“It’s fair to say he was pretty pumped up.”
Those the words of the Nottingham Forest winger Ian Woan, who spent the moments before the 1991 FA Cup Final watching a manic Paul Gascoigne thundering around the Wembley tunnel, belting balls violently against the wall. This was all set to be the biggest day of Gascoigne’s young career – but as would soon become clear, he was in no fit state to play a game of football.
It’s generally agreed that the midfielder should have been sent off that afternoon. Instead he was stretchered off having injured himself in a vicious lunge on Gary Charles. Less acknowledged is that his red card should have come 43 seconds into the game for an equally unhinged challenge on Garry Parker.
Gascoigne, who had pole-vaulted to national-treasure status with his teary heroics at the previous summer’s World Cup, had scored six goals on the road to Wembley, including a stonking free-kick to sink Arsenal in the semi-final. With an £8.5m move to Lazio already agreed, this would be his last game for Tottenham, and in the season’s showpiece event – Lady Diana was even in the stands. His behaviour in the tunnel betrayed his frenzied mindset and the Spurs manager, Terry Venables, took him aside and tried to calm him down to little avail.
Gazza wasn’t exactly the quiet type and his pre-match preparation had hardly been Zen-like. “I didn’t sleep the night before the final. I was too hyped up,” he said. “We got the pillows out in my hotel room and were kicking them all over the place. Bouncing off the bed as high as we could and then trying to do tackles on pillows, two-footing lamp shades and half-volleying anything we could get our hands on. Getting a bar of soap out and doing a cross volley into the window.”
All harmless fun, although the same can’t be said for his first involvement in the game. “I remember Parker had clattered me in one game but I waited two years to get him back,” recalled Gascoigne. Within a minute of kick-off he’d done exactly that, with a studs-up, proto-De Jong karate kick that caught his opponent full in the chest.
Even by the lenient standards of the time, it was a clear sending-off offence. But a boyishly apologetic Gascoigne got away with nothing more than a paternal ruffle of his hair from referee Roger Milford (who years later admitted to letting “my heart rule my head” in not sending him off for the foul on Charles). Even a booking might have forced the Tottenham man to take a few deep breaths and give the next 50/50 a swerve.
Alas, play resumed with Gazza unpunished and when that 50/50 did come 15 minutes later, swerving it was the last thing on his mind. His wild swipe at Charles’ shins shredded the ligaments in his right knee. His cup final was a write-off, but so was an entire chapter of his career: the move to Lazio was called off and he didn’t kick a ball for a year and a half, exacerbating the injury in a nightclub scuffle some months later.
Gascoigne eventually moved to Italy for a knock-down price but never settled, and thus began a nomadic career that was cast ever more tragically against that glistening early promise. Going into that final, aged 23, Gascoigne appeared on the fast track to greatness, his performances for Newcastle, Spurs and England resembling one unbroken highlights reel. After it, the moments of magic were sporadic, the injuries frequent. Drink, depression and unpleasant domestic issues became a running theme.
Gascoigne takes issue with this account. “Those that claim it was downhill from then on, that’s bollocks,” he said of his knee injury. “My career got better and better after that, and so did I as a player.” Yet he played just 47 times in three injury-plagued years in Italy, and ended his career with a six-year tour of Middlesbrough, Everton and Burnley, averaging just 13 appearances a season. Three fine campaigns at Rangers sandwiched between those two spells were the exception rather than the rule, and even they come heavily caveated by the standard of the Scottish league. If Gascoigne did improve as a player, he never demonstrated it at the top level.
Injury was only one factor in the way his career played out, of course – mental health issues, addictive tendencies and an intrusive tabloid press all played their part – but one wonders just how good he would have been if that lay-off hadn’t interrupted his meteoric trajectory and robbed him of that priceless ability to burst past opponents.
Things might look a tad different at national level, too: had he not been injured for Euro 92, England might well have found a way out of their group, quite possible at the expense of eventual champions Denmark, who held them to a 0-0 draw in the opener. And for all of Gazza’s heroics at Euro 96, you can’t help but wonder if, with a fully functioning knee, he would have connected with that Shearer cross in the semi-final. Such literal re-imaginings aren’t really how the butterfly effect works, but even so.
As for Gazza himself, perhaps a fragile character would have been knocked off course sooner or later. But perhaps not, or at least not so brutally.
Gascoigne wasn’t the only legend of English football for whom that moment marked a crossroads. For Brian Clough, the FA Cup had become something of a holy grail, the only trophy missing from his CV. Spurs’ eventual win that day – a knife-edge game settled by Des Walker’s own goal in extra time – hurt him badly and arguably clouded his judgement over his own career.
“I should have retired after 18 May 1991, the day I witnessed the worst refereeing decision in my 40-odd years in football,” he wrote. “Paul Gascoigne committed two despicable fouls.”
One imagines that had he ended the afternoon at the top of the steps with the trophy in his hands, Clough might well have called it a day. Instead he battled on, his final two years at Forest marred by an ugly descent into alcoholism. In 1993 he retired having overseen the only relegation of his career, back-page reports of bungs tarring a noble reputation.
Is it too simplistic to see that one tackle as having sent two English icons on the booze-soaked path to self-destruction? Quite possibly. Yet there’s no doubt whatsoever that both careers – and probably both lives – would have played out completely differently without it. Certainly Gazza doesn’t need telling. “I wish I’d got sent off for the first tackle on Parker,” he admitted some years later. Don’t we all.