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Tears for England's heroic court jester

'There'll always be an England'

So rang out the signature line of a popular World War Two anthem on wirelesses and in music halls up and down the country as the Allies battled their Nazi foe.

Though its use was altogether more trivial by comparison, almost half a century later a similar theme emerged as Bobby Robson's England battled to within a penalty kick of the 1990 World Cup final in Italy. In the aftermath of the tournament, a cheaply-produced t-shirt bearing the patriotic motif became a popular purchase.

Above those prophetic words, the t-shirt's front featured a picture of a man in an England shirt, crying. It was Paul Gascoigne, whose captivating displays in Italy caused an entire nation to fall in love with him. Eighteen years later, the man we affectionately came to know as 'Gazza' is facing an uncertain future.

To many pre-teen football fans, including this one, Italia 90 was an epiphany. Ten years old at the time and having been too young to recall Maradona's magic in Mexico, for the first time the sport we watched domestically every week was being put in a world context. Even more thrilling was the discovery that our country was a major contender to go all the way.

Having played his way into the England squad with a string of impressive pre-tournament displays, Gascoigne became the creative heart of Robson's side. An impetuous youth among a collection of gnarled veterans, he never gave taking on an opponent or trying the difficult pass a second thought, traits which endeared the Geordie still further to the playground generation of the time.

Unfortunately, however, Gascoigne was no longer in the school yard and the immaturity that would be a constant bedevilment throughout his career manifested itself even in his finest hour. Indeed, some would say that the booking he received for his late lunge on a German opponent, which led to suspension and tears, was simply an early example of his lifelong litany of bad decisions.

Having seen yellow and with his bottom lip already quivering, Gazza needed looking after. Gary Lineker said it best when he mouthed 'have a word with him' to the England bench. They did, but the damage was done. In a further eerie precursor to the way his life would later unhinge, words were not nearly enough.

Hindsight being what it is, memories of that remarkable night in Turin are inevitably clouded by what followed. However, back then, even as he stood in the depths of despair and cried the tears of a million fans, Gascoigne knew that the footballing world was at his feet, following his sensational performances throughout the tournament.

In a must-win group game against Egypt, Gascoigne's free-kick was headed in for the only goal of the game by Mark Wright. In the second round versus Belgium, in the final minute of extra-time, the bigger stage inspired a bigger moment as another free-kick was memorably volleyed home by another rising star, David Platt. When Cameroon led 2-1 in the quarter-final, Gascoigne again took over, threading inspired passes to earn two penalties, both of which were converted by Lineker.

However, even as his exploits on the pitch were elevating his status exponentially, so his off-field antics were becoming increasingly erratic. Unsanctioned drinking sessions were a regular feature of the World Cup, while few who saw them will forget the infamous plastic breasts England's new hero wore upon his return home.

But it was okay. Back then, it was explained, it was 'just Gazza'. He was 'daft as a brush' after all and any harm done seemed to be innocuous and easy to laugh off. However, his demons were growing and the 1991 FA Cup final represented the day that a career, which could have been great, was instead tarnished forever with the thought of what might have been.

Gascoigne was carried off at Wembley after a frenetic opening to the game in which he committed two fouls that might have seen him sent off. With a snapped cruciate ligament, he watched from a hospital bed as his team won without him the only winner's medal he would ever receive in English football.

In his excellent autobiography, 'Gazza - My Story', Gascoigne offers a warts-and-all account of his life. From his childhood on, he was prone to bouts of depression which were accentuated by unfortunate happenings in his life, such as illnesses and deaths which afflicted several of those close to him. In his adult life, his off-field troubles would continue to plague him, with a broken marriage and alcohol abuse just two of the issues with which he struggled to deal.

On the field, there were some great moments which reminded all those that fell in love with him in 1990 just why they had so done. With Lazio, Gascoigne's flair for the dramatic was never more evident than in the timing of his first goal - a last-minute equaliser against bitter rivals, Roma. With Rangers, Gascoigne rediscovered his ability to regularly perform as he helped the Ibrox club win back-to-back Scottish Premier League titles in 1996 and 1997.

However, amid the celebration continued the chaos. Injuries and inconsistency, not to mention some dodgy hairstyles, would be the overriding memory of Gascoigne's time in the Eternal City. Meanwhile, his career in Glasgow almost came to the most abrupt of halts, following ill-advised incidents of incitement towards Celtic fans while wearing the blue of Rangers.

Gascoigne's club career stuttered from one temporary home to the next with Middlesbrough and Everton also keen to coax the best out of him. Perhaps he never had the right manager? Alex Ferguson famously wrote that he would have loved to have taken him to Old Trafford and thought his wish would come true in 1988, only for Terry Venables and the promises made by Tottenham to win the young man's heart.

Under Venables at Spurs, Gascoigne shone, a trait he would later repeat under the same manager in his country's colours. Having missed the 1992 European Championships through injury and the 1994 World Cup after England failed to qualify, Gascoigne helped to bring football home at Euro 96 with another inspired display on the big stage.

Rarely has one goal captured the imagination of a single nation as did Gascoigne's individual effort against Scotland on that warm June Saturday afternoon. Perhaps it was because it was against the old enemy, perhaps it was because it was past his Rangers teammate, Andy Goram, or perhaps it was because it was a game-clinching strike that came almost immediately after David Seaman's penalty save from Gary McAllister.

Or, more likely than all that, perhaps it was because Gazza was back, captivating a nation once again. The dentist's chair celebration that followed merely added to the spectacle of the moment, though its standing as another example of how Gascoigne's off-field life imitated the art he portrayed on it was not lost on many who cheered as they watched.

As it had not six years hence, so the story failed to end in utopia in 1996 either. Gascoigne's desperate lunge to divert Alan Shearer's cross-shot into the German net for what would have been a place-in-the-final-clinching golden goal was one of the final memories we would have of him in a major tournament.

Two years later, Glenn Hoddle left Gascoigne out of his squad for the World Cup, a decision that was met with disbelief and a physical outburst that left him, as well as the England manager's Spanish hotel room, in a sorry state. Having done much to help England get to the finals, the-then 30-year-old was dumped. He would never play for England again. A decade later, Gascoigne faces more serious questions about his future.

In 1990, Paul Gascoigne charmed a nation with his innocent approach to the beautiful game. When he won, he smiled. When he lost, he cried. It is eighteen years since the Geordie boy wept because he wasn't allowed to play anymore. Sadly, the tears continue but now they have a permanence; his playing days are a blurred memory and his mental health has taken a frighteningly public turn for the worse.

There'll always be an England. Please let there always be a Gazza.


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