“When we got him, my god, it seemed like Jesus Christ was arriving.” Uttered by a particularly ardent Laziali upon the arrival of a certain iconic Englishman, just like when that Galilean messiah rose from his tomb in Christian folklore, Paul Gascoigne was resurrected following his transfer from Tottenham to Lazio, one of the first in a glittering panoply of footballing treasures curated by Sergio Cragnotti.
When Gascoigne said farewell to English shores at the end of 1992, he’d spent the best part of a year on the sidelines, rehabilitating from a catastrophic knee injury suffered after a moment of ludicrous self-sabotage in Tottenham’s 1991 FA Cup final victory over Nottingham Forest. Despite this lengthy absence, Lazio were still keen to fork out an exuberant sum in the pre-Sky days of relatively modest transfer sums. And for good reason.
Though he had not kicked a ball in a competitive environment for 12 months, his reputation as England’s most entertaining player in a generation remained largely untainted. Equal parts exciting and excitable, Gascoigne’s uncanny blend of sublime technical skills and robust work ethic had endeared him not just to domestic suitors – but to those abroad, too.
It was a time of transition in English football. The Premier League was dawning and, soon, a torrent of foreign talent would flood the game. Rarer, though, were those who went the other way. Yet, in the ever-capricious tale of Gascoigne’s career, the calcio chapter was characteristically unpredictable. Even the opening was fraught with uncertainty; Gascoigne was still recovering from a serious knee injury and the transition from the antiquated English pre-season traditions into Europe’s far more intense schedule was a shock.
Despite signing over the summer, the expectant Lazio faithful were forced to wait until late-September for ‘Gazza’ to make his long-awaited debut against Genoa when, for 41 minutes, he showed periodic flashes of his old brilliance. It was fitness, rather than form, that restricted his appearances during this difficult start in Italy, and, through his indifferent performances, was in danger of incurring the wrath of the infamous ultras of the Curva Nord. Until he endeared himself to every Biancocelesti fan with an 86th-minute equaliser against bitter rivals Roma.
Even Gascoigne, born and bred in England’s north-east, was aware of the magnitude of the Rome derby and had one eye too, it seemed, on how quickly the patience of the Lazio faithful was known to expire. Speaking before the game, Gascoigne explained: “For me, and I’m not just saying this, this Sunday is like life or death. And hopefully, after Sunday, I’m still alive.”
Alive he was, and soaring atop a gale he himself had whipped up inside the Stadio Olimpico on that cold November evening. Rising above his marker to power home a Giuseppe Signori free-kick, Gascoigne ensured his eternal adulation from the blue half of Rome. Fists pumping with frenzied abandon, he was mobbed by his adoring teammates as, in the stands, jubilant fans nearly broke into a riot of sheer exultation.
However, it was to be a brief, guttering candle in the raging tempest of his Lazio career. Off the field, the notorious Italian press made sure Gascoigne endured unprecedented intrusions into both his personal and professional life. Instead, his mischievous nature, often celebrated in England, was maligned in Italy, and he became infamous for, in the eyes of many Italians, dedicating more time to his pranks than his football.
That was not to say there weren’t flickers of genius during his time in the blue of Lazio. His goal against Pescara, where he slalomed between hapless defenders with merely a swivel of his hips, is still regarded as one of the goals of the decade – no mean feat when you consider the likes of Batistuta, Ronaldo, Del Piero and Baggio were intent on outdoing each other’s moments of extraordinary brilliance in the art of goal-scoring.
In all, Gascoigne managed 47 appearances in Italy, registering six goals along the way and a handful of assists. However, for a man for whom vacuous tricks were anathema, it was this lack of incision in the areas of the pitch that mattered most upon which he was judged. Despite glimpses of his undoubted talent, Italy had been something of a failure.
To Italian football fans during his brief stay on the peninsula, Gascoigne was something of an enigma; a strange, unfathomable contradiction in the way that he could exhibit moments of the purest footballing beauty despite, in many people’s eyes, being something of an utter lunatic. Often overweight and, in many instances, underappreciated, a man for whom off-field problems were beginning to gather like thunderheads on an all-too-near horizon, Gascoigne would depart Italy at the end of his third season following a falling-out with renowned hard-nosed fitness fanatic Zdenek Zeman.
Yet, it was not England where Gazza would seek his renaissance. Instead, he flew north to Scotland and Rangers. Desiring to get back into form and fitness for the upcoming Euro 96, held on home soil, his craving was made all the sharper by England’s failure to qualify for the USA World Cup in 1994. Rangers, then, found themselves in possession of a hungry, motivated Gascoigne.
At the time, Rangers were chasing an unprecedented ten league championships in a row, a feat that had never before been achieved in Scottish football, and were boosted by the arrival of a Gascoigne keen to remind both Scottish and English football fans what they had been missing during his three-year sojourn in Italy.
No sooner had he landed in Glasgow, Gascoigne was given the opportunity to endear himself to the Gers faithful when they took on bitter rivals Celtic in the first Old Firm derby of the season. Gascoigne was not a man to shirk the big and often virulent – especially when the green and blue halves of Glasgow clashed – occasions.
For a man often maligned for his fitness, or lack thereof, Gascoigne embarked on a ninety-yard sprint to support a burgeoning Rangers attack. After a spot of neat interplay between Salenko and McCoist, the latter slipped a pass across the 18-yard box for Gascoigne, literally running at full tilt, to, with the utmost nonchalance, side-foot the ball past the encroaching goalkeeper. It was not the sumptuous football Gazza was revered for; there was no impudent first touch, no drop of the shoulder, no swerving cross-field pass. It was sheer doggedness and athleticism of a footballer reborn – again.
This moment was indicative of the first two campaigns of Gascoigne’s stay north of the border. Rangers’ continued success was wedded incontrovertibly to the fortunes of their star playmaker. A driving force from midfield, Rangers had a man who could inspire, delight and amuse in equal measure. When he wasn’t crafting chances for his teammates with his slaloming runs and deft passes, he was shouldering the goalscoring burden. He dispatched hat-tricks against Kilmarnock and Motherwell, and his form contributed to Rangers winning back-to-back doubles.
For the first time since 1991, he was recognised as the best player in a domestic league, scooping both the PFA Scotland Players’ Player of the Year and the SFWA Player of the Year. Paul Gascoigne was back with aplomb.
Though he had escaped the clutches of Italy, where the constant scrutiny had threatened to pitch his career into the abyss, his return to form in Scotland was not without its obstacles. Walter Smith became increasingly concerned with Gascoigne’s reliance on alcohol, an issue that would continue to plague him for the rest of his career and beyond. It was also during this time that a man for whom mental health had long been an issue embarked on a particularly naïve stunt that saw him receive death threats from the IRA.
After scoring in the Old Firm derby in 1998, Gascoigne enraged Bhoys’ fans when he mimed playing a flute in celebration – a very obvious and deliberate reference to the Orange Order. He was fined £20,000 and a season that was already turning out to be lacklustre soon spiralled into ignominy. Rangers ended the season without a trophy and Gascoigne departed for Middlesbrough in the summer.
Over the course of three seasons in Scotland, Gascoigne was successful once more in resurrecting a moribund career. Helping Rangers to two league titles, two Scottish Cups and registering 39 goals along the way, he earned his spot in England’s fabled Euro 96 squad and wrote himself into English folklore with his mesmeric performances. Ironically, one of the few instances throughout the 1990s where he actually played on English soil.
In fact, for a man often considered one of England’s most naturally-gifted footballers, Gascoigne has the rare distinction of playing much of his football in the decade with which he is most closely associated for clubs outside of his own country.
His foray into Scotland would prove to be the last time he ever truly hit the heights which his talent demanded, but if you ever ask Ally McCoist which version of Gascoigne he prefers, the answer is simple: “We got the best of Gascoigne when he was at Rangers. And does he deserve his place in the Scotland Hall of Fame? You’re joking, 100 percent he does.”
By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90