Gazza was so unique it was inevitable he was going to be tabloid fodder

Keith Duggan: England’s ‘greatest’ player will be in the background as new stars take on Italy

England’s Paul Gascoigne celebrates scoring against Scotland during an 1996 European championships group stage match  at Wembley. Photograph:  Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images

England’s Paul Gascoigne celebrates scoring against Scotland during an 1996 European championships group stage match at Wembley. Photograph: Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images

 

David Beckham has assumed the role as the people’s prince of England, gliding through his middle years as a pleasantly handsome and immaculately turned-out adornment for the Insta moments in the royal box at Wimbledon and other gala occasions.

Becks is 46 now and was, of course, a conspicuous presence at Wembley on Wednesday night when the England football team broke through the fourth wall of semi-final despair and anguish. (“Call your boss,” demanded ITV’s Sam Matterface in urging for a national holiday). But born camera-hog that Beckham is, the public eye was nonetheless drawn to the figure seated behind him, subdued and a little distant and it took a second to register that here was another figurehead of England’s lost futures. It was Paul Gascoigne, the man of whom Wayne Rooney says “to this day he is the greatest England player”.

There is a moment early on in Jane Preston’s documentary Gascoigne which is so harrowing that it almost distorts everything that happens afterwards. Gascoigne is filmed close up as he embarks on what sets out as a happy reverie on “me childhood” in 1970s Gateshead.

Next thing he is telling about the day in the house of his best mate Keith, whose home was as welcoming to Gascoigne as his own. In a brotherly strop, Keith refused to take his younger brother Steven to the shop and Gazza, when asked by the boy’s mum, obliged. “Yeah I’ll look after him,” he promised. “But,” the adult Gascoigne remembers, “I was only 10. I was only 10.”

A race from the shop, a car and a split second of cosmically bad luck and timing and Gazza is suddenly cradling the little boy in his lap as he dies on the street. The grieving family directed no blame – Gascoigne stayed with them in the days afterwards. But there is no mistaking the trauma which Gascoigne, hollowed out by his turbulent football and personal life, still feels. Suddenly, the tabloid Gazza – the tears, the Geordie antics, the booze-binges and the lows – were cast in a different light.

Crowd pleaser

From the day he burst into Newcastle’s first team as a chubby-faced crowd pleaser, Gascoigne was tabloid fodder. He defied easy categorisation: he may have looked like a dock worker but he played with the slaloming genius and uncanny balance reminiscent of another turbulent soul Diego Maradona.

His entire football career, from the seasons at Spurs when he was, for a while, one of the very best creative forces in the world, to the wildly uneven seasons in Italy, to the declining years, were covered as though he was a comic book figure: he was at once the most unique creative force England has produced – and her tipsy jester.

It’s still going on, even if the font size is smaller now: they’ve never given him peace. He may have been his own worst enemy but few humans ever have to live under that microscope – and did he ever have any proper advice as he tried to handle the mad energy his talent generated?

It is different for this generation of England’s players, who have come to prominence in an age when the power of the tabloid headlines is diluted and who cultivate their public image and influence through social media and careful handling.

Marcus Rashford was a one-year-old when Gascoigne concocted that outrageous goal against Scotland at Wembley: his last great moment in an England shirt. Rashford has been a peripheral figure on the pitch for England through this tournament but has emerged, over the pandemic, as a fearless advocate for social conscience in a British government administration which has been lacking. His reality is a world away from that of Gascoigne’s.

Three seasons

When Gascoigne went to play for Lazio in Rome in 1991, the Premier League was a new and untested invention while Serie A was the blue-chip league. There’s a wealth of documentary evidence of the insane three seasons he spent there, where he learned that the Italian media and public gaze was even more intense and hysterical than at home. If he went for escape, he found none.

Upon arriving, Gascoigne introduced himself to his Italian team-mates by handing them books on how to learn English. It was one of his better japes and, unlike other foreign players, Gascoigne did learn how to speak Italian over his years there.

As an experiment, Gazza in Italy was a glorious failure in attempting to blend too extreme football cultures. “He gave me five pairs of shoes and a fishing kit,” said his team-mate Alessandro Nesta. “I have no idea why but that was just like him.”

Dino Zoff, the Italian legend and Lazio coach, described the high-spirited English man like this: “He ate ice cream for breakfast, drank beer for lunch and when injured he blew up like a whale. But as a player? Oh, beautiful. Beautiful. I loved that boy.”

On Sunday night Gascoigne will be somewhere in Wembley looking down as England and Italy go at it in a mouthwatering European Championship final. The idea of England as champions has induced a mood of dread in Ireland – and across the continent. What better way to say goodbye to Europe than by winning this tournament? Euro 2020 has somehow morphed into a home tournament for England and under the calm guidance of Gareth Southgate they have refused their pre-ordained role of England Undone.

Mental resilience

But: there is another 90 minutes to go. “I think the team that plays with a mind that is free will gain the upper hand,” said midfielder Marco Verratti, a cold observation which sounded like both a challenge and a promise that the Italians won’t be found wanting when it comes to mental resilience and fortitude and toughness to see this thing through.

“Football is the only thing I know. I don’t know anything else,” Gascoigne said all those years ago as he wondered what next – Italy or back to England. There is the sense that this England team could use his unorthodox genius on Sunday night if they are to unlock this icy and forbidding Italian side.

They’ve finally got what they wished for – Arrivederci, It’s One on One. The pity for England may be that the moment has come 30 years too late for Gazza.

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