Friday, 20 March 2020

Other sports no. 2: Gazza and the train that never left

'May you live in interesting times,' goes the old Chinese curse, and as we seem to be... thought I'd break the Old Batsman Fourth Wall and for this (hopefully briefish) interregnum until the crimson rambler is once again singing across the cricket fields of England, put up a few yarns about other sports that have occurred along the way... This time, a brief meeting with Gazza...

During Italia 90, the Juventus president Gianni Agnelli called Paul Gascoigne 'a dog of war with the face of a child,' which remains an unbeatable and beautiful description of him as a footballer.

If you want to imagine how far away 1990 seems now, how distant that vanished England is, imagine Harry Kane returning from the World Cup wearing a shellsuit and a pair of fake plastic tits. Imagine Gazza's other great almost-triumph, Euro 96, all of the present England squad flying to Hong Kong and lying in a leather dentist's chair while a barman poured Drambuie and tequila down their throats before smashing up the plane on the way home and then nearly winning the tournament.

By the time France 98 rolled around, Gazza had been transferred to Middlesbrough and any residual genius was spasmodic at best, but he still was still playing well for England and tournament football had always been his arena: he seemed to feed on its intensity. And as usual, England weren't overburdened with errant geniusus, so he continued to feel like their best bet.

England's manager at the time was Glenn Hoddle, who taken over from Terry Venables after Euro 96. Venables was a shrewd man who hid it behind a bluff wide-boy exterior. Hoddle was almost the opposite. He was given to gnomic pronouncements and, it would transpire, had a belief in hokey spiritualism that later on cost him the job. He was a brilliant coach, though, and after Euro '96, surely England were a chance...

That was the view at the football magazine where I was freelancing, anyway. With great fanfare Hoddle had selected an initial squad that he was about to trim to the final number. A day or so before the announcement, a team sponsor booked a Eurostar train and put an England player in each carriage for the football press to interview. The train was parked at Waterloo station and wasn't going anywhere, a clunking metaphor that seemed to be lost on the organisers.

I can't remember exactly which players were there now. Michael Owen was one, I think. The star attraction though was Gascoigne, as usual. Even in his faded state he was a magnet for headlines and attention, the legacy of not just his magnificence as a player, but of the chaos of his life. Within a few months he would be in rehab.

The writers were divided into groups and sent along the train. We only got about five minutes with each player, so it was a useless exercise really. We must have been one of the last groups to arrive in Gazza's carriage, but unlike some of the others, he remained cheerful. He waved us in.

"Sit down lads, sit down..."

He was still, then, a superb specimen, built like a boxer, his face surprisingly delicate with its line of wonky teeth and its soulful eyes. Even though we only had five minutes with each man, we had been through a ritual of prefacing the first few questions with "if selected," in recognition that some might not be. With Gazza though, that didn't seem relevant, so we didn't bother.

Two days later, Glenn Hoddle dropped him and when Gazza heard, he smashed up Hoddle's hotel room. He was inconsolable because, as would become obvious while his life unraveled, the football field was his only place of safety.

England got knocked out early on penalties to Argentina, a defeat that some, including Hoddle, tried to spin as a sporting tragedy on the scale of Italia 90 or Euro 96, which it wasn't. The truth was, they'd played four matches and lost two of them.

Hoddle got fired a year later. Gazza never played for England again. Hoddle managed a few more clubs before becoming an idiosyncratic pundit. Gazza tried the punditry once, became unintelligible with nerves and ran up a legendary bar bill. His real tragedy is not the end of his England career but the terribly damaged childhood and subsequent alcoholism that have ravaged his life.

That train seems like a long time ago.

Next time: Don King and the 45 minute answer...

NB: will obv. still post on cricket as often as possible, unless I sell the piece to a mag/website...


Brian Carpenter said...

Nice piece, Jon.

Two quick thoughts:

1. The word 'magnificence' is well used and very appropriate. Any of the YouTube montages of Gascoigne goals confirm that.

2. I can instantly recall where I was (in a pub after a cricket match) when I was told that he had been left out of the squad, so it must have felt very significant at the time.

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