Ultimate United Articles
A look at how the career of Paul Gascoigne might have panned out had he not rejected a move to Manchester United.
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
In the summer of 1988, Alex Ferguson was determined to get Manchester United back to the top of English football. He had just completed his first full season as manager at Old Trafford, and finished second in the league but some distance behind champions Liverpool. Determined to end the Merseyside clubs domination, he identified Newcastle United’s Paul Gascoigne as the man to boss his midfield.
Imagine if Ferguson’s bid to sign Gascoigne had been successful. Would he have been able to tame the wayward genius that was Gazza, or would we still be talking about what might have been, a career unfulfilled?
Gascoigne was born into a working class family, in the Gateshead area of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After several failed trials with clubs all around the country, among them Ipswich Town and Southampton, Gascoigne’s talent was noticed by his hometown club, Newcastle United. In the 1984-85 season, he won the FA Youth Cup, and was soon given his first team debut by manager Jack Charlton.
It didn’t take long for Gazza to establish himself in the following season, even at the age of 18 he was head and shoulders above anyone else in that side (with the exception of maybe Peter Beardsley), scoring nine times in the 1985-86 season. Over the next couple of seasons, he was regularly selected by the England under-21 side, and scouted with interest by most top clubs in the country.
Almost a Red
In the summer of 1988, it became clear that Newcastle could not hold onto their prized asset any longer. Beardsley had departed the year before, helping Liverpool to the title, and Gascoigne had similar ambitions. He wanted to play at the highest level he could, and win trophies. Alex Ferguson regularly tells the tale of how Gazza had promised him he would be signing for Manchester United, and Fergie went on holiday to Malta dreaming of a midfield partnership of Bryan Robson and Paul Gascoigne.
What happened next was that Tottenham Hotspur came in and trumped the offer, sweetening the deal by buying a house for Gascoigne’s parents. By the time Ferguson returned to work, Gazza had moved to White Hart Lane in a British record £2.2 million transfer. With injury forcing the recent retirement of Remi Moses, and Norman Whiteside (who would leave for Everton midway through the season) unsettled at the club, United would be rather light in the midfield department going into the 1988-89 campaign. Despite the recent return of Mark Hughes, they would finish in 11th place.
How his Career turned out
The truth is that he didn’t hit anything like the heights he could have done, or achieve a fraction of the success you would expect from a talent such as his. He wasn’t blessed with pace to burn, yet he could go past players as if they weren’t even there. He was totally fearless, as shown when United first played against him, he nutmegged Moses, and then afterwards patted him on the head – one of the hardest midfielders in the country. His balance, ball control and technical ability were second to none. He was the most exciting English talent since Bobby Charlton.
Tottenham finished 6th in his Gascoigne’s season, and the following summer Gary Lineker was bought from Barcelona. Despite finishing 3rd in the league, they were never serious contenders for the title, as a sixteen point gap between them and champions Liverpool demonstrated.
Gascoigne was now an England regular, having been selected by Bobby Robson the previous year, and headed to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. This was where “Gazzamania” was truly launched. England had stumbled through a group that included Ireland, Holland and Egypt, and an assist from Gazza to David Platt in the last minute of extra-time had seen them beat Belgium. Two penalties against Cameroon, another game which went to extra-time, and England suddenly found themselves in the last four.
An injury to Bryan Robson early in the tournament had suddenly made Gascoigne the main man in his country’s midfield,a role he clearly relished. In the semi-final against West Germany, Gascoigne produced yet another wonderful performance, but having been booked in an earlier round, a rash tackle on Thomas Berthold saw him shown the yellow card. This meant he would miss the World Cup Final, had England qualified. Almost immediately, the tears welled up in Gascoigne’s eyes, and his crying would soon be copied by most of the country, as England were beaten on penalties by West Germany, who would go on to beat Argentina in the Final.
It’s fair to say that these tears, which were shown around the world, propelled Gazza to superstar status. Make no mistake, given his performances during that tournament, Europe’s biggest clubs were taking an interest anyway, but this raised his profile to another level. You only need to watch a video of that match to see what it meant to him, that it wasn’t any kind of publicity stunt. Gascoigne was devastated, having practically carried England to the brink of the biggest game in football. The country had a new hero.
The 1990-91 season saw Spurs drop to 10th in the table, but Gascoigne continued the form he had shown in the World Cup, winning his only trophy in English football. Unfortunately, a crazy attempted tackle on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles in the FA Cup Final saw him rupture his cruciate ligaments, meaning he missed the majority of the game.
With or without this injury, this would have been the last game he played for Tottenham. It was the worst kept secret in football at that time that Italian club Lazio had agreed to buy Gascoigne for £8.5 million, which was almost four times the British transfer record at that time. This was money that no English club would have been able to turn down, not even United or Liverpool back then. The injury, which side-lined him for the entire 1991-92 season put the transfer on hold. When Gazza recovered the move was resurrected at a more modest £5.5 million, but earning around £25,000 a week, which nobody in the English game earned anything near at that time.
Although the Lazio fans loved Gascoigne (scoring a last minute equaliser in the Rome derby probably helped), the press didn’t – apart from the fact that he helped them sell newspapers. They never left him alone. Typically, Gazza didn’t help himself by getting into drunken fights with various journalists along the way. Another issue that plagued him throughout his career was his weight, which was, at times, well above the level expected of a professional footballer. To be fair, an exceptionally talented player such as Gascoigne could get away with this back in the 1990’s, especially in Italy where the game has always been played at a slower pace than in England, but it didn’t exactly endear him to the club owners and management.
It’s fair to say that Gascoigne never really settled in Italy. He took a while to regain full fitness after the injury he suffered in the FA Cup Final, which had kept him out for well over a year. He also suffered several injury problems during his time in the Eternal City, which would explain why he played just 47 games in three seasons at Lazio. His final season at the club, following a broken leg suffered in training, saw him make just four appearances at the back end of the 1994-95 campaign. A parting of the ways was inevitable.
Return to the UK
During the summer of 1995, Old Trafford was one of the possible venues being touted as Gascoigne’s next destination, which was no surprise considering a midfield spot had seemingly been made vacant by the departure of Paul Ince. Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle were also linked with bringing him home, but it was something of a surprise when he moved to Scottish champions Rangers. There were several attractions for the England midfielder of course, the fact that they were dominating football north of the border meant that trophies were practically guaranteed, as was Champions League football. In addition to this, Rangers had a lot of money to throw about back then, which is how they could afford players like Brian Laudrup, and stop English clubs from stealing their best players.
A successful first season at Ibrox saw Rangers win the league and cup double, which surprised nobody. Gascoigne was still very much at the heart of his country’s midfield, and Euro 96 was on the horizon, which England would host. Given his struggles with injury over the previous five years, and stories of wild drinking escapades and dentists chairs from Terry Venables’ England squad in the run up to the tournament, nobody was sure what to expect from Gazza. Quite simply, he was magnificent. He scored one of the goals of the tournament against Scotland, flicking the ball over Colin Hendry and executing a perfectly timed volley past his Rangers team mate Andy Goram.
Against Holland, who England should have been very afraid of according to the Nike adverts at that time, and who were mainly made up of the magnificent Ajax team who were so devastating at that time, Gascoigne was unplayable. Even in Italia 90, England hadn’t been this impressive, and while Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham were the ones sticking the ball in the net, Gascoigne was the one pulling the strings in midfield. Once again, England saw fate (and penalties) conspire against them in the semi-final, as Germany emerged from the shootout triumphant, and again went on to win the tournament.
Gazza returned to Scotland, and Rangers’ dominance of their domestic game continued into the following season, winning the Scottish Premiership and the League Cup, but trouble was on the horizon. Gascoigne’s off field drinking problems had been well documented in the press, and were becoming a real concern to his manager, Walter Smith. The 1997-98 season would be Gazza’s last at the club, and saw Rangers run of nine straight league titles come to an end, as Celtic stopped them making it ten in a row. Gazza received a five match man for violent conduct following an altercation with Celtic’s Morten Wieghorst. In another Old Firm match later that season, he further infuriated Celtic fans by playing a mock flute at Parkhead, an insult to the strong Catholic following that the club enjoys.
In March 1998, Middlesbrough paid £3.5 million for Gascoigne to help their bid for promotion back to the Premier League, which they achieved. Despite both on and off the field problems, Gascoigne had continued to be picked by new England boss Glenn Hoddle, and it shocked the nation when he was left out of the squad for the 1998 World Cup, having played a major role in the qualifiers. This was probably a major mistake, as Hoddle played a fantastic system, but one that would only work with someone of Gascoigne’s talent at the centre of it. Paul Ince and David Batty were terrific, hardworking players, but not creative in the way that Gazza was.
After this, the slow decline that Gascoigne’s career had been taking since Euro 96 seemed to go into overdrive. Although he had an impressive first full season at Middlesbrough, his off field problems began to take their toll. Aston Villa’s George Boateng was the recipient of a Gascoigne elbow as Middlesbrough slipped to a 4-0 home defeat. Given a free transfer in the summer of 2000, he moved to Everton to link up with his former Rangers manager Walter Smith, who was now in charge at Goodison Park. Despite making nearly 40 appearances over two seasons, it was clear that he just wasn’t the same player, and at the age of 33 he wasn’t likely to improve. When David Moyes took over towards the end of the 2001-02 season, he made it clear that Gascoigne did not feature in his plans, and he was released before the end of his contract, joining Burnley. He made six appearances for the Clarets, as they narrowly missed out on the playoffs.
Over the next couple of years, Gascoigne had a spell in China with Gansu Tianma, as well as a player-coach role with Boston United. In 2005, he was appointed manager of Non-League club Kettering Town, a role which lasted little more than a month. He hasn’t worked in football coaching or management since.
The common thinking among United fans is that, had Alex Ferguson been successful in persuading Gascoigne to move to Old Trafford, that he would have made the most of his talent. If he had stayed at Manchester United for the majority of his career, then this probably would have been the case.
He snubbed United, and moved to the bright lights of London, which is like a minefield to someone like Gascoigne, a genius with a well-documented self-destructive streak. It’s a well-known fact that Alex Ferguson knew how to keep tabs on his players (ask Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside), and it’s likely he would have been better man-managed had he moved to Old Trafford. He also would have been a key part of the project Ferguson had in place, and United might have had a few less years to wait for that elusive league title.
There is also the argument that Gascoigne’s off-field issues, helped in no way by some of the company he used to keep, would have been too much to manage, even for Ferguson. You have to remember that he gave up on Whiteside and McGrath in the end. But then you look how he helped Eric Cantona make the most of the talents he was born with, and you have to say that if he couldn’t have helped Gascoigne, then nobody could.
But there is one factor that most people forget, and this is what probably would have happened; he would have still gone to Italy. These days, Serie A cannot compete with the financial muscle of the Premier League and La Liga, but it used to be the richest league in the world. It wasn’t until 1996 that England saw a transfer break the £10 million barrier, when Shearer moved to Newcastle – by which time at least three Italian clubs had already done this.
Manchester United have always been one of world footballs’ biggest clubs, but they haven’t always had the money to compete with these clubs, and in the 1990’s Italy was richer than ever. If Gascoigne had been a success at United, and won more than he did at Tottenham, then a bigger club than Lazio would have bought him. He might have ended up being in one of those great AC Milan or Juventus sides of that era. Maybe making a success of his extraordinary talent might have been the one thing that fulfilled him.
Another thing Gascoigne probably should have done when he left Lazio was come back to England. Contrary to media speculation at that time, United weren’t interested in making another move for him. Ferguson had David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes all ready to step into his team, but plenty of English clubs were interested in bringing him home, and at the age of 28, he was entering what would have been the peak years of his career.
Euro 96 showed that he still had the ability to mix it with the finest, but the problem was that he spent the last few years of his twenties playing in a non-competitive league – even Celtic couldn’t get near Rangers at that time. Had he been playing against top quality opposition in the Premier League every week, he might at least have made the most of those peak years, but by the time Middlesbrough actually got back into the top flight, Gascoigne had just turned 31. Another missed opportunity.
This is definitely one of the longest articles Ultimate United has published, but given the player that it is about, and the extraordinary career he had, it seems fitting. No matter who he played for, nobody seems to dislike Gazza. He’s a character, a wayward soul, daft as a brush, a genius footballer.
While we have mentioned his off field issues briefly in this piece, we tried specifically not to focus too much on that – too much has already been written about it. If he could have his time again, knowing what he knows now, it’s very likely wouldn’t have given Tottenham a second glance when United came calling.
The bankruptcy petition which Gazza faced in 2008 probably wouldn’t have happened had his career started 20 years later. Even though he was earning more than any other English player when he moved to Italy, its small change compared to what he would earn today. When Gascoigne was playing, the Champions League was only for the champions of each European country, but nowadays all the big clubs play in it every season, and it’s unlikely that whoever he moved to wouldn’t be in that competition. He would have had greater exposure, playing regularly on the biggest club stage of all, and made more money than he could possibly ever spend.
He remains a legend, both in his country and for his country. Paul Scholes had the kind of career Gascoigne probably should have had, but because Gazza never fulfilled his potential, we will never know for certain who was better. But when you think of the players that lined up for United in the 1990’s, how talented some of them were, it’s no exaggeration to say that Paul Gascoigne wouldn’t have looked out of place alongside any of them.
It’s just a shame he never gave it the chance.
Added by Philip Meese on 09/06/2018 16:14:15