Friday, February 22, 2008

Looking once more at the Gazza story

The story about Gascoigne being sectioned yesterday was incredibly sad to me, as it represented the lowest in a history of post-glory lows for one of my favourite all-time players. Some might blithely compare him to Maradona, except Gazza was big on the food and drink, less on the cocaine.

He represented the iconic image of a grim 1980s industrialist England, where beer bellies ballooned and a lingering depression held sway. Gazza was the bright spot for a nation, serving up memorable moment after memorable moment in an England shirt while single-handedly fueling the press with his drinking and off-field exploits. Towing the line between flawed and talented, Paul Gascoigne was England.

Now, he's in a mental hospital at age 40, and we are left to wonder how much more Gazza we will get.

My earliest memories of his playing career were when he moved to Spurs in before the 1988-89 season, apparently rejecting a move to Manchester United because Spurs bought a house for his struggling family [the claim was made in Fergie's 1999 autobiography].

He scored some cracking goals while at White Hart Lane, and worked well in a team with fellow England players Gary Mabbutt and Gary Lineker. In 1991, Spurs won the FA Cup [their last major trophy win] with Gazza scoring a phenomenal goal in the semi-final against Arsenal.

In the final, just weeks before a transfer to Lazio, he tore his cruciate ligaments in a tackle [the picture above, where he pretty much detached Nottingham Forest's Gary Charles from his left leg], and watched his club win the cup from a hospital bed.

Lazio came and went with little fuss, before a move to Rangers in '95 where he caused all sorts of headlines:

- he booked a referee during a game against Hibs... the ref dropped his yellow card and Gazza mimicked a booking when giving it back, and the ref immediately booked him for the display
- a memorable hat-trick against Aberdeen in 1995 to clinch the Scottish title
- winning the Player's Player of the Year and Football Writer's Player of the Year in 1996/97

Most notably for the 'Gers, he was targeted by the IRA for his flute celebration during an Old Firm Derby in January '98. The flute playing was a reference to the flute-playing of Orange Order marches, a prominent Protestant organization in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Celtic, the Catholic team of Glasgow, was royally pissed off, but it was the IRA that took the most notice, issuing death threats against Gazza that would plague him until he left the team.

The rest of his club playing and managerial career was sad, shortened by a number of injuries and addictions that led to him retiring in 2004 after trying to revive his career with Everton, Burnley, a trial at DC United, Chinese club Gansu Tianma, Boston United and a trial at Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Iconic club achievements aside, his time wearing the Three Lions was legendary.

Who could forget the tears against West Germany in the Italia '90 semi-final?

Or the goal against Scotland in Euro '96?

In short, Gazza was all of us, at one time or another. Capable of the highest highs and the dizzying lows, his career has seen it all. From the fake breasts to the infamous dentist's chair incident and subsequent celebration, Paul Gascoigne's memory and personality are embedded in the national psyche.

Let's hope this latest incident with his mental health is a turning point, and not the opening lines of his obituary.

The Best of Gazza:

More articles:
Simon Barnes on Gazza [The Times Online]
The Life and Times of Paul Gascoigne [The Telegraph]
50 Great Moments in the Life of Paul Gascoigne [Blue Kipper]

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