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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

Paul Gascoigne at 50: English football has never seen another player like him

England's Paul Gascoigne (l) is consoled by teammate Steve McMahon (r) after their defeat on penalties to West Germany in 1990.
Gazza's tears at the 1990 World Cup will always be remembered.

The 2016-17 season was the 25th of the Premier League era, but no single individual player has contributed as much to the popularity of football in England that effected the breakaway from the old Football League as Paul Gascoigne and his performances at the 1990 World Cup.

For those of a certain age, Pavarotti's performance of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" can only be accompanied by an image of a tearful Gazza, bereft after receiving a yellow card that meant he would miss the final -- though England lost their Turin semi on penalties to West Germany anyway.

That July night made him the nation's favourite son, admired for his brilliance with the ball at his feet, though more so for a hyperactive form of English eccentricity that led to mentor Sir Bobby Robson's definitive description of him as "daft as a brush."

It made front-page headlines later in 1990 when High Court judge Mr Justice Harman asked a court: "Who is Gazza? Isn't there an operetta called La Gazza Ladra?" Every Englishman, expect those in the judiciary, knew who Paul Gascoigne was. Two hit singles, "Fog On The Tyne" and "Geordie Boys," and a series of lucrative endorsements cashed in on his fame.

A native Geordie, Gascoigne sparkled first at Newcastle United where he won the FA Youth Cup in 1985 and was named PFA Young Player of the Year in 1988 before moving to Tottenham for a record British fee of £2.2 million after promising Sir Alex Ferguson he would join Manchester United.

During the 1990-91 season, he was dazzling as Spurs won the FA Cup -- notably blasting in a free kick against Arsenal in an 3-1 FA Cup semifinal victory at Wembley. "Is Gascoigne going to have a crack?" asked BBC commentator Barry Davies as Gascoigne put the ball down for the kick, almost 35 yards out. "He is, you know. Oh, I say!"

That was Gascoigne at the height of his fame and playing capability, but what followed in that final began his well-publicised slide. An over-amped Gazza wildly clattered into Nottingham Forest defender Gary Charles, shattering his knee in the process, ruling himself out for the whole of the next season.

Until then, the wider English population had barely heard of a "cruciate ligament," but Gascoigne made it popular parlance, though he was never the same, having lost the acceleration that made him so special as a midfielder.

Lazio had agreed to pay Tottenham £8.5 million to take one of English football's hottest properties to Serie A in 1991 and he headed to Rome a year later, with £3m knocked off the price. He could never settle fully in Italy but there would be further high points to savour: at Glasgow Rangers, where he moved in 1995, he is recalled as an idol, and he scored a brilliant volleyed goal against adopted country Scotland for England at Euro '96.

Paul Gascoigne turns 50 on Saturday.

However, personal problems overtook him. Alcohol, which he initially drank to overcome innate shyness, consumed him, bloating his body, and he later admitted physically assaulting his ex-wife, Sheryl. Heavy drinking accentuated the anxiety and depression his 2004 autobiography revealed he had struggled with since childhood on Tyneside.

Gascoigne never got to play in a World Cup game after Turin. England failed to qualify for USA '94, and he was dropped from Glenn Hoddle's squad on the eve of France '98, a perceived betrayal he attempted to wash away by getting dangerously drunk at England's La Manga training camp.

Spells at Middlesbrough, Everton, Burnley and a pioneering trip to Chinese football with Gansu Tianma in 2003, before finishing his career at non-league Boston United, brought the sad sight of a troubled soul unable to relive his youth. But life beyond football has been yet tougher.

These days, Gascoigne now lives on the South Coast, away from the temptations of Newcastle and London, keeping himself low profile beyond some meet-and-greet speaking appearances that bring in much-needed funds and the occasional appearance in the directors' box at Bournemouth. He looks a totally different man to that of his playing career. Threadbare of hair, he is far thinner, and has admitted an addiction to Botox that often gives his face a bizarre, frozen appearance. Whenever his name makes the newspapers, the stories are almost exclusively of misadventure, of falling off the wagon or his re-admission into rehab -- a tragedy being lived out.

Central to that tragedy is English football never before or since having a player or personality like him. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, perhaps we can briefly remember Gascoigne for being a great footballer, rather than the rest.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

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