Wednesday, 25 September 2013

In praise of...Paul Gascoigne

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Following on from the latest documentary into the latest sorry chapter of Paul Gascoigne's ongoing battle with off-field demons involving alcohol and substance abuse; this writer felt it necessary to correct the balance and remind readers of why Mr. Gascoigne is held in such esteem by writers, fans and now gossip columnists.

For many, Gascoigne or Gazza as he became to be affectionately known, is the once in a generation player and talent who transcends the sport he plays in, becoming known to millions of households, bringing new supporters to the sport.  He follows in the footsteps of Pele, Cruyff, Zidane and now the modern day duo of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. 

This is not to state that Gascoigne is as great as those aforementioned players, far from it.  Yet he remains the most gifted player from the British Isles since that other player who had a drinking problem, George Best.

That is why every time I talk about Gascoigne in glowing terms with my father, the question is asked 'How good was the Belfast boy?' and how sad to hear that Best wasted the peak years of his career when he was early to mid 1930s with his desire for booze and birds instead of scoring goals and winning trophies.

In this day and age, that is why a player like Ryan Giggs should be applauded because he has maintained such a high standard of performance and application for 20 years and over a 1000 games.  Giggs' resume of trophies is one of immense achievement.  What did Paul Gascoigne win apart from the affection of millions? An FA Cup winner's medal for which he could not collect and a Scottish Premier League title with Glasgow Rangers.

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My point though is that Gascoigne's first great purple patch, late 1988 to May 1991 with Tottenham was one of the most amazing periods of football performance witnessed by this writer.  Being a Spurs season ticket holder was helpful and perhaps a bit myopic to ignore such talent elsewhere in the league at Liverpool (Barnes, Rush, Beardsley); yet did any one player carry the weight of responsibility with such blasé nature and passion as Gascoigne.

Being a passionate individual helped Gascoigne when he moved to London - you do wonder what might have happened if he had gone to Manchester United and worked with Alex Ferguson, how many trophies would they had won together - yet Gascoigne's weekly highlight package for Tottenham helped him get on the plane to Italia'90 when his tears in the semi-final versus Germany endeared him to the nation and made football cool again. 

Whilst it was England's best finals performance since the 1966 World Cup and the team had the goals of Gary Lineker, the inspirational defence of Mark Wright without the industry and guile of Gascoigne, England might not have made the knockout stages.  His free-kick deliveries to Mark Wright and David Platt versus Egypt and Belgium respectively in the dying minutes of both games, helped save English blushes.  Not forgetting his through ball to Lineker in the quarter-final versus Cameroon that dissected the defence and led to the goalkeeper upended Lineker from which he converted the winning penalty in extra time.  Gascoigne along with Lothar Matthaus was the stand out performer of the tournament. 

His first game of the new season was a home game versus Derby at White Hart Lane, where he scored a treasure chest of three long range efforts all past his England team-mate Peter Shilton.  However, injuries became a problem throughout the season; ankle knocks, hamstring strains caused Terry Venables to manage him effectively.  The FA Cup run was systemic of his handling of Gascoigne as performances at home to Oxford, away at Portsmouth, home to Notts County and subsequently the semi-final against Arsenal at Wembley Stadium, made it Spurs' year.

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Against Portsmouth, Spurs trailed 1-0 at half-time yet Gascoigne scored twice including a rare header to win 2-1.  Against County, Gascoigne's hamstring was so bad he played virtually on one leg but his mere presence again turned around a half-time deficit. Then the semi-final when Gascoigne won the game after 4 minutes with his memorable free-kick, that every knew he would score.  Again injury meant he did play the whole game but his influence was never in doubt.

The final became less about Brian Clough v Venables as Cloughie v Gazza as the main event.  Yet as well known, Gascoigne's self-destruction came to the surface as his two assaults on Garry Parker (which was not cautioned) and then Gary Charles (again not cautioned) led to him being stretchered off with the first serious knee ligament damage of his career.  Spurs conceded from the subsequent free-kick and looked like they had a mountain to climb.

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Yet this is where I thank Gascoigne the most.  Spurs were a lesser team without him undoubtedly, and yet they stuck at it despite having a Lineker penalty saved by Mark Crossley and a legitimate goal chalked off incorrectly for offside.  A team that contained such names as Steve Sedgley, Justin Edinburgh and Vinny Samways played out of their skins.  The industry of Paul Stewart elevated the team to better things culminating in Stewart's second-half equaliser and subsequent Des Walker own goal under pressure from captain Gary Mabbutt.

Who knows what would have happened if Gazza had been fit and played the whole game.  Yet for me his absence brought to the fore for me the ideal and ethos of the team ethic in the sport, no one man is greater than the rest of the team.  A team is a sum of all its parts, not made up of just four or five good parts.  Tottenham gave me one of the greatest days of my life and they did it without their best player, should not that team be remembered with more fondness than just the team that won it without Gazza.

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