joy, despair and a dentist’s chair
If Italia 90 belonged to ‘Gazza’ — daft as a brush, tears in Turin, plastic cleavage in Luton — then 1996 was the summer of Paul Gascoigne.
Inevitably named by any former team-mate as the most talented footballer they played with, his career was on an upswing as Euro 96 approached. Horizons broadened by a spell in Italy, he moved to Rangers the previous summer, winning the double and the Scottish player of the year. Always prone to self-destruction, he seemed to have grown up. Slightly. Some old habits persisted; before kick-offs he’d often reach for his flask and take a calming swig of brandy.
England were a team in search of an identity and a focal point after the turgid Graham Taylor era. Terry Venables had shifted the mood internally but only had friendlies and the Umbro Cup to win back the love of a sceptical public, still burned by missing the 1994 World Cup.
Gascoigne had been a key man in Rangers’ title run but even accounting for a drop in Scottish top flight prestige since, this did not necessarily suggest a triumphant international tournament. Jonathan Pearce, then a raucous commentator for Capital Gold now mainly heard on the BBC, had kept the faith: “The people who were optimistic about Euro 96 that summer believed he was a sort of talismanic Pied Piper.”
The hope was that he would bring invention to Venables’ strong but workmanlike team. The worry was that he was no longer capable.
‘A couple of flaming sambucas – then someone saw the chair’
This being Paul Gascoigne, the story of his redemptive summer is not straightforward. It started not at Wembley, but with warm-up games in China and Hong Kong. There was a scuffle on the plane during the journey, unreported in the press but a warning of more airborne trouble to come.
Pierluigi Collina refereed England’s 3-0 win against China and Gascoigne lifted the occasion with an imperious display in midfield, putting Nick Barmby through for his second goal and scoring one himself, his first internationally for three years.
After a curious unofficial friendly against the Hong Kong Golden Select XI, thankfully seen off 1-0, it was Gascoigne’s 29th birthday. Venables had promised the team a night out and several spent the evening at the China Jump Club, drinking Flaming Lamborghinis, a cocktail of sambuca, Baileys, Galliano and fire. Don’t try this at home. And definitely don’t try what England’s players did next: lying back in a dentists’ chair and allowing bottles of spirits to be poured directly down their throats.
Now in high spirits, Gascoigne decided his personal quest for the night was to pour pints over and rip shirts off as many of his team-mates as possible. Darren Anderton was there, in body at least. “We just ended up in a bar, there wasn’t a lot really going on,” he says. “I think we just made our own little bit of entertainment.
“A couple of flaming sambucas, and then I think someone saw the chair. There’s not a lot else to remember.”
Reading the room, Venables called off training the following morning but the boisterousness continued on the way home. His squad flew on Cathay Pacific flight CX251, occupying the Marco Polo business class cabin. A sleeping Gascoigne was slapped awake by someone and lost his temper attempting to identify the culprit. Two TVs and a table were in the line of fire, causing the now-quaint sum of £5,000 of damage.
This time the story was reported and pictures had been sold from the previous night’s boozing. By Friday, May 31, Gascoigne was front and centre on The Sun, flanked by Teddy Sheringham and Steve McManaman, all three in ripped shirts under the headline “Disgracefool”.
“Look at Gazza,” the paper ordered. “A drunk oaf with no pride.”
Despite the clear presence of several other England players, Gascoigne was the lightning rod. He was described as a yob, a lout. The implication was clear, a footballer’s bad behavior being described in the same language as the fading spectre of hooliganism.
MPs from the three main UK parties called for the mystery plane vandals to be identified, named, and thrown out of the squad. Gascoigne later admitted he had broken the TVs but the players took collective responsibility publicly. It was not a good start, but it united the squad.
‘Paul – take that off, you’ll look a bigger prat than you already are’
Just as every former team-mate hails Gascoigne’s talent, they will all tell you what a joy he was off the pitch. “He’s a fabulous lad and great to have around,” said serious Gary Neville in 1996, presumably not one with a high tolerance for madcap behaviour.
There were minders in the England team, the comparatively sensible trio of Stuart Pearce, Davids Seaman and Platt taking turns to “babysit” Gascoigne, as Seaman later put it. Paul Ince was more of a partner in crime, playing foil to his habitual pranks.
But Gascoigne was more of a mentor than his reputation might suggest. Anderton remembers the build-up to his England debut against Denmark in 1994. “I had a knock at my door and it was Gazza. I thought ‘oh no, what’s he going to do?’. He said ‘are you alright, have you got a shaver? I need a shave’.
“At that point I probably wasn’t even shaving, but we started talking and he said ‘I just want you to know, you’ve got to enjoy tonight, it’s the best feeling in the world.’ He said ‘you deserve to be here. Do not doubt that.’
“I’ll never forget that, he didn’t need to do it. I think we all talk about Gazza, his madness, his genius and everything else. But underneath all that he is a top guy.”
Away from football his restlessness was to the fore. Danny Baker’s house was a regular haunt. “He would lie full length on the sofa,” wrote Baker in 2009. “Repeating over and over to himself – all who know Paul will attest he continuously carries on a personal mumbled monologue – ‘This is it. Staying in. Stay in. Door’s shut. Fook off, that’s me in now. Door’s shut. Telly’s on. Love it. In. In.’”
Jonathan Pearce encountered him repeatedly while working for Capital Gold. “He was always very good with me. Very amiable, very spirited. The public persona of Paul Gascoigne is that he loved life, laughed, loved his football. That’s how he came across when you met him. He was a bundle of electrifying energy. Not electric, electrifying, because that’s how he made you feel as a person after you spoke to him.”
Not everyone in the media was so positively inclined. “There were two or three times when I went to interview Gazza and he f—– me about.” says Des Lynam, the anchor for the BBC’s coverage in 1996. “Once we were at White Hart Lane and he ran off to the bottom of the pitch with the football and wouldn’t come back. I had to send a message down saying ‘Come back now or I won’t do the interview, and it will be your loss not mine,’ and he came back then.
“There was another time when England were training for the World Cup. He had this ridiculous T-shirt on – a very gaudy thing, covered in words and sayings. I said ‘You’ve got to take that off, you’ll look a bigger prat than you already are.’ He was as good as gold, he took that off, did a one-on-one for the BBC.”
‘I think he was secretly impressed with his own brilliance’
It is still odd to reflect on how average England were for most of Euro 96, a few spectacular highs enlivening long spells of dreariness. Their first game against Switzerland was a case in point, a limp performance in which England led for an hour before conceding an equaliser from the spot.
Venables’ side needed a big save by Seaman from Marco Grassi to hold on to a point. Gascoigne was hooked for Platt seven minutes before the equaliser, having not impressed. Some suggested he should start the following game against Scotland on the bench and retreat to the role of impact sub. As Swiss striker Stéphane Chapuisat put it: ‘‘When Paul Gascoigne is OK, England are strong; when he is out, the team are nothing.’’
The campaign hinged on the next game against Scotland, and a clutch of Gascoigne’s club team-mates at Rangers. Venables tweaked his set-up, putting Gascoigne at inside-left rather than on the right as he had been against Switzerland. After a poor first half, Alan Shearer scored the opener before a minute that changed the course of England’s summer — and Gascoigne’s.
First, Seaman once again delivered a decisive intervention by saving a Gary McAllister penalty; then, 55 seconds later, came Gascoigne’s moment of genius.
Sheringham found Anderton on the left, who spotted Gascoigne tearing through the middle and supplied what could, if you are being generous, be called an assist. “It was pretty easy to see from Gazza, a third-man run,” says Anderton. “Teddy passed it out to me and Gazza had made the perfect run, so it wasn’t the most difficult ball in the world for me, but I played it into his path nicely.” What followed was the purest manifestation of Gascoigne’s class.
Using the same instinct and invention which powered his practical jokes, Gascoigne hooked the ball over Colin Hendry with his left foot. Hendry seemed to realise what was happening in awful real time but was powerless to stop it, falling over in a baffled heap.
There was still a lot to do to beat Andy Goram with a volley on his other foot, but Gascoigne hit his low shot beautifully and wheeled off to celebrate by miming the dentist’s chair, a gleeful two fingers up at his critics.
It was a transformative moment for Gascoigne, a sublime flash of the talent that made him a world star six years previously. It was transformative for the tournament too, the goal which captured a reticent nation’s imagination.
England prevailed, Three Lions swept down from the stands and Euro 96 was truly up and running.
Ally McCoist, on as a substitute in time to see McCallister’s miss from the spot and Gascoigne’s goal, has a souvenir from the day. “Typical Gascoigne, he promised two of his team-mates his shirt. Stuart McCall and I wanted it. He promised the two of us it, no bother. We go down the tunnel at half time and I can see him taking his jersey off, running up to Stuart and giving him it. He says ‘tell Coisty he can have the one in the second half’.
“At that moment in time, we’ve played well. I watched it the other night, we were the better team in the first half. He still had the presence of mind that he didn’t want to let anyone down.”
In the months leading up to the game the Rangers dressing room had been fixated on England v Scotland. McCoist and the other Scotland internationals expected an onslaught of mickey-taking from the victor when they met again.
“He never mentioned the goal when he came back into our dressing room,” says McCoist. “My own theory is he was actually secretly and quietly impressed with his own brilliance. Had it been a tap in, had Andy Goram made a great save and the ball had broken to him two yards out I think there’s every chance he would have made our lives a misery with it. But to his eternal credit I think the brilliance of the goal prevented him from giving us a hard time.”
When leaving the pitch in McCoist’s shirt Gascoigne looked towards the press box with clenched fists and shouted some rude words. The Daily Mirror ran a front page apology to him.
‘That vision, those cute touches – he was a pleasure to play with’
Before England’s final group game against Holland the team was read out to the Wembley crowd. The loudest cheers were for Gascoigne’s name. The opponents were the team Venables was trying to ape. Among the pre-tournament favourites despite a spotty qualifying campaign their football seemed several levels more sophisticated than England’s.
All bets were off when Shearer’s goalscoring run continued in the first half. The team finally fulfilled their potential in the second, providing their best performance at Wembley since 1966. Gascoigne was at the centre of it, taking the corner for Sheringham’s headed goal which made it 2-0. Then he was the key contributor for a beautiful team goal, Shearer’s second of the game. According to Anderton, it showed his best qualities. “The class that he showed for that goal. He instigates that move with those cute little touches that he does, that little bit of vision, balls around the corner. He just was a pleasure to play with.”
Those shimmys, feints, and the use of his weight were crucial to Gascoigne’s game. His two-footedness and ball-retention now seem beamed back from today’s best footballers, a thoroughbred in the era of donkeys. Anderton remembers how good he was in training, impossible to dispossess and deceptively strong despite a lack of searing pace.
McCoist felt his spell at Rangers was the best and most consistent period of his club career. He remembers a less heralded aspect to his game: “The thing with Paul, which I’ve always found very, very commendable was if he wasn’t playing to his usual standard the other side of his game never dropped. That was his workrate, his ability not to let people run off him as well.”
‘He was a tired drunk – he just needed his bed’
Venables had experience managing Gascoigne at Spurs. He knew he needed leeway and would not respond well to being cooped up in a hotel. His previous international manager, Taylor, alienated him, saying he had a “refuelling problem”. Venables was closer in approach to Gascoigne’s club manager Walter Smith. Both knew he needed carrots, not the stick.
As his career wore on he leant on alcohol too often, but it was less of a factor in the mid-90s than was frequently suggested. “I didn’t see him drunk a lot, I promise you that’s the truth,” says McCoist. “He was a tired drunk, he was just somebody who needed his bed.”
Instead Gascoigne craved company, which Smith understood. “Walter knew Paul was alone,” says McCoist. “He appreciated that for Gazza to be functioning at his best he needed to be in a happy environment, and I think that included people around and about him.
“Paul would go to Walter’s on Christmas day for his dinner. He could have gone to any of his team-mates for Christmas dinner, everyone would have loved to have had him. But Walter took him and Paul quite clearly appreciated that side of things.”
Sometimes trouble seemed to seek him out. Before the quarter final against Spain Venables allowed Gascoigne to go fishing with David Seaman in Maidenhead. During their day at the Sheephouse Farm Trout Fishery the goalkeeper spotted a Daily Mirror photographer. Gascoigne tried to get him to hand over a roll of film but the photographer drove away hurriedly, straight into a five-bar gate.
‘‘Paul was upset, as he had every right to be, but he remained totally controlled all the time,’’ said Ron Dane, the fishery owner, on the day of the incident. ‘‘The photographer started arguing with Paul, who had his hand through the window and was demanding the pictures. The next thing, he accelerated off and smashed straight through the gate.
‘‘Paul had to jump back quite quickly — the car could have run over his feet, which would have been disastrous.’’
Despite the distractions there was a professionalism to Gascoigne’s work. England rode their luck again in a 0-0 draw against Spain in the quarter finals. Gascoigne scored the crucial fourth penalty in the shootout. In the dressing room afterwards there was a new sense of destiny and seriousness to the mission. There was also a belief that England were better than their next opponents.
‘The stretching leg…’
Vulnerability had endeared Gascoigne to the English public six years earlier in Turin, the yin to his yang of hyperactive off-pitch behaviour. Crying is common among elite sportspeople now, but not in an era when athletes — especially male ones — were expected to keep emotions in check. His endemic angst was to the fore when England played Germany in the semi-final.
The ride ended here but shouldn’t have. England had two glorious chances to score a golden goal, first Anderton hit the post then Gascoigne came appallingly close to converting a low ball across the six-yard box.
He would later lament that a “proper striker” like Alan Shearer would have reached the ball. Instead Gascoigne anticipated a touch from Andreas Kopke which never came. “I ran forward to try and get it, but checked myself when I saw the keeper coming out for it,” wrote Gascoigne in his book My Story. “Because I hesitated, I missed it by inches. I was really sick.”
Despite the many hundreds of replays since, the slew of 20th anniversary retrospectives five years ago, and knowing full well what’s coming it is still a moment which feels reliably wrenching to watch again. It was a matter of millimetres, says Anderton. “If Gazza had a longer stud he would have knocked it in.”
The miss also deprived football of its best ever celebration. Anderton says that the England team had planned to mark a golden goal by running en masse off the pitch and straight down the tunnel. “That would have been the night. It would have been down the other end, so it would have been a long run.”
In the ensuing penalties Gascoigne took England’s fourth once again. Once again he scored, after Shearer, Platt and Pearce had done the same. Gareth Southgate did not and football’s journey home was delayed. It is still stranded in a departure lounge, 25 years later.
It was a moment of national trauma, destiny denied, but not one that broke Gascoigne. His tears made him a star in 1990 but six years later he focussed on consoling Southgate. “There are similarities between that game and the game in Turin,” says Jonathan Pearce. “They were both fantastic games of football, and had England won the feeling was they would have won the finals. In that semi in 96 they were so close. The stretching leg…”
Two sentences end the chapter covering Euro 96 in Gascoigne’s book which sum up his duality. Remembering his return to the England base after defeat he wrote: “I went into the kitchen and found a monster carton of ketchup, which I emptied all over Robbie Fowler.
“Then I ran to my room and had a good cry.”
‘I genuinely feared for him and his life’
The day after Germany beat the Czech Republic to win Euro 96 Gascoigne married Sheryl Failes at a hotel in Hertfordshire. His surprisingly muted stag party took place the night before, in a private suite of another hotel watching the final he had hoped to play in. He spiced up the morning after, coming down for breakfast on his wedding day wearing just a towel.
Venables, Seaman, and McManaman were among the guests. There was a honeymoon in Hawaii before getting back into training at Rangers two weeks later, aiming to continue his and England’s new momentum into France in 1998.
Glenn Hoddle and a smashed hotel room were in his future, Gascoigne reacting to his surprising squad omission from that tournament with a wounded fury which now seems tragic. Anderton made the cut and was worried about the player on his way home. “I genuinely feared for him and his life, because of the way he was. The boys were worried for him. What would he do without football, without going to a World Cup? The shock of it would have killed him. Thankfully that didn’t happen.
“We could all see how much he loved football, how emotional he was, how much he cared. He cared about himself, his team-mates, his family.” He did not play for the national team again.
His footballing career has been cast as a near-miss, unfulfilled promise, a tale of what could have been. “The whole Gascoigne story is wrapped up in ifs, buts and maybes,” says Jonathan Pearce. “Had they beaten Germany in 96, had he not had the yellow card in 1990. I think they’d have won that final, and six years later the European Championships. He’d have been in most people’s World XI of the latter part of the last century.”
Perhaps instead of dwelling on the alternate timeline it is better to focus on what was. Going back to Euro 96, Gascoigne’s high watermark as a player, reveals the mark he left on the English game. Some of the tournament’s attendances now look like mis-prints. Just 19,107 at St James’ Park for Bulgaria vs Romania, 21,128 at Anfield to watch the game of the tournament, Russia 3 Czech Republic 3. Not glamorous games in prospect, but this was a major international football tournament, the first in England for 30 years. Both would be sell-outs or something close now. In 1996 there simply wasn’t the interest.
While 1990 is usually seen as the tournament which began English football’s rehabilitation from hooliganism the hangover clearly lasted until 96. It took a joyful, tragic and thankfully safe tournament at home for the sport to truly take off, setting it on the way to become an increasingly prominent part of the nation’s identity. Without Paul Gascoigne and the luminescent spark of his goal against Scotland that may never have happened.