuries, Gazza’s move back to the north-east was a perfect opportunity for him to recapture his form and cement his place in Glenn Hoddle’s England World Cup squad for the impending summer tournament in France.  Despite a cool relationship with Hoddle, he’d won his 50th cap under Terry Venables’ successor whilst playing in the 1997 Tournoi de France in which he played in all three games against Italy, France and Brazil.  He carried his rich vein of form into the World Cup warm up games against Moldova at Wembley and away to Italy in Rome.  Italy was the crunch game and Gazza produced one of the most disciplined performances of his career to secure a 0-0 draw at his former home stadium.  Job Done.  England had qualified for France 98.  
Paul Gascoigne -David Beckham - Paul Ince - Rome - Oct 1997

A Gazza inspired Boro won promotion to the Premier League and Gazza played in all three of England’s World Cup warm-up matches against Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Belgium, before being selected in Glenn Hoddle’s 28 man squad for the warm-up camp in La Manga, Spain.  The squad had to be whittled down to 22 and Gazza was one of the six unlucky players to be omitted.  He was furious with Hoddle and incandescent with rage he let him have it and had to be restrained, but not before trashing the room.  Needless to say they didn’t speak for many years and have only exchanged pleasantries on the rare occasions they have met since.

It’s fair to say that 1998 wasn’t a vintage Gazza year.  Welcome to the year of hell!  Injury and controversy tarnished the wayward star’s Ibrox finale, he’d been omitted from England’s World Cup Squad, his mum and dad separated for good, he was divorced from the love of his life, he had to cope with the sudden loss of a dear friend, caused £14,000 of damage to the Middlesbrough team bus after taking it for an unauthorised spin down a country lane after the driver had inadvertently left the keys in the ignition and he was admitted to the Priory rehabilitation clinic for drink dependency by his manager Bryan Robson after a four day bender in Dublin almost ended in tragedy.  

Gazza returned to first team action in a man of the match performance against Nottingham Forest shortly after he cut short his stint in the Priory, still in denial. By Christmas 1998 Middlesbrough were fourth in the Premier League and unbeaten in 11 matches.  Gazza was fit, in good form and in sobriety.  Boro went on to finish ninth in their first season in the top flight and Gazza made 26 league appearances and scored three goals.

Paul Gascoigne -drunk - 1998.The summer months saw Gazza back on the drink and back on the celebrity circuit.  He was up to his eyeballs in legal wranglings, reliant upon sleeping pills and anti-depressants, the subject of kiss and tell revelations and his form, not surprisingly, was lukewarm.   Gazza was not in a good place.  A situation that was further compounded after he broke his arm in an over enthusiastic challenge on Aston Villa’s George Boateng in February 2000, forcing another lengthy absence.  He also copped for a £5,000 fine and a three match suspension after being found guilty of misconduct.  Or in layman’s terms, improper use of his weapon of mass destruction; his elbow, the body part solely responsible for the vast majority of Gazza’s disciplinary points.  Boro went on to finish a respectable 12th in the league, but after failing to impress his former England team mate Bryan Robson, who had been a rock during a period of acute stress, he was released from his contract a year early and signed for Everton on a free transfer in July 2000.

What they said….
” I always say Gazza is the best player I’ve played with. In 1990 he was just unbelievable in the World Cup. Then you look at him from 1990-96 when he did great for England but his career in those six years, for me, he was challenging Maradona as the best player in the world at that time. It’s a shame because people go on about the problems he’s had off the pitch and don’t remember what a great player he was.”
Bryan Robson – Middlesboro Manager and ex-England team mate

Former Rangers Manager Walter Smith signed Gazza on a two year deal, paying him a basic wage of £12,000 a week + appearance money.  But not before forcing him to undergo a stringent medical and completing a series of background checks.  There is a healthy mutual respect between both parties who enjoyed a special relationship at Rangers.  Walter was like a father to Gazza and played an important role in helping the troubled Geordie battle his addictions.   

Under the watchful eye of the doting but hard-line Scotsman, Gazza’s career, autumnal as it was, got off to a promising start at Everton.  He’d put in a good pre-season and made a low-profile debut in the 2-0 defeat at Leeds United on 19 August 2000, coming on as a late substitute.  But a succession of niggling injuries hampered his progress and limited his first team opportunities.  He spiralled into depression again and started to drink heavily to black out the miserable existence he was suffering.  That is how manic depressive’s think.  Living alone didn’t help and he’d also recently split with his long term advisor Mel Stein.  Fourteen games into the season and Gazza was given an ultimatum by Smith, which he recalls in his book.  “If you respect me,” said Walter, “you will go to the clinic.  If not, we’ll shake hands now and you can walk away from Everton.”  That was the deal on the table and it was not negotiable!

In June 2001 Gazza booked himself into the Cottonwood Addiction Rehabilitation Clinic in Arizona at his own expense and very much under duress.  But bounce-back-ability was a Gazza specialism, granted, albeit in varying degrees of longevity.  Months of sobriety followed and he returned for the start of the 2001-02 campaign in peak condition.   Shortly after scoring his first goal for the club, away at Bolton in November, his injury curse returned but this time with interest.  Three operations in short succession followed and he was back on the sleeping-pills and drink by the New Year.  The sudden death of Steven Spraggon’s mum Maureen, a good friend and the mother of the young boy who died whilst out with Gazza when he was a child, was to intensify an already precarious period of unhappiness and was said to be the catalyst for him falling off the wagon again.  Gazza failed to rediscover his form and played his last game for Everton in the FA Cup defeat to Middlesbrough in March 2002.

What they said….”If you put him in an environment where he had to win something, he would always flourish.
Walter Smith – Former Rangers and Everton Manager

Paul Gascoigne - Kettering Town - 35 days.

His time at Goodison was Gazza’s last in top flight football and after disappointing spells at Burnley where he put an extra 6,000 bums on seats, Chinese club Gansu Tianma and Boston, in just 14 appearances since his last game at Everton, his playing days where over.  He did however have a brief stint in management in 2005.  Thirty-nine days to be precise.  But Conference side Kettering Town dispensed of his services due to his continued reliance on drink, a claim which Gazza denied.

Gazza’s drinking worsened once he retired and it attributed greatly to the speedy decline in his post footballing life.   By the end of the decade, amongst other mishaps, he’d faced near bankruptcy, been admitted to rehab on numerous occasions, been sectioned twice under the mental health act, failed an attempted suicide bid, was arrested for drink driving, assault and for possession of cocaine.  His celebrity friends had all but deserted him in his greatest hours of need.  But James Gardner, aka Jimmy five-bellies, the world’s most famous footballer’s best mate was an exception to the hangers on who cosied up to the fallen star at the height of his fame.  Jimmy is a couple of years older than Gazza and the two became best friends when Gazza was a 16 year-old apprentice at Newcastle.  He used to drive him to training and help with his conditioning by borrowing weights from the training ground for Gazza to use after training.  Jimmy was often the butt of Gazza’s trademark tomfoolery.  He’s been shot with a pellet gun, run over, set up with a girl that Gazza knew to be a transvestite, had his nose burnt with a cigarette lighter for a £500 bet (twice) and ate mince pies that Gazza grotesquely filled with human excrement.  These laddish pranks were just a taster of Jimmy’s life with the clown prince.  They don’t even scratch the surface.  But beyond the high-jinks Jimmy was always there for Gazza and was imported to every new city in which Gazza took up residence.  They were on occasion inseparable.  Jimmy was part of the package and helped Gazza settle, which in turn helped him overcome loneliness and Gazza’s infamous low boredom threshold.  Regrettably, he was unable to curtail the crackpot Geordie’s playboy-esque lifestyle; so they raised-hell together!

Sadly, on the back of Gazza’s latest alcoholic breakdown, football’s most pilloried duo are no longer on speaking terms after Gazza accused Jimmy of betrayal for going public with his concerns for Gazza’s well-being.  Now residing in Bournemouth on the South Coast, Gazza has distanced himself from distractions and social gatherings, hoping he can free himself from, or at least control, the hellish afflictions that have brought him close to death and financial ruin.

Paul Gascoigne - Gazza- Italia 90Make no mistake Gazza was the real deal back in the day, a supremely gifted footballer who had an insatiable appetite for the game.  He was a crazy loveable rascal who had a natural ability to connect with supporters.  He was born to entertain and to Gazza, impossible was nothing.  At his peak he was up there with the holy trinity of Cruyff, Maradona and Zidane, the three greatest players of my generation. But like most of the world’s geniuses he was heartbreakingly flawed.  He craved attention and was driven by adulation that was bestowed upon him in excess.  But his insecurities shone through.  He couldn’t hide them.  And he certainly never glossed over them.  Sadly, they were all too often played out in the public eye and sensationalised by the tabloid press.  Everybody knew Gazza’s business.  His addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, and propensity to anxiety and depression were his Achilles heel and an alternative normality.  These afflictions, coupled with his dire injury record, would ultimately lead to his demise and bring about a premature end to a topsy-turvy career that netted Gazza only a handful of honours and 57 England caps.  Scant reward for the most gifted player of his generation.

Alcoholism and depression are known to derive from genetic make up and chemical imbalance, and can be triggered by traumatic life events and grief.  Gazza has been plagued by trauma and grief his whole life.  So it kind of irks me when I hear or read about people describing Gazza as a waste of oxygen and criticising his every impropriety.  Alcoholism and depression are two very under stated illnesses.  Telling somebody to stop drinking or stop having depression is akin to telling a cancer patient to stop having cancer.  It’s the standard uneducated response to the latest Gazza-rism.  The more juicy gossip we have forced upon us, the more judgemental we become.  Sadly, that’s how it works.  Off course Gazza’s plight is not solely down to his disorders.  I fully understand the criticism of his unprofessionalism and his much publicised hedonistic lifestyle.  I totally get that.  It’s indefensible.  But to persistently berate a man who has serious misgivings, as the press have done at every opportunity, is just wrong on so many levels and is probably a contributing factor to his condition.  It certainly hasn’t helped.

Football provided Gazza with a privileged standard of living but failed to educate him.  With perhaps the exception of Newcastle, every club he played for knew he had serious issues but as long as he was performing on the pitch they chose to adopt the see no evil, hear no evil approach, just as they did with Jimmy Greaves, George Best, Malcolm McDonald, Paul McGrath, Tony Adams, Paul Merson and the list goes on.  Football needs to provide more than just fame and fortune.  It needs to do more to educate players how to deal with the extremities that a minority continue to fall foul of.
Gazza is a player that deserves to be remembered as the talented footballer that he was and not the person he has become.  He was an icon of his time and helped to popularise the game globally.  Whether you are for him or against him, and he did have his enemies, especially the media with their derogatory crammed column inches, one cannot help but wonder how his playing and post-footballing careers would have panned out had he not been cursed with injuries and over-indulgence.  He played in only fifty-one percent of his games and had nigh on 30 operations.  The fact that he achieved as much as he did in such unforgiving circumstances pays testimony to the expanse of his raw talent and his undiminished zeal for the game he fell in love with as a youngster.  Regrets, he’s had a few….But he did it his way.  Howay the lad!

What he said….“I've learnt and I just want to be respected for what I've achieved on the pitch. I know I haven't achieved much off it but I do know I've given pleasure to people watching me play football over the years.”  
Paul Gascoigne

What the fans said….When a young boy was asked, “Why do people love Gascoigne so much?”  His response was a choker.  “Because he’s real.  He’s not like Beckham, he’s not too fast-up, he’s just a real Gadgie.”  Eh?  “A real person, a true Geordie.”
Gavin Nelson – 16 year old Newcastle supporter

Part One Here

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