In his game, Paul Gascoigne, known as Gazza, brought poetry to football, but sadly the story of his life has the tortured poet’s tragic parabola: when he burned, he burnt brightly, but in falling he has fallen far: it might be played out in the tabloids, but his is an epic tragedy.
Gazza was born in 1967, in Gateshead. As a footballer, he was a midfield playmaker, and he played in some of the greatest teams of his generation: Newcastle United, Tottneham Hotspur, Middlesbrough, Everton, Lazio and Rangers. Gascoigne was notorious for going on mazy runs, befuddling opponents and dazzling fans with displays of improvisatory skill. He was the closest England ever had to Maradonna, and could run with the ball as if it was attached on a string to his feet.
The same cheeky impulsiveness was evident off the pitch, with Gascoigne becoming notorious for juvenile high jinks, such as demanding a go on a workman’s pneumatic drill and asking a bus driver if he could drive for a bit.
But it was his performances in an England shirt that cemented his reputation as the figure who most defines the joy, heartache and squandered promise of the England team in the 90s.
In 1990 England played West Germany in the World Cup semi-final in Turin. The match was heading into extra time when Gascoigne was given a yellow card, which meant he would miss the final if England got through. He was filmed with tears in his eyes, and when England subsequently lost the game the image of Gascoigne crying came to sum up that painful defeat at the hand of the old enemy.
In the Euro 96 tournament, Gascoigne scored possibly the most sumptuous goal ever taken in an England shirt, in a qualifying game against Scotland. Receiving a curling high pass, he flicked it over the head of the defender with his left foot, ran round and volleyed it into the net with his right. The goal was followed by an equally iconic celebration, ‘the Dentist's chair’ - Gascoigne lay on the ground and teammates sprayed water from bottles into his open mouth.
But in this competition too, Gascoigne was associated with a semi final loss to Germany. As extra time was drawing to a close he lunged for a cross inside the six yard box. If he had got anything on it, England would have won; but he missed by inches, and again England went out on penalties, and again he cried.
Sadly, injury troubles curtailed Gascoigne’s season in 1991; he was never the same player after that, and never quite fulfilled his promise.
There was always a darker side to the man, and as Gascoigne’s career stalled in the late 90s he became associated with ill discipline and immaturity: he admitted he beat his wife and was losing a battle with alcoholism. Indeed, since his playing career has finished, Gazza has plummeted from one disaster to the next, and battled with manic depression, bulima among other disorders. He describes it all with admirable candour in his book Being Gazza: Tackling My Demons.