Long Reads

Paul Gascoigne: The Final Days of his England Career

Paul Gascoigne
Artwork by @georgiedesign_

There’s no doubt that after his heroics at Euro ’96, Paul Gascoigne was the darling of English football once again. Demonised in the press before the tournament for his part in the drunken shenanigans in Hong Kong, followed by a poor performance in the opening match against Switzerland, the media and public alike wanted Gazza dropped – 86 percent of Daily Mirror readers polled wanted him thrown out of the squad completely.

However, manager Terry Venables kept faith with the playmaker and how right he was. The wonder goal against Scotland, controlling the midfield in the Dutch game, and two outstanding pens in the shootouts for the quarters and semis, proved how great he still was at international level. Probably only Alan Shearer and David Seaman had a better competition in an England shirt. Had Gascoigne scored that golden goal in extra-time against the Germans, he could have been looking at immortality. Instead we saw the demise of one of the most talented players we’ve ever produced.

So here’s a look at what happened to Gazza’s international career after football came home and the lead up to a Spanish pre-World Cup training camp in 1998, where his whole world came crashing down.

World Cup ’98 Qualifying

From the outset it was clear that new manager Glenn Hoddle had Gascoigne firmly in his World Cup plans. The first match of the new era was an away qualifier in Moldova, where he took up his usual position as England’s main creative midfielder next to Paul Ince and debutant, David Beckham. He scored the second in a 3-0 win and looked sharper than ever. A month later, Gascoigne also started in England’s 2-1 home win over Poland. After this however, came Hoddle’s first test with his troubled player.

Before the next qualifier against Georgia in November 1996, photos emerged in the media of Gascoigne’s battered and bruised wife Sheryl. There was no denying the story from any parties, the England star had beaten his wife up. The FA were forced to call a toe-curling press conference to explain their next steps. Despite headlines screaming for the manager to drop his wife-assaulting midfielder, Hoddle stood by Gascoigne. Most could not believe his decision given his Christian background, but Hoddle preferred to use the situation as a way of turning bad into good, explaining that ‘If we can make him into a role model, that is more positive than casting him out’. Gascoigne was sat there throughout, head down, voicing his regret and publicly agreeing to see a counsellor. Hoddle stuck his neck out for him massively over this, when many managers would have ended his international career there and then. Gascoigne played the full 90 mins in Georgia, helping towards a 2-0 win.

Due to injury, he didn’t play for his country again until the following May, in a friendly against South Africa at Old Trafford. This appearance was enough for Hoddle to throw him back into the starting line-up for the crucial 2-0 World Cup qualifying win in Poland. The matches were now coming thick and fast, with Le Tournoi in France the following week – a four-team World Cup warm-up competition, featuring England, Brazil, Italy and the hosts. It was a success for the Three Lions, as they won the tournament with a game to spare. Gascoigne played in all three matches, gaining his 50th cap against the French.

Now in his 30s and with the World Cup just a year away, Gazza had to start looking after himself. Hoddle told him just as much after the summer matches, stating if he stayed fit and out of trouble, not only would he be going to the competition, but he would be a guaranteed starter.

The first England match of the 1997/98 season would be an emotional affair at home to Moldova. The previous week Princess Diana was tragically killed in a Paris car crash. Gascoigne put in an inspired performance, scoring and assisting in a 4-0 win. Little did he know this was to be his last ever goal for his country.

The qualifying group would come down to a crunch match in Rome in October ’97. A draw for England would see them return to a World Cup for the first time since 1990, defeat would mean a nervous two-legged play-off to come. The match itself has gone down as one of the great England performances of the 90s, against an Italian team who had won every one of their previous World Cup qualifying home fixtures since the competition began in 1930. They grafted for 90 minutes to get the 0-0 draw they needed. The star man that night? Mr. Paul Gascoigne. He gave arguably the most disciplined and mature performance of his international career. If Hoddle ever needed more proof that Gazza was up to it when their backs were against the wall, this was it.

However, things north of the border weren’t going as swimmingly at club level for the Rangers man. At the start of 1998, he caused controversy in an old firm derby by miming playing the flute whilst warming up as a sub, infuriating Celtic fans. This was during Gascoigne’s first game back after serving a five match ban for a sending off, again against their Glasgow rivals. It was the beginning of the end of his time at Ibrox, and just 10 weeks later he was sold to English second tier side, Middlesbrough, who were managed by his old international teammate, Bryan Robson.

Gascoigne’s form at Rangers had dipped severely, scoring just 3 goals all season. Put that alongside disciplinary problems and more injury concerns, and the Gers were happy to let him go. He made his debut coming on as sub in Boro’s Coca-Cola Cup Final defeat to Chelsea, but looked a little weighty to say the least. Seven further appearances before the end of the season and a promotion to the Premier League, was enough to convince Hoddle to name Gascoigne in his 30 man preliminary squad. The players would have a friendly at home to Saudi Arabia and then go on to their World Cup training camp at the Spanish resort of La Manga. But more trouble was to follow…

Freefall

After his time at Monaco under Arsene Wenger, Hoddle was obsessed with physical preparation, and in the run up to the World Cup this intensified. So on the day of his squad meeting up, the last thing the England manager wanted to see was one of his players falling out of a restaurant at 2am in the morning. That’s exactly the photo which was published by the Daily Mirror on Monday 18th May. Gazza had hit the town on the Saturday night, with Chris Evans and Rod Stewart. Look in the newspaper further and you would’ve found more photos, including him scoffing down a kebab. On his radio show that morning, Evans stated that they’d enjoyed only a ‘couple of halves’ and called on his listeners to back Gascoigne. Hoddle was fuming and warned in a press conference that he should be looking after himself. Double sessions were then put on all week for Gascoigne to try to help his fitness along and lose any excess weight.

The Wembley friendly against Saudi Arabia on Saturday 23rd May was a chance for the fans to say farewell and the players to sign off with a good performance. It finished 0-0, much to the disappointment of 64,000 fans. Gascoigne didn’t start, but came on after 60 mins. It was difficult to watch. Never have you seen the England star huffing and puffing his way around the Wembley turf so much. He was out of sorts and this was only against the Saudis. However, as Hoddle said in his post-match interview, he still had ‘time to turn it around’. In just 8 days the manager was to announce his World Cup squad, with two more matches left that week in Casablanca, against Morocco and Belgium. Was this really going to be enough time?

The 30-man squad jetted out to La Manga straight after the game and got down to some serious pre-tournament training at their Spanish headquarters. On Wednesday 27th, they flew out to Casablanca for the Morocco game, but not before some more Gascoigne drama. As the coach left to go to the airport, the team realised that he wasn’t on board. It was Gazza’s birthday and he hadn’t reported on time. The bus turned round to pick him up and Hoddle ordered one of his coaching staff, Glenn Roeder (who happened to be one of Gascoigne’s best friends from his Newcastle days), to go and find him. Ten minutes later, Roeder walked onto the bus with the main man in town.

Despite his poor punctuality, Hoddle still named Gascoigne in the starting line-up against Morocco. In a narrow 1-0 win – where Michael Owen scored his first international goal – the midfielder once again struggled with the pace of the game. Admittedly the sapping North African heat would take it’s toll on any player, but England were about to embark on a World Cup where there first match would take place at 3 in the afternoon in Marseille. Fitness was going to be key and Hoddle kept Gascoigne on for the full 90 mins to try and improve his.

The next day back at the training camp, the Middlesbrough man had spent most of it on his mobile phone. By now Gascoigne was in his own world, distracted by stories that were appearing in the tabloids back home about his estranged wife, Sheryl, being in a new relationship. This plunged him into deeper depression, with players finding him at the piano bar of the hotel that evening.

Friday 29th and the squad were once again flying out for their second friendly, this time against Belgium. Before kick-off Gascoigne was seen in the centre circle arguing on his phone again. Not only was Hoddle unhappy that he’d not been resting the day before, but now his concentration was elsewhere just half an hour before the final warm-up match. Again Gascoigne was named in the starting line-up and again his performance was poor. His pace and his sharpness were none existent, and his general fitness seemed to be no better. Hoddle brought him off after just 50 mins with a dead leg. At the time there was no indication that Paul Gascoigne had just played his last match for England, but it would be feasible now to think that Hoddle had seen enough. They drew the match 0-0, before losing on penalties.

That night and the following evening, the players were allowed a couple of drinks at the hotel before the squad was to be announced on the afternoon of Sunday 31st. Gascoigne knew he’d not done well in the camp, even making jokes about it whilst on singing on karaoke. Still, neither his teammates, nor the fans at home could predict what was going to happen next. Despite poor form, struggling fitness and off the field problems, the thought of Gazza not going to the 1998 World Cup was inconceivable.

Judgement Day

Glenn Hoddle put up a list of times where the players would have a 5 minute appointment with him to find out whether they were in or out of the squad. Ian Wright and Jamie Redknapp had already pulled out through injury, which now meant there would be bad news for six players, as the names had to be whittled down to 22. This arrangement put the whole group on edge from the start. Players would wait around at the pool, be called by assistant John Gorman, and if they didn’t come back down, you knew they were going home. Gorman didn’t help matters by going round some of the fringe players, telling them what they were in and not to worry. One of these was Phil Neville, who also didn’t make the cut.

That morning the anxiety of who might be in or out had captivated the squad, but nobody was more worried than Gascoigne. He went out to play golf first thing in the morning and started drinking so early that by the time he got back he was blind drunk. Some of the senior players decided to throw him in the swimming pool to try and sober him up.

Through good and bad news, the meetings began to overrun. At certain points, up to six players were sat outside Hoddle’s room. The longer he was waiting to be called, the more stressed Gascoigne got, so he found his pal Glenn Roeder to ask him what was going on. Roeder knew he was out but was obviously sworn to secrecy by the management. Gazza didn’t need any words to confirm his biggest fear, he’d known Roeder for 15 years and could tell by his face that he wasn’t going to make it.

He flipped and stormed to see Glenn Hoddle. His appointment time did not matter now, he was getting answers. Bursting into the room in tears, Gazza was livid, shouting and screaming obscenities, he lost it big time over what he thought was a major injustice. He also gashed his knee and shin kicking a door and a lamp was smashed, all the while Hoddle was trying to explain his decision. A couple of minutes later, David Seaman and Paul Ince ran in to take him away and calm him down. The medical staff even gave him some Valium. Hoddle and Gorman were left cleaning up the mess before the next appointment. Michael Owen and Graeme Le Saux have since written in their autobiographies about going in for their slot after the drama took place, both stating the manager looked shaken.

Word got down to the pool area, where the players couldn’t believe Gazza was gone. These were men who had grown up seeing him play and loved lining-up alongside him. They were all in shock. The brutality of the situation is summed up by the fact that the six players who were told they were not going to the World Cup had just 45 mins to pack, before a private jet flew them home. The other unlucky men were Dion Dublin, Nicky Butt, Andy Hinchcliffe, Ian Walker and Phil Neville. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that aircraft on their way home.

You can see in part why Gascoigne went ballistic. He knew this was it, his dream of playing in another World Cup had gone. Only eight years before, Sir Bobby Robson was on the pitch in Turin after England’s semi-final defeat to West Germany, telling him that it was only his first and he would have many more opportunities. It turns out that Italia ’90 would be his only World Cup.

Was is the Right Call? 

There were a lot of people at the time on Gascoigne’s side. Obviously the shock of England’s most recognisable player not being involved after ten years of service hit many hard, especially those who knew him. The argument for taking him to the World Cup was that the squad were better off to have him in there than not. No doubt he was a character in the camp that everyone loved, and for morale purposes Gazza was an asset. After a career of magic moments, there was also still a chance that he had one more left in him. It was quite clear Hoddle had made his mind up that Paul Scholes was going to start instead of Gascoigne, but in a tight knockout match (like the second round tie against Argentina), could bringing him on have made the difference for England once again? He had shown he could still have an impact several times during qualification only months before. Hoddle must have had sleepless nights about the benefits of taking him.

Others have a very factual argument about leaving Gascoigne at home. He wasn’t fit, this much is 100% true. But then again how many times to you see international managers gambling on unfit players at major tournaments? It’s very much a matter for debate whether his condition would have improved during the World Cup, as there was no way he would regain match fitness by sitting on the bench. So with Gascoigne not playing, there was a possibility that he could be more disruptive to the team than useful. After his exploits in La Manga, you certainly couldn’t trust him not to get on the booze in an evening, especially if he wasn’t playing. It’s a high pressured environment anyway for the manager, never mind if they’re having to babysit one of their players. You could also see Gazza being sub in a game and throwing his toys out of the pram if he wasn’t brought on. Again, if La Manga taught us anything, it’s that he had a temper if things didn’t go his way.

Personally I think Hoddle made the right decision not to take Gascoigne to the 1998 World Cup. As much as we’d like to think he still had that bit of class still in his locker, he didn’t. Unfortunately Gazza had dramatically lost that short burst of pace he had to beat a man. In fact it’s quite incredible how he declined during his last season at Rangers. Earlier that campaign, it looked likely he was on his way to Aston Villa, as the clubs had agreed a fee, but they could not get the personal terms right. A move to the Premier League could have given him the kick up the back side he needed by playing in a much more competitive league than the SPL. Another thing that doesn’t sit right with me is the thought of just taking Gascoigne anyway, despite how unfit he was. That’s just wasting a place in the squad, especially when you had fit midfield players like Paul Merson and Rob Lee who actually earned their spots for their excellent club form that year.

Either way, I don’t envy Glenn Hoddle making this call.

It’s sad, but Paul Gascoigne never recovered from that day in La Manga. For four years he continued to play in the Premier League for Middlesbrough, then Everton, sometimes showing the odd glimpse of skill that made us all fall in love with him. Short spells at Burnley, Gansu Tianma (China) and Boston United followed, before retiring at 37.

Bobby Robson once described Gascoigne as ‘daft as a brush’ in his early days and he definitely was a popular player that the man on the street could relate to. But it was his character which in the end contributed to his downfall as a player, with off the field antics often overshadowing his talent on the pitch. Gascoigne also suffered with horrendous injuries. Some say he never truly recovered after rupturing his own cruciate ligaments in his right knee for a dangerous tackle on Gary Charles. Back then at the age of 23 he was considered one of the best players on the planet.

Regardless whether he had more troubles than successes, Gazza can claim to have one of the most memorable football careers in history. One thing is for sure, whatever you think of the man, we’ll never forget him.

About the author

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Stuart Steelyard

Owner of stusfootballflashbacks.com, a nostalgic football blog with lists, facts & topics from the beautiful game’s past. Follow him on Twitter - @stusfootyflash

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