’90s Heroes: Paul Gascoigne

’90s Heroes is a series by Adam Hurrey on the Bet Bright football blog which looks back on the legends of the game in what now seems a simpler time for football.

Duncan FergusonJurgen KlinsmannFaustino AsprillaJuninhoTony YeboahGeorgi KinkladzeDavid GinolaChris WaddleGianfranco ZolaNiall Quinn and Kevin PhillipsDion DublinRobbie FowlerStuart Pearce; Mark Hughes.

“Playing for Rangers – people thought it was easy, but it’s not. The expectation of being 4-0 at half-time is tough. We could win 6-0 and Walter Smith would be unhappy and make us come in for extra training.”

Paul Gascoigne’s career found itself at a crossroads in the summer of 1995. A chaotic – but occasionally brilliant – three years at Lazio had come to an end, and he wanted to come home. He favoured a move to Manchester United, who he had turned down in 1988, but that came to nothing: “I knew I wasn’t going there. You only mess with Sir Alex once.” Everton doubted his long-term fitness and dropped their interest. Queens Park Rangers’ curiosity was piqued – but only at a discount. Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea agreed a £4.5m fee, but talks with Gascoigne broke down.

Then, waving the carrot of £15,000-a-week wages and Champions League football, in came Rangers with a club-record fee of £4.3m. While the English top flight was blooming, so too was the Scottish Premier Division enjoying what, in retrospect, seems like its peak. By the time of Gascoigne’s arrival, Rangers’ early-90s English contingent had dwindled, but the club still boasted such talent as the wispy Brian Laudrup. Even before his raucous Ibrox welcome, Gascoigne appeared to have made a promising choice.

A goal in his first appearance in Glasgow – a glorified friendly against Steaua Bucharest – further satisfied the Rangers fans, but a groin injury in a Champions League qualifier away to Anorthosis Famagusta left him fearing a 15th operation of a stop-start career. For once, though, luck was on his side – Gascoigne was passed fit to get stuck into the rollercoaster ride of the Scottish title race.

While nobody doubted that the 28-year-old’s talent could still shine brightly, his physical condition was understandably still a concern for both club and country. Those worries lasted just five games into the league campaign, when Rangers visited Celtic for the second of six Old Firm derbies that season. In the first – a League Cup quarter-final at Celtic Park – Gascoigne’s pinpoint cross had set up Ally McCoist for the only goal. This time Gazza went one better, and sprinted almost the entire length of the pitch to do it.

“At Rangers-Celtic, the hatred is phenomenal. I played against Celtic 11 times and was unbeaten in 11 and scored four. I remember one fan, a Rangers fan who must have been about 50-odd, said: ‘You have to be the best all-round players for Rangers and I love you, but I’ve just heard your dad is a Catholic and want him to die. But by the way, any chance of an autograph?’ Unbelievable.”

By November, Rangers’ European dream had been ended in the group stage by Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, but Gascoigne was intent to make the most of his first taste of European competition. Another lung-burster – and another goal against Steaua at Ibrox – confirmed he still had the capacity for greatness.

However, the lingering frustration of a body not quite functioning as quickly as the brain manifested itself in a flurry of yellow cards. Gascoigne was booked no fewer than 16 times in 1995/96, one of which would prove to be the alternative highlight of his Rangers days.

Having once again dragged himself 50 yards, only to spurn an open goal against Hibs, Gascoigne picked up the referee’s dropped card and returned it in the most Gazza way imaginable…only to discover that Douglas Smith was the most miserable man in Scottish football.

If he even needed to atone for it, Gazza followed the first half’s pantomime with the second-half magic show:

By the last weekend in April, Rangers were one win away from the their eighth title in a row – and Gascoigne was one booking away from missing the Scottish Cup final. Just hours before a home game with Aberdeen, he had been named Footballer of the Year by his colleagues. In a rare Gazza confluence of magic and self-control, he managed to avoid the referee’s notebook…and crowned his debut season in stunning fashion. Aberdeen were dismantled almost single-handedly by the gleeful No.8 who, in the words of one Scottish newspaper, “bored past defenders like a high-powered drill”:

Rangers went on to secure the double, Gascoigne finished with an astonishing 19 goals in 42 games from midfield and added the football writers’ award to his PFA win. Before an unforgettable summer, there was still time to squeeze in another turn-up for the books:

With managers’ faith in his body (if not quite his mind) restored, there was still Euro ‘96 to come. However, England’s plans had nearly been derailed by the unfortunate coincidence of a Far East tour and Gazza’s birthday – oh to be a fly on the wall of the China Jump nightclub that night – and, by the time of England’s second group match against Scotland, Gascoigne’s stock was perilously low.

The Guardian’s David Lacey wrote that Venables had “mistaken the fatted calf for the prodigal son” in Gazza who, “pink, peroxided and portly…had become an adornment.” Not for the first time since leaving Tottenham for Lazio, Gascoigne had something to prove. You absolutely know the rest.

Watching any goal a thousand times tends to remove some of its glory somehow, but there is something new to enjoy on every loop. The unceremonious placing of Colin Hendry on his backside and the thunderous first-time volley past Andy Goram are the headliners, obviously. But that forward burst, even before Sheringham has laid the ball off to Anderton, has become the retrospective signal for something very special about to happen.

With all due respect to John Motson’s “oh yes! Ohhhhh yes!” on the BBC, the commentary-less clip above represents everything great about 90,000 people being present for a football match – the murmur of interest as the ball goes forward, the hopeful breath as Gascoigne clips the ball over Hendry’s blonde mop, and finally the glorious release as the net bulges.

“I’m an entertainer and I like to play in front of big crowds,” Gascoigne told FourFourTwo in 2005. “There aren’t many bigger clubs in England than Rangers so why would I play in front of 30,000 in England when I had the chance to play in front of 50,000 at Ibrox? Graeme Souness, Terry Butcher, Chris Woods, Ray Wilkins, Gary Stevens, Trevor Steven, Mark Hateley and Brian Laudrup all went to play for Rangers, so they must be doing something right up there.”

With England and Scotland recently renewing acquaintances at Wembley – and eternal footballing footnote Joey Barton making his inevitable exit from Rangers – there is no greater common denominator to inspire some topical nostalgia and remind us of the rather simpler pleasures of 1990s football.

For the next instalment of ’90s Heroes check out the Bet Bright football blog this week.

90s heroes

’90s Heroes: Paul Gascoigne
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