Before you carry on reading this I want to make it clear that what I am writing is most certainly not an obituary, it’s not even a plea. If I’m honest I’m not entirely sure what it is I am typing other than me expressing my sadness and a little bit of anger at the situation one of my very first, in fact no make that my actual first ever football hero finds himself in right now. Today I travelled down to Frickley to report on a game between Frickley Athletic and Blyth Spartans, the club that I am very honoured to be working at in the role of press officer. It’s a job I love doing win, lose or draw, although admittedly it’s easier when there’s a win to report on.
Unfortunately today it was a loss I was reporting on but I was still on a high on the way back doing a job I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, that coupled with Newcastle United’s marvellous 3-2 over Chelsea meant I was reasonably happy sitting in the house working on my match report. Then I came across the news that Gazza has seemingly come off the wagon and is starting a fresh battle with alcoholism, reading that news meant my mood went flat.
My love affair with football started twenty four years ago this week as my Dad took me to St James Park for the very first time, just as his Dad had some twenty five years earlier. Our beloved Newcastle United were playing Swindon Town in the fourth round of the FA Cup and as a six year old I found the whole event rather overwhelming. Standing in the Gallowgate that day I can remember the noise and the sway of the crowd as Newcastle romped to a 5-0 over their lower league opposition. There was genuine buzz and excitement about one player in particular and it was a young lad from Dunston called Paul Gascoigne. He had been tipped to be the next big thing by many an expert and especially by a local legend in Jackie Milburn, Wor Jackie no less.
Gazza scored twice in the win over the Robins and was making an impression in the Newcastle lineup and that would soon be transferred to the international scene. His all action, bustling, burly style of play coupled with some outrageous skill meant that Gazza was always destined for bigger things than a seemingly unambitious Newcastle United could offer him, especially with the board of directors that were in place at the time.
Fast forward two years to 1990 and Gazza had of course been sold to Spurs and was set to make a big impact on the biggest scene of them all. World Cup Italia 90 was the first major tournament I can remember, I was too young to remember anything of the Mexico World Cup and Euro 88 passed me by as my football interest was focused on Newcastle United. That changed by Italia 90 as England travelled to Italy with Gazza in their midst although what role he would play was still in question as Bobby Robson flipped between using his young star or his more tried and trusted players. I remember sitting watching England’s second group game against Holland having been so disappointed with the lacklustre 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland.
England needed a performance, a spark, an inspiration and that came from Gazza as he took his place in a game alongside genuine world stars like Gullit and Van Basten and outshone them all. Who can forget the iconic imagine of Gazza using the famous Cryuff turn against the country that gave birth to the original master of that very same bit of skill. Gazza had arrived.
Of course as is normal with Gazza the rough would of course come with the smooth and Gazza mania kicked off after the famous semi final loss against West Germany. A second booking of the tournament in that game meant that Gazza would miss the final should England qualify and in the aftermath of the card being shown Gazza broke down and the tears followed. A nation had fallen in love with a new star, not out of sympathy but out of respect for the pride he had shown in adversity. He played his heart out once he had calmed down and showed maturity that he really deserved more credit for. On their return from Italy, England were given a heroes welcome and the main focus was on everybody’s new hero Gazza. He was everywhere after the tournament, even in the music charts but we won’t go too much into that. He would soon be transferred to Italy with a record move to Lazio and with Channel Four showing live Serie A games on a Sunday afternoon I was able to continue my love of a man who by this time I idolised. If it had Gazza’s name on it I had it. The England shirt, the skills videos, his yearly annual and yes, as much as I hate to admit it, the Gazza shellsuit.
By the time Euro 96 had come around I was a teenager but still idolised the man more than every. By now he was playing in Scotland and would provide the iconic image of the tournament with an outrageous piece of skill against the Auld Enemy. With England 1-0 up against Scotland in a group game, he collected a long pass out of defence and looped the ball over Colin Hendry before volleying home to send Wembley and the rest of England wild. Again Gazza wasn’t far away from controversy as he decided to choose this moment to re-enact a moment that had provided a field day for the press pre-tournament.
Whilst playing warm up games in the Far East the England squad had been caught up in some late night partying that saw them taking part in a drinking game called the Dentist’s Chair. So after scoring his goal against Scotland, Gazza lay down on the floor as England players squirted water into his mouth from the water bottles around the pitch. This will not have impressed the FA but anyone with a sense of humour couldn’t fail to laugh at his reaction to one of the greatest moments of his career, that moment was simply iconic.
After his spell with Rangers, he would bounce around different clubs like Everton, Middlesbrough and Burnley and whilst providing the odd moment of magic just as with every aging footballer the legs had gone and his footballing career came to a close. During his career he had given every single football fan moments of unrivalled genius, undoubted inspiration and in some cases downright daftness.
While some people see only the Gazza we have had rammed down our throats by the press over the past few years I prefer to remember the fact that underneath it all there is still a human being, if you need a reference point for that then look at his show of emotion following the death of Sir Bobby Robson and at the great man’s funeral.
Since his retirement Gazza has courted controversy for all of the wrong reasons and reasons that I point blank refuse to go into as I type this. As Gazza faces his latest battle with his demons I wish to remember him as I see him in the photo below and not as the gutter press seem to want to have us all think of him. Gazza, you are one of the few genuine footballing legends I have had the pleasure of watching in person at St James Park and you provided me with so many wonderful moments during my childhood and adult life. No matter what happens over the coming days, months or years I will never forget that.