FOOTBALL IS CAPABLE OF BEING PURE THEATRE, producing storylines that would be tossed aside by even the most shameless Hollywood scribe as too implausible. Liverpool in Istanbul in 2005, Manchester United in Barcelona in 1999, even Greece in the 2004 European Championships (fittingly, with the indelible mark the country has left on the literary landscape) have all been relatively recent cases where reality has been more improbable and farfetched than fiction.
Of course, the giddy highs, staggering lows and moments in between pregnant with intrigue and anticipation of the next lurch one way or another wouldn’t be possible without an appropriate cast of characters; heroes, villains and a supporting set that occasionally burst from the periphery and become the leading men.
In the annals of football history, one particular literary archetype rises above the rest both in terms of reverence and legend: the flawed hero. F. Scott Fitzgerald – a man who knew all too well about what it’s like to be idolised by others and yet personally tormented – once said, “show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”. Scott’s intrinsic association of heroism and tragedy posits an interesting question that can be readily asked of the romantic world of professional sport: can a player ever become truly venerated as a hero of the game unless he follows the blueprint of a flawed genius?
On a recent phone-in on TalkSport, the question was asked: “Will England ever produce another Paul Gascoigne?” Gazza’s name is synonymous with flair, moments of outrageous invention that few players would be able to replicate on a training pitch, let alone have the audacity to attempt in a game. His goal against Scotland at Euro ‘96 had all the makings of a real Hollywood moment.
Coming just moments after David Seaman had saved a penalty that would have been a late equaliser, Gascoigne received the ball at pace outside the area, nonchalantly flicked it over the despairing Colin Hendry and then arrowed the ball into the near corner in unerring fashion. Such was the magnitude of the goal that the Daily Mirror wrote an apologetic editorial stating that Gascoigne was no longer the “fat, drunken imbecile” they had painted him to be, but a “football genius”.
Gazza’s status as an icon of English football was already confirmed by the tears he shed on the pitch of the Stadio delle Alpi in 1990 following the World Cup semi-final penalty shootout defeat to Germany, but his goal against Scotland served as a demonstration of the darker side of his legacy, the reason why now, almost 20 years later, we’re asked if English football will ever produce another of his ilk. The manner in which Gascoigne celebrated on the Wembley touchline – replicating the compromising ‘dentist chair’ drinking binge that he and several teammates had been caught partaking in days before – has since had its jovial nature stripped and replaced with mournful foreshadowing of the alcoholism that was soon to curtain his career take hold of his life.
Stripped down to the raw data, England have already produced several players who have more than surpassed Gascoigne’s achievements. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard both occupied similar attacking midfield roles, and both have lists of honours that completely eclipse what Gascoigne won. They both racked up a century of appearances for England (Gascoigne managed 57), and both scored more than twice the number of goals for their country that the Tyneside-born impresario did.
And yet, there’s an inescapable sense that while memories of Lampard and Gerrard’s exploits will eventually begin to fade from the minds of those not Chelsea or Liverpool fans, Gazza will still be talked about in superlatives by the masses, not for what he did, but for what he could have done, had it not been for his personal demons; not just his alcoholism, but his temperamental attitude.
One of the most memorable displays of Gascoigne’s fallibility was the 1991 FA Cup, in which he tore his cruciate ligaments in the process of fouling an opposing player. In the opposition dugout was Brian Clough, another footballing figure who fits perfectly into the mold of fallen hero and has been enshrined appropriately, remembered long after his contemporaries have disappeared into the mists of time.
Clough is possibly the game’s ultimate tragic hero, one whose narrative trajectory went in the reverse of the fairy-tale Hollywood script. With assistant Peter Taylor, he won almost everything there was to win in English football, before his drinking problem slowly robbed him of his mercurial talent and his final season saw him relegated for the first and only time in his long career. To compound matters, he spent his last years in management without Taylor after a falling out. Hubris prevented the two men from ever burying the hatchet, something Clough deeply regretted after Taylor passed away.
Gascoigne and Clough are but two examples. Players including George Best, Diego Maradona, Garrincha, right through to the likes of Paolo Di Canio, Eric Cantona and countless other luminaries, have all fit the type. This isn’t to say that players such as Gerrard and Lampard are inferior – far from it. However, there’s no doubt that in football, supporters have always had a special place in their hearts for those who succeed despite themselves, who have been able to set aside their character flaws – even for the briefest of moments – to mesmerise.
Even at his best, Gascoigne was inconsistent, but it was precisely this lack of reliability that furnished his moments of brilliance with an added touch of magic. The frequently outspoken Clough had constant run-ins with players, managers, supporters and directors, creating the impression that his future was always teetering perilously in the balance, that he was one misstep from being cast into the football wilderness (this precise scenario occurred at Derby County, when he resigned in order to force a better pay deal for himself and Taylor, only for the board to accept their resignations). The aura of danger and uncertainty that hung around Clough only served to magnify his achievements and make them seem all the more remarkable.
The commodification and supposed sterilisation of the game is something which has been discussed at length in recent years, but one overlooked side-effect of this trend is the impact it is having on the types of players who are capable of making it at the top level. Clubs can now afford to take fewer risks than ever on players who may be liable to commit a social media faux pas or even – God forbid – be spotted out having one too many.
Raw skill alone is now no longer enough. Athleticism is monitored to the nth degree, diets planned, body fat percentages tracked, all in the name of conditioning players in order to produce the best possible spectacle for ever-expanding global audiences. Those who do not possess the mentality to follow such a rigorous regimen are cast aside more ruthlessly than ever. In many ways, this has been to the benefit of the game; players are stronger, faster, they cover more ground, but the influx of money has come at a grave cost.
As well as the consolidation of the Premier League’s upper echelons, there has been a gradual erosion of the individualistic, idiosyncratic icons that form an integral part of the game’s folklore. It is almost unthinkable that a club would take a chance on employing the pugnacious, divisive Clough as a manager today, and it’s unlikely that Gascoigne would survive the punctilious nature of club academies.
The story of Ravel Morrison offers some compelling corroboration. His outstanding talent saw him compared to Gascoigne by Lee Clark, and Rio Ferdinand has stated that Sir Alex Ferguson considered him the best talent he’d ever seen when aged 14. High praise, indeed, and interest in the player only increased when Ferguson allowed the starlet to join West Ham with the telling words that he “needs to get away from Manchester and start a new life”.
Brief moments of brilliance aside – including a mazy, driving run from his own half followed by a calculated, dinked finish against Spurs – Morrison’s career has failed to ignite, and he has already run afoul in his personal life, including being convicted of two counts of witness intimidation. A loan spell at Cardiff was cut ignominiously short last season and, having fallen out with Hammers manager Sam Allardyce, his contract at Upton Park was terminated. Despite a pre-contract agreement with Lazio (coincidentally one of Gascoigne’s former clubs), there’s a growing sense that Morrison’s career is already destined to be eventually filed under “squandered”.
Morrison’s tale is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, just as the likes of Gascoigne would probably have faltered much sooner had they been subject to the increased scrutiny and authoritarianism of modern football, would Morrison’s career have reached the heights it has the potential to in a less punitive atmosphere? Secondly, the interest in a player whose career has so far amounted to a grand total of three goals in the top flight is demonstrative of the fact that despite the added gloss and veneer of modern football, there’s still an undeniable appetite for talented players whose biggest hurdle is themselves.
By Matt Clough. Follow @MattJClough