The yin and yang of Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker

The yin and yang of Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker

This feature is part of Duology

The heavy touch. The realisation flickers across the face; disbelief mixed with desperation to rectify the mistake. The decision to commit to winning the ball back is visible deep within the eyes, so the outstretched left leg makes arguably the most famous mistimed tackle in English football history.

Thomas Berthold feels the touch and immediately, theatrically, throws himself to the ground. Three complete rolls of the body along the lush Turin turf makes the challenge look worse than it was. The culprit is straight up on his feet, both arms up in the air in a gesture that is a cocktail of acknowledgement and regret. The result is inevitable. A yellow card is brandished to the England number 19. It is a consequence that will reverberate through British football for years to come.

The closest England player to Paul Gascoigne, as José Roberto Wright brandishes a tournament-ending card, is club teammate and paragon of virtue Gary Lineker. As the realisation dawns on Gascoigne that he will miss the World Cup final should England win, the emotion takes hold. Gazza’s face becomes flushed, the bottom lip quivers and the tears start to well.

Lineker places a hand on Gazza’s arm to try and bring the midfielder to look at him. He sees the emotion instantly, and turns to the bench with pursed lips and offers up a gesture that indicates that the prodigious young playmaker is on the edge. As the camera cuts to Lineker and the chief protagonist, Gazza is seen walking away, hiding his emotion from the England bench and the watching world, while Lineker is seen tapping his temple and mouthing the immortal words to Gascoigne’s mentor, Bobby Robson: “Have a word with him.”

For partnerships and double acts to thrive there needs to be contrasting personalities. The yin and yang philosophy implies that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites. Whilst Chinese cosmologist Tsou Yen would not base his teachings on two English footballers plying their trade in north London, as an analogy, the naturally talented, maverick midfielder from Newcastle and the staid, clean-living striker from Leicester were the yin and yang of football partnerships.

Read  |  How 12 months at Everton turned Gary Lineker into a world-class goalscorer

Paul Gascoigne was an outrageously talented footballer from Newcastle, whose love for the game was infectious. He was a player who played from the heart, a player who would not be restricted by the rigidity of tactics and formations. He was a footballer who played by touch and by feel. Gascoigne’s performances at Italia 90 became a symbol of optimism in the rebirth of English football post-Hillsborough. Not since George Best had British football seen such undiluted talent and affection for just playing the game.

Gary Lineker was the epitome of a poacher; he plied his trade within the confines of the 18-yard box and rarely contributed to his tally from outside it. In his prime, Lineker was arguably the greatest striker in the world. The first Englishman to win the Golden Boot as the top scorer at a World Cup, he was the consummate professional; never booked, never involved in off-field misdemeanours. Unlike Gascoigne, Lineker always played the percentages, always knew where to be, where the ball would drop in the penalty box. He was the player that would never let you down.

These two contrasting yet equally effective characters were only teammates for two and a half years across domestic and international football. During that time they combined on numerous occasions to produce the most inevitable of outcomes in the biggest tournaments at international and club level; the young prodigy with the world at his feet would be guided by the experienced senior professional. If ever a partnership illustrated the benefit of experience guiding untamed youth, this was it.

Gascoigne was already at White Hart Lane when Lineker joined. Gazza had signed for Tottenham in the summer of 1988 for £2.2m from his beloved Newcastle United. Terry Venables could see the potential in Gascoigne and, as a manager with a reputation for allowing his players to play with freedom and express themselves, sought to provide the perfect environment for his young playmaker to thrive in.

A year after Gascoigne joined Spurs, Lineker arrived from Barcelona to reunite with the manager who originally took him to Spain to take head on the challenge of LaLiga. Lineker returned to English shores wiser, more experienced, and a player who would guarantee his side goals. Venables saw the potential of a Gascoigne-Lineker partnership and, at the start of the 1989/90 season, was titillated by its possibilities.

Read  |  The Roman tragicomedy of Paul Gascoigne at Lazio

The first time this classic vaudeville comedy double act of straight man and comedic genius first played in the same team was during an England game against Saudi Arabia in 1988. It was a friendly in Riyadh and was only Gascoigne’s second international appearance, playing the final 10 minutes in the King Fahd II stadium. Gascoigne’s next international appearance was five months later – a World Cup qualifier against Albania – where, again, he was limited to a late substitute appearance. However, this game saw Gascoigne and Lineker’s name appear on the score sheet for the same team for the first time as England completed a routine 5-0 victory.

At the start of the 1989/90 season, the players were at an interesting juxtaposition within their careers. Lineker, an established senior professional with the England side, was one of the first names on the team sheet and a confidant of England manager Bobby Robson. Gascoigne was on the periphery of the England setup, using his exuberance and outrageous talent to force his way into Robson’s plans for the World Cup in Italy at the end of the season.

At Tottenham, the situation was slightly reversed with Gazza establishing himself as a favourite of the White Hart Lane fans the previous season. Lineker was the newcomer looking to make an impact with the north London club as he was making a return to the English domestic scene after his Spanish hiatus.

For the next two seasons, Gazza and Lineker forged a relationship that was as prolific on the domestic scene as it was on its international equivalent. The duo are forever linked with two epic tournament campaigns – one with England and one with Tottenham. 

Their first season together saw Lineker fit seamlessly into Venable’s side. Hitting the ground running, the man with the golden boots would add another individual honour by finishing the season as the First Division’s leading marksman, with 24 goals in 38 appearances. Gascoigne simply carried on from where he left off the previous season, only this time he had a more reliable and efficient target for his outrageous midfield talent to hone in on.

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What had been a juxtaposition of contrasting careers and personalities were now starting to converge with each other towards a singular cause for club and country. Lineker was being embraced by the Tottenham faithful thanks to the consistent provision of chances by Gascoigne. At the same time, Gazza was making himself indispensable for England, as the clamour for Bobby Robson to include the Geordie maverick in his final World Cup squad reached a crescendo following a virtuoso performance in a 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia.

Italia 90 would see the emergence of Gascoigne on the world stage and the confirmation of Lineker as one of the greatest strikers ever to play for his country. From the very beginning of the tournament, Tottenham’s finest were the outstanding talent within Robson’s side. Despite their stuttering start, Lineker provided the cutting edge in the opening game and Gascoigne was the inspiration and creativity on and off the pitch.

As England progressed so to did their understanding, with Gascoigne supplying the final pass to Lineker through the eye of a needle, resulting in the latter being brought down and securing England’s second penalty and ultimately match-winning goal in that epic quarter–final against Cameroon. It was the understanding of the run and the guaranteed pass, which had been forged on the White Hart Lane turf, that eventually saw England into their first World Cup semi-final since 1966.

To the opening scene; that late, mistimed challenge, the subsequent yellow card, the resultant tears and Lineker’s look of trepidation, caught face on by the Rai television cameras. As a nation we implored Robson to heed his advice and “have a word with him.”   

Fast-forward past the heartbreak of a penalty shootout defeat, past the monumental crowds that congregated to welcome the England side home, past the fake breasts on the top deck of the open-topped bus tour and the ground zero moment of Gazzamania, and we arrive at the start of Tottenham’s 1991 FA Cup campaign. 

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Once again, a side playing in a major cup competition was to be dominated by the joint billing of the tormented genius that was Paul Gascoigne and his regimented, dependable co-star Gary Lineker. It was Gascoigne’s desire and talent that hauled Spurs out of trouble numerous times in the early rounds. A successive brace of goals against Oxford and Portsmouth was followed by the winner in the quarter-finals, having been a goal down to Notts County, which saw Tottenham go through to a first semi-final – against Arsenal.

As in Turin, the game was to be all about two men, the dead-eyed striking prowess of Lineker and a goal by Gascoigne that was, in the words of Barry Davis: “Ooooohhh, brilliant … that is schoolboy’s own stuff!” After Gascoigne’s stunning opener, it was all about the predatory instincts of Lineker. If ever a game and its goals summed up these two icons of English football then the 1991 FA Cup semi-final was that game. Both were the country’s best at what they did and both were on song, singing to the same hymn sheet and playing for the same cause.

Unfortunately the FA Cup final was also symptomatic of the player’s characters. Gascoigne was stretchered off in the final after only 14 minutes, following a horrific challenge on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles. Lineker would see out the game after having a goal wrongly disallowed for offside and he would also uncharacteristically see his penalty saved, though both men would finish with the cup winners medals they deserved. Lineker received his from the royal box, while Gascoigne received his from his teammates in a hospital bed.

Though nobody knew it at the time, that 1991 FA Cup final would be the last time that Lineker and Gascoigne took to the pitch together in a competitive fixture. Playing on the same side for a total of only two-and-a-half years, Lineker and Gascoigne seemed to dominate English football during that pivotal period of English football regeneration following the Hillsborough disaster. Gascoigne’s tears made the English population fall in love with football again, while Lineker was the housewives’ favourite and the go-to player for the goals and the subsequent victories.

Characters that were polar opposites, playing styles that were as different as they were effective, Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker were the faces of English football in the early-90s. Separately they were world-class, but together they were the perfect pairing of inspiration and reliability.

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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