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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 18 – The rise of Gazzamania

Our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago last month reached the end of England’s Italia ’90 campaign. For one man in particular the tournament would be life-changing. As England arrived home, ‘Gazzamania’ was sweeping the nation…

It’s the night of July 4, 1990 and Paul Gascoigne receives a yellow card deep into England’s World Cup semi-final tussle with West Germany. Reality quickly bites for the 23-year-old midfielder. Having picked up a booking against Belgium earlier in the tournament, he now has two yellow cards to his name. Should England reach the final, he will be suspended. It hits him hard and he’s unable to stop the tears flowing. Having already gained increasing recognition during the tournament, Gazza is now about to be known by seemingly everyone in the country.

England arrive home a few days later and it’s clear how different things were to before they headed out to the World Cup. The number of fans flocking to Luton to welcome the team home is significantly higher than the attendance at Wembley in April when Gascoigne produced a virtuoso display against Czechoslovakia, assuring manager Bobby Robson he could cut it on the big stage. The whole team gets a positive reception after coming close to winning the World Cup, but so much of the attention is on Gazza – who lives up to his clown prince reputation by donning a pair of fake breasts.

It’s a taste of things to come. In the next few months, wherever you look the face of Gazza will be found. Far from enjoying just 15 minutes of fame, Gascoigne is being treated to a full 90 minutes plus a replay that goes all the way to penalties. Had Twitter been around at the time, he would have been trending every day. Instead, his celebrity status is reinforced by how frequently he graces the front cover of newspapers and magazines, his numerous appearances on television and the number of commercial products now bearing his name and image. He is almost universally known as ‘Gazza’.

Retail products were released after Italia ’90 containing Gazza’s name.

Millions of viewers tune in to watch him appear as a guest on Wogan; a well-established football board game is rebranded as Gazza!; a Gascoignes Glory video is released concerning his World Cup campaign, while Danny Baker will accompany him for a documentary early the following season; he receives countless requests to open new venues; Gazza enjoys chart success with his version of Fog on the Tyne; and in December he will become the first footballer since Bobby Moore in 1966 to be crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year. To put this achievement into context, Gary Lineker didn’t even make the top three when he was World Cup top scorer in 1986.

In a matter of months Gascoigne has gone from being on the fringes of the England side to the most celebrated sportsman in the country, his fame probably comparable with Ian Botham’s after the 1981 Ashes heroics. Like Beefy before him, Gazza will find that not all the publicity coming his way will be positive in the ensuing years…

Gazza’s summer of love

The 1990 World Cup was a tournament when many of the key players were unheralded beforehand. Salvatore Schillaci, Sergio Goycochea, Roger Milla and our own David Platt all didn’t start for their side in their first game of the competition, but each went on to make a significant impact at the World Cup. Gascoigne did play for England from the first whistle, but he was by no means a seasoned international and his stock would noticeably rise during the tournament.

When England failed to score a point at Euro ’88, Gascoigne had yet to make an appearance for his country at senior level. Gazza certainly wasn’t a total unknown. He had played for England at under-21 level, was voted PFA Young Player of the Year in 1987-88 and that summer completed a big-money move from Newcastle United to Tottenham Hotspur. No less a judge than Jackie Milburn had hailed the talent Gascoigne possessed and believed he was as good as anybody in the world. But Robson took a more cautious view, not giving Gascoigne his first cap until he made a substitute appearance against Denmark in September 1988 shortly before Milburn’s death.

Gascoigne entered the fold during the second half, with his name spelt incorrectly on the caption that appeared on Sportsnight. It was an innocent enough mistake, but it would symbolise how he wasn’t widely known at the time compared to two years later. That season yielded five caps, all bar one as a substitute. He did score against Albania in a World Cup qualifier, but Robson would afterwards bemoan that Gascoigne “played in every position except the one I told him to play in”.

That interview had though conveyed affection for Gascoigne, but it was less in evidence in September 1989 when Robson believed the midfielder failed to follow his instructions when brought on in a tense World Cup qualifier away to Sweden. A place in international football detention followed, dropping back down to the B team and playing just 12 minutes for the senior side before starting the friendly against Czechoslovakia the following April. Gascoigne was at last given his chance to sparkle and helped make three goals before scoring himself. There was no doubt now he would make the squad.

More significantly, he remained in the starting line-up for the last three friendlies before the World Cup. He would get a black mark against his name away to Tunisia a week before the tournament began, giving the ball away as England fell behind and then incurring Robson’s wrath for his antics in front of the opposition bench after Steve Bull’s late equaliser. The manager wrote: “It was hardly Brazil we had scored against in a five-goal thriller and he was being his usual immature self. He has a lot of talent but he still hasn’t grown up; he lets his emotions run away with him.”

Question marks over Gascoigne’s maturity had been a constant theme during his England career so far, with Robson having few doubts about the player’s talent but plenty about whether he could stay disciplined – both in terms of following instructions and laying off the Mars Bars. But Gascoigne ultimately did enough to earn his place in the team for England’s first World Cup match against the Republic of Ireland in Sardinia, alongside the experienced old head of captain Bryan Robson in the heart of midfield. It was a drab affair and Gascoigne would be unable to make a telling contribution to proceedings, but he kept his place for the next game against the Netherlands. He came of age with his display against the European champions, following it up by taking the free-kick which Mark Wright headed in for the winner against Egypt to send England into the knockout stage as group winners.

England now headed to the mainland, where Gazza continued to irritate his manager with his antics. Bobby Robson would be incensed to find his star midfielder engaged in a lengthy tennis match in the Italian heat (accounts vary as to when exactly this happened, but Robson stated in the book he wrote after the World Cup that it was two days before the game against Belgium). However, the manager had seen enough from Gascoigne to stick with him and he was now effectively elevated in status in midfield after Bryan Robson went home injured. Gascoigne again delivered in the last 16 against Belgium, floating in a free-kick for Platt to volley in a late winner. The pair would now become companions in England’s midfield, both offering attacking zest.

But the quarter-final tie against Cameroon didn’t go according to plan, Gascoigne conceding a penalty as England came perilously close to losing. Yet he atoned for it by playing a measured ball through to Lineker in extra time, which led to the forward being fouled and scoring the decisive goal in England’s 3-2 victory from the penalty spot. Gascoigne and Bobby Robson embraced at the finish, creating a wonderful image of two men from the same region who had an enduring passion for the game and were united in joy.

Paul Gascoigne and Bobby Robson embrace after England’s victory over Cameroon.

“Gascoigne remains the player most likely to inspire England’s first victory over West Germany in a major tournament since 1966,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian ahead of the semi-final clash in Turin. Gazza hadn’t even been born when England won the World Cup. Now a nation’s hopes of repeating the triumph appeared to largely rest upon what he could do against the favourites. What nobody would have predicted as England took to the field was it would be the last match Gascoigne ever played at a World Cup tournament.

His performance would be in keeping with England’s, playing with confidence as the Three Lions took the game to the West Germans before suffering heartbreak. But it would be his tears when the yellow card was brandished that his night would be remembered for. Gazza’s World Cup adventure was to end that night. Yet it was to mark the beginning of a new-found national obsession with the man.

Gazzamania grips the nation

Not every opinion about Gascoigne’s show of emotion was sympathetic. This was 1990, a time when ‘men don’t cry’ was still a prevalent attitude in comparison to today. Gascoigne would have to withstand some mockery for being a ‘big cry baby’, and criticism from those who looked down on someone who shed tears because they had picked up a yellow card in a football match.

Taking such a view is to strip the occasion of its significance and emotion. Only a select few men have ever played in a World Cup final. To have your dream of doing so ended by suspension is going to hurt any player, least of all one who wore his heart on his sleeve as much as Gascoigne did. Many millions of viewers were engrossed in the contest and they could relate to the pain he was feeling, even though England’s shoot-out defeat meant the only game he was ultimately ruled out for was the low-key third place play-off match against Italy.

Paul Gascoigne’s tears would be one of the lasting images from Italia ’90.

There had already been hints that he was seen as marketable. Prior to the World Cup, a critical column in When Saturday Comes had lamented how “all he has to do is endlessly reprise his cartoon character routine and money comes raining in”. Now he had proven himself on football’s greatest stage, while also showing another side to his nature with his tears. His was the name on everybody’s lips. Gazzamania was gripping the country and there would be no shortage of offers coming his way.

A measure of Gascoigne’s fame came with his appearance on Wogan early in September 1990. Two months on from his Turin tears, Gazzamania was showing little sign of abating. Gascoigne’s female fan club gathered en masse outside the studio, with Terry Wogan acknowledging how the reception was more in keeping with that of some major pop star. The high viewing figures underlined the appeal of the man.

Gazza, living up to his laugh-a-minute image, made a grab for Wogan’s knee. But the shell-suited star would also offer some serious thoughts – something he did more frequently than he would be given credit for – and Wogan seemed genuinely concerned that the attention the midfielder was getting could become problematic. Gazza admitted that the level of intrusion he was faced with was “frightening”.

Wogan’s final words during the interview strike an uneasy chord in view of how things would pan out subsequently. “I just hope the tabloids will be kind,” he told Gascoigne. “I hope you’ll be able to have a happy and enjoyable life and enjoy your fame.” Wogan had interviewed enough star names before to recognise the dangers. This was reinforced by the infamous drunken appearance of George Best on the show a couple of weeks later.

Another man who wondered what the future would hold for Gascoigne was Bobby Robson, now no longer England manager but retaining a fatherly concern for Gazza. Robson believed after Italia ’90 that Gascoigne could help lead England to glory in the 1994 World Cup. That prediction was a long way off being correct, but he was closer to the mark when he wrote of the challenges that could lie ahead for Gascoigne in the 1990 edition of his autobiography: “I have no doubt that he can go all the way to the very top. Of course he has to avoid injury, be choosy in the company he keeps and select his future with great care. Can he keep his feet on the ground in the face of Gazzamania? Can he keep stable? He has the talent to to take on the world and the biggest clubs will do their best to tempt him away from his mates, his local pubs and his comfortable surroundings.”

A further view came from a man from the same generation as Wogan and Robson, ae seasoned sports writer Hugh McIlvanney tried to make sense of the explosion of Gazzamania. In The Observer the Sunday after the Wogan appearance, he discussed the cult hero reputation Gascoigne was developing. “Gascoigne himself does not strike everyone as having a comprehensive set of credentials for the role,” he wrote. “He looks appealing rather than handsome, not so much Hollywood’s leading man as leading man’s good-natured sidekick.” So, with hindsight, he was playing a role that would come more naturally to David Beckham a decade later.

“I think we can deal with anything that stays on the sports pages,” said Tottenham manager Terry Venables when asked at the start of the season about the attention Gascoigne was getting. But the coverage was straying well beyond the back page, amid plenty of stories being published about his love life as his every move seemed to fill column inches. Gascoigne stories evidently sold papers and Gazzamania was going to continue for a while yet.

Nothing lasts forever

The hype continued when England played their first game under Graham Taylor against Hungary on September 12, followed by the opening European Championship qualifier against Poland in October. But there was now the hurdle to overcome of continually meeting expectations, which had rocketed following his performances at the World Cup. Producing moments of magic every match was not realistically going to happen.

An unspectacular personal performance against the Poles was to arguably mark a turning point. The following month he was controversially left on the bench for the away game against the Republic of Ireland – a subject we will look at more closely in November – and he would not play another competitive game for his country until October 1992. A friendly against Cameroon in February 1991 was his only appearance in the interim as he endured an injury nightmare.

With Gazzamania still in full swing, the star midfielder was controversially left on the bench away to the Republic of Ireland in November 1990.

Six months after making headlines for a yellow card, it was a red one that Gascoigne received on New Year’s Day 1991 as Spurs played Manchester United in a game shown live on ITV. It marked the start of a turbulent year, one in which reality would bite. Despite contending with injury, he played a pivotal role in getting Spurs to the FA Cup final and scored a wonderful free-kick in the semi-final victory over Arsenal.

“Is there anything left from this man to surprise us?” asked Barry Davies after Gascoigne’s goal. Sadly, the answer would be leaving his career in jeopardy after the serious injury he sustained when lunging in on Gary Charles in the final. There were still some wonderful moments thereafter and reminders of just what he was capable of, most notably his goal for England against Scotland during Euro ’96. But it can be questioned if he was ever quite the same again. A second lengthy lay-off from 1994-95 didn’t help matters, along with a growing number of negative stories about his conduct off the field.

After Italia ’90, Gascoigne had looked set to be England’s man for the 1990s and a good bet to join the 100-cap club. But he would, for various reasons, so often be absent when the side played crucial games. He was left on the bench away to the Republic of Ireland in November 1990; he missed Euro ’92 and many games leading up to it due to injury; he was suspended for the crunch World Cup qualifier away to the Netherlands in October 1993; he was injured for all bar one game during the first year in charge for Terry Venables; and Gazza’s England career effectively ended in a La Manga hotel room when he was excluded from the 1998 World Cup squad by Glenn Hoddle. Gascoigne’s total of 57 caps from 1988 to 1998 represented an average of fewer than six per year. Lineker, by contrast, had played 80 times for England in just over eight years.

It all meant that Bobby Robson’s words of comfort to Gascoigne in Turin about having his whole life ahead of him carried added poignancy. Robson would have surely believed Gazza had at least two World Cups in him after that. As it was, he never went to another and his only other major tournament was Euro ’96. Footballing fate can be cruel. Gascoigne could understandably feel disappointed at so rarely getting to grace an international competition despite the talent he possessed. Both times he did, England came within a whisker or making the final.

Back in the summer of 1990, Gascoigne grabbed his chance during the World Cup in Italy. England had a new working class hero, one who played football with a smile on his face, could dribble his way past opponents, was capable of producing moments of joy and who showed no inhibitions when up against the likes of Ruud Gullit and Lothar Matthaus.

The author Pete Davies would observe Gascoigne at close quarters during the World Cup. In his excellent book All Played Out, he would offer some perspective on Gazza’s popularity, writing: “Would Gazza be any different, after all, if he didn’t happen to be a footballer? He’d still be English, wouldn’t he? He’d still be Gazza – probably following his team, drinking beers on the Via Roma and sleeping after games on Cagliari railway station.” Being like the common man at heart certainly helped Gascoigne cultivate such a widespread appeal.

What followed in his career and life generally did not always go as hoped, but in the 1990 World Cup there was no escaping Gazza. The nation celebrated with him during the high moments of Italia ’90 and wept with him against West Germany. Gascoigne savoured the experience and the memories of his World Cup are still fondly shared by countless Englishmen. It is little wonder the country became gripped by Gazzamania.

Next month we will recall England’s friendly against Hungary in September 1990, with a feelgood factor existing as the team played their first match after the World Cup with a new man at the helm…

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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