• Tom Flight

A Last Glimpse of Genius: Gazza At Boro

It was 30 years ago this summer that Paul Gascoigne captured the hearts of football fans around the country at the World Cup in Italy. Gazza took centre stage in a momentous tournament that would have an immense impact on the landscape of English football. After playing so brilliantly, his tears in the semi-final defeat to Germany gave a profound human story to a sport that had recently become defined by hooliganism. Football fans were the scourge of the country, five years earlier the Sunday Times had famously described the sport as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people.” England and Gazza’s performance in Italy brought about a swell in popularity and catapulted football to the forefront of the culture.

The nation would continue to follow Gazza’s story throughout that decade. In many ways, Italia 90 was the peak. He had iconic moments with Spurs, was adored at Lazio and Rangers, and of course, shone at Euro 96. But to follow Gazza’s story in the 90’s was to follow a man in freefall. The paparazzi and the gutter press were on hand to document every pint, every kebab, every mistake, every moment no matter how traumatic. The nation watched a man unravel, and it was at the end of a decade, while playing for Middlesbrough, that Gazza hit rock bottom. Despite his many demons, there were still flashes of the unique talent that had captured the country’s imagination.

Gazza arrived at Boro with his personal life on the brink. On the pitch, things weren’t going well either. After helping Rangers to two league titles, Gazza found himself suffering from a series of injuries and in poor form during the 1997/98 season. His discipline was also becoming a concern. He was fined heavily by his own club for miming playing the flute during a New Year’s Old Firm Match, a gesture that earned him death threats from Celtic fans. He had already served a 5-match ban in a previous Old Firm match that season for violently lashing out at Morten Wieghorst. Rangers were keen to offload the high maintenance midfielder, and Bryan Robson was prepared to fork out £3.45m plus a decent wage packet to persuade him to come help Middlesbrough in their final push for promotion to the Premier League.

Similar to that night famous in Turin, Gazza’s first day at Middlesbrough started in tears. “I remember driving to Middlesbrough to sign for them – and I stopped halfway and cried my eyes out,” Gazza said in an interview with the Scottish Daily Mail last year. “But I had promised Bryan Robson I would head there.”

“Do you think you could smile, Paul?” a photographer asked during Gazza’s 7-minute press conference. 1500 Boro fans were delighted to see one of the icons of the modern game unveiled in a Middlesbrough shirt, but the man wearing the shirt did not seem to share their enthusiasm. “I’m very excited,” Gazza replied when asked how he felt to be joining Middlesbrough, but his splintering personal life and mental health battles were obvious to see.

The one positive in Gascoigne’s life was the World Cup that Summer. Even with Gazza playing in the second tier he was still thought of as one of the first names on the team-sheet. Everybody knew he had personal problems, but many of the same worries and accusations had been levelled at Gazza ahead of Euro 96. It was assumed by many that the World Cup would be the same; as long as he could avoid injury and get on the plane to France he would pull himself together and deliver on the pitch. The mood of England fans was summed up in an appearance on TFI Friday where Gazza’s friend Chris Evans locked him in a box with a sign saying: “Do not open until June 15, Tunisia v England.”

His place, however, was not guaranteed. “I’ve said to Paul that mentally and physically you have to keep your body in shape,” England manager Glenn Hoddle said. In the final world cup qualifier in Rome where England battled Italy to earn the vital point that clinched their place in the tournament, it was Gazza who was pulling the strings in the midfield in an excellent performance. “afterwards I felt like I could walk around Italy forever with my chest out,” Gazza remembered.

“He’s picked up too many injuries. Since Rome he hasn’t played for us and we’ve won games and done well without him,” Hoddle warned. Along with trying to help Middlesbrough earn promotion, Gazza needed to prove to Hoddle, and the public, that he was fit and ready to play in France.

Gazza’s last game in English domestic football had been at Wembley for the 1991 FA Cup Final when he suffered a horrific injury after a brutal challenge on Gary Charles. His first game back took place in the same stadium for the Coca Cola Cup Final against Chelsea. The stadium was becoming a familiar venue for Boro fans too, this being their third straight cup final. With the game at 0-0 Gazza came on after 65 minutes, and made little impact as Chelsea scored two extra time goals to give Boro a hat-trick of cup final losses.

Almost every player who has played with Gazza has remarked on his incredible generosity. His inclusion in the final meant that Craig Hignett was left out of the match day squad. It was incredibly harsh on Hignett who scored vital goals in the cup run and Gazza showed his famed generosity by giving Hignett his losers medal.

His debut was followed by two tight away defeats against Sheffield United and West Brom. But he finally made his Riverside debut on the 11th of April in a 4-0 romp against Bury. It was two other recent signings that grabbed the headlines, however, first Hamilton Ricard who opened the scoring, then Marco Branca who scored a stunning second half hat-trick.

In order for Gazza to get back to his best he needed to stay away from alcohol. Looking back now it is staggering that the club gave the green light for Gazza and his best mate Jimmy Five Bellies to share a house with Paul Merson, who was a recovering alcoholic himself, and Merson’s brother. The stories of their time living together during the final months of the 1997/98 season have become legend: ““We used to play a game every day bar Friday. We’d get back from training. We’d give my brother and Jimmy a load of money to go and get some bottles of red wine,” Merson recounted on Sky One’s A League of Their Own. “We wouldn’t do it on a Friday because we played Saturday. A load of money on the coffee table and then we’d start drinking red wine. Every hour we’d pop a sleeping tablet and whoever fell asleep last picked the money off the table and went to bed.”

If things weren’t being taken seriously off the pitch, they were getting very serious on it. On 17th April Middlesbrough hosted Man City. City were fighting for their lives, but with just 4 games left Middlesbrough had slipped out of the promotion spots. It was a must win for both sides.

From the start, it was clear Gazza had decided it was time to make a statement. Straight from the whistle a boundless Gazza charged and scythed down Michael Brown, reminiscent of his horror tackle on Charles in the ’91 Cup Final. Luckily no injury this time, and for the rest of the first half Gazza rolled back the years making several dancing dribbles through the defence. He made one gorgeous scooped pass over the defence to put Mustoe through one-on-one who blasted his shot straight at the keeper. As the score stayed goalless, however, the atmosphere in the stadium grew tense, made worse when Marco Branca went off injured in the first half (in what would prove to be the strikers final start for the club). Middlesbrough had only won 3 of their last 8 games, and it was felt that a failure to pick up all three points here could put an end to their hopes of automatic promotion. On the stroke of halftime, a moment of magic from Gazza delivered the breakthrough. Picking up the ball on the halfway he stormed past two defenders with one touch in a pulsating run. Arriving on the edge of the box he fired at shot only for his teammate Ricard to get in the way. Gazza fought to win the ball back. Hounded by Richard Edghill, Gazza switched his body from right to left with a beautiful dummy, leaving Edghill in a heap on the floor. Gazza then curled a low cross ball into the box with his left foot. It evaded Ricard, but landed perfectly for Alun Armstrong to thrash into the bottom corner. The Riverside roared and Gazza’s teammates swarmed him in the celebration.

In a second Gazza had produced a sublime piece of skill and cross to break the deadlock. It was a moment Boro fans had been waiting for since Gazza arrived on Teesside, as the famous mischievous smile flashed across his face. Two minutes later Steve Vickers was sent off for head-butting Lee Bradbury meaning a nervy 45 minutes with 10 men, but Gazza’s brilliance proved to be enough to get the win and the club back into the top two.

Three games later, on the 3rd of May, Middlesbrough clinched promotion to the Premier League hammering Oxford 4-1. Gascoigne would be playing top-flight football next season, and to add to that delight he made Glenn Hoddle’s 30-man long-list for the England squad.

He still had to prove to Hoddle that he was ready. He wasn’t helped by the press who constantly captured him on nights out, including the infamous picture of him eating a kebab at 1:30am in late May. His fitness was visibly lacking in friendlies against Morocco and Belgium in Casablanca. When the squad was stationed at their training base in La Manga, Hoddle allowed the players to have a few drinks the night before he announced the final squad. Gascoigne was the only player who got completely drunk, and continued drinking the next day. Merson and Tony Adams had to throw him into the pool to sober him up ahead of the meeting with Hoddle, but Gazza could not be in worse shape to receive the news he was about to hear.

Hoddle had decided to deliver the news to the players individually. Gazza guessed that he was one of the unlucky few who weren’t going to France when he spoke to his ex-Newcastle teammate Glenn Roeder, one of Hoddle’s coaching team. Red with fury Gazza made his way to Hoddle’s office who was sitting down with Phil Neville. “Gazza stormed in and all hell broke loose. The tables went, he’s shouting, he’s screaming, he was obviously beside himself. Everyone heard it,” Gary Neville remembered. Gazza had to be restrained by his teammates. Phil Neville remembers Hoddle going a pale white, visibly disturbed by the scene. Whether it was the right decision or not, Gazza’s behaviour showed a man who was in an extremely fragile mental condition.

“Paul had just run out of time in terms of us not being able to get him as we needed for the World Cup. Out of shape and out of time,” Hoddle remarked.

At Italia 90 Bobby Robson had consoled Gazza telling him “Don’t worry about it. This is just your first.” Hoddle’s decision meant that the famous semi final in Turin 8 years previously would indeed be Gazza’s last World Cup appearance.

A dark Summer for Gazza turned tragic when his close friend David Cheek (Jimmy’s uncle) died on a night out. His turbulent marriage with Sheryl Gascoigne officially ended in divorce in August, and his own parents got divorced. Bryan Robson must have been worried about what state his midfielder would be in. But Gascoigne arrived for pre-season looking sharp, with a stand-out performance in a friendly against Stockport. On August 15th against Leeds United at the Riverside Gascoigne made his first ever appearance in the Premier League in a 0-0 draw.

It’s generally thought that after Gazza’s devastating omission from Hoddle’s England squad, his career spiraled out of control. But that’s not quite true. That 1998/99 season, particularly in the first half of the season, Gazza was a key player in a side that was 4th at Christmas. When Kevin Keegan replaced Hoddle in the England hot-seat in early 2000 there were talks of a return to the national side.

Merson left the club for Villa after three matches. He had seemingly decided that the Middlesbrough dressing room wasn’t the ideal setting for his ongoing battle with addiction. His departure handed a greater creative responsibility over to Gascoigne. And in the first game without Merson, Gazza scored his first Boro goal, dummying past a defender off an indirect free-kick and curling a divine 25-year strike into the bottom corner to earn Boro a 1-0 win.

Gazza’s former teammate for England Tony Dorigo once observed, “For most players, the pressure is in the 90 minutes on the pitch and they have 22 and a half hours to relax. For Gazza, it was the other way round.” Despite his serious problems off the field Gazza was still delivering on the pitch. He had to huff and puff to get through 90 minutes, but he was still capable of hitting a defence-splitting pass or putting a free-kick on a postage stamp. He was helped by a side packed with experience, including tenacious midfielders like Andy Townsend, Robbie Mustoe and Neil Maddison who could cover for Gazza’s declining fitness and ability to trackback.

Off the pitch, however, Gaza continued to give Robson headaches. There was the bus incident, where Gazza took the club’s brand new 52-seater state-of-the-art bus for a spin while the driver was in the canteen. “He gets on, starts it up and drives down the lane. Right at the end of the lane is a bus stop and there were two ladies sitting there waiting for a bus,” Andy Townsend remembered. “Come on, on you get!” Gazza told the ladies. Some of the players weren’t too confident being in a bus with Gazza behind the wheel. “I was so scared,” recalled Phil Stamp. “I shouted: ‘I’m getting off Gaz’ and did. I stood at the side of the road and watched him coming out the lane but he hit a bollard.” Gazza, disembarked the bus casually like nothing had happened, but was made to pay £18,000 for the damage. Gazza was also still drinking heavily and in early October it was reported he had embarked on a three-day “bender” in Dublin and was found in a distraught state at a train station. Things had gone too far. Robson insisted he checked into the Priory in London. Merson, after being sent a cry for help, rushed from international duty to meet with Gazza at the specialist clinic.

When Robson confirmed the news, he was quick to point a finger at the press for the role they played in Gazza’s troubles: “Since Princess Diana died, Gazza has been in the papers every day,” Robson said. “Gazza has got a problem. It’s been building up for quite a few years. I’ve spoken to him about it and we’re trying to do something. We’re going to try and help the lad.”

It was typical of Gazza that in the last game he played before hitting rock bottom he delivered one of his most memorable moments in a Boro shirt, curling a 25-yard free-kick past Kevin Pressman in a 4-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday, Gazza’s first goal at the Riverside. He ran to the Boro fans, his face flush with glee.

Gazza cut his 28-day programme by 14 days meaning he missed just two matches. In the press conference Gazza didn’t say too much, but said he would stop drinking, and that he was a “changed man.” He returned to the starting line-up on 1st November at home to Forest live on Sky Sports where he received a spirited standing ovation from both sets of supporters. He actually looked noticeably slimmer, and there was a hopeful feeling that Gazza had turned a significant corner. Boro fans were almost sent into euphoria when he nearly put Townsend through on goal after a couple minutes. His performance was typically uneven, with sparse moments of brilliance. TV viewers, perhaps with a little sentimentality, voted him Man of the Match. Sky gave him a crystal bowl rather than the usual bottle of champagne. “It’s good to be back,” Gazza said, a little embarrassed, but smiling.

The following week Gazza opened the scoring in a wild 3-3 draw at the Dell, bending in another free-kick. He was mobbed in the celebration, with all his teammates trying to embrace him.

A few weeks later Gazza put on another show for the cameras at home to West Ham with Glenn Hoddle’s no. 2 John Gorman also in the stands. In the first half, he sparkled, looking like the Gazza of old, as he went on several marauding runs, turning defenders inside out. Brian Deane scored from a corner on the stroke of half-time for the only goal, and while Gazza had a quieter second half he was voted Man of the Match again. He ended up missing the next match, the memorable 3-2 win at Old Trafford, but Middlesbrough were 4th at Christmas and it seemed like Gazza was on the path to finding form on the pitch and peace off it. “I thought Gazza was the best player on the pitch,” Robson said after the West Ham game. “I’m pleased he’s enjoying life again away from football. He’s settled into his new house and he’s put everything in perspective.”

After Christmas, his form, along with the rest of the side, declined. They finished 9th; one of only two Premier League top 10 finishes for the club. By the end of the season, Gazza was rarely playing a full 90 minutes but his early-season form had played a significant part in a strong season for the club, which was also Robson’s highest ever finish as a manager.

Early in the 1999/2000 season it became clear that Gazza was still battling many of the same issues. Much like his final season at Rangers, Gazza found himself struggling with injuries and discipline. At home to Chelsea, with Boro 1-0 down, Robson brought Gazza off the bench to spark some inspiration. Gazza’s only contribution was a red card for dissent. Robson wore a blank expression on his face, ignoring Gazza, as he stormed into the dressing room. Robson’s patience had seemingly reached an end.

Gazza’s relationship with Middlesbrough hadn’t quite been the love affair Boro fans had hoped, so it was fitting that his last act in a Boro shirt took place on a miserable Valentine’s Day night at home to Aston Villa. Boro, by now flirting with relegation, were hammered 4-0. Gazza didn’t make it to half-time after hitting George Boateng with a vicious elbow where he ended up breaking his own arm on the face of the Dutch midfielder.

Gazza’s time at Middlesbrough had started in tears in a car on the motorway. And it ended in tears on a stretcher. That Summer he was picked up by his old Rangers manager, Walter Smith, for Everton where his career continued to deteriorate.

The chapter of Gazza’s time at Boro is a complicated one in a complicated story. Gascoigne’s story could actually have started in Middlesbrough nearly 20 years earlier when he was invited to a trial at Middlesbrough as a schoolboy, but he was not picked up by the club. When we did see him in a Boro shirt there is no doubt he was in decline. It’s not a coincidence that all four of his goals for the club came from set-pieces, a sign that his fitness and mobility were a shadow of what they once were.

At a time when social stigma over mental health and addiction was prevalent Middlesbrough did try to help Gascoigne. But there was only so much the club could do to help.

It’s been said that all Gazza ever wanted to do was make you smile. Sadly his innate self-destructive streak will eventually wear you out. It’s maybe why his glorious performances in the Summers of 1990 and 1996 linger so prominently in the nation’s conscience. They were isolated fragments of time that stand apart from all the rest of the baggage that comes with Paul Gascoigne. Robson’s cold avoidance of eye contact after his red card against Chelsea signified the moment that Gazza had gone beyond the point that he was capable of bringing any more joy to the club. But there were moments, particularly in that first half of the 1998/99 season, where despite his crumbling life off the pitch, he could still make fans smile; and perhaps gave the world a final glimpse of a true footballing genius.

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