Young playmakers don’t come to prominence in this country without being compared, at least fleetingly, to the most enigmatic of England’s true footballing immortals. The longer we wait for an Englishman to emerge and to eventually eclipse the Italia 90 superstar, the more Gazza’s legend grows. Today’s England offer a few who genuinely do threaten to reach such levels: Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Mason Mount. But no one yet has offered enough joy on the pitch and enough of a chuckle off it to truly challenge. Indeed, not even Paul Gascoigne. 30 years ago today, he suffered a cruciate ligament injury that changed the course of history.
Choked by crippling debt, Tottenham Hotspur ended the 1991 league season in 10th place, behind Wimbledon, just ahead of QPR. Paul Gascoigne’s goals had helped them enjoy a successful season in the cup competitions though. He ended the season as top scorer in both the FA and League Cups. The League Cup wasn’t to be, after quarter-final defeat to Chelsea, but an FA Cup final awaited — Spurs versus Nottingham Forest.Embed from Getty Images
Forest had a better record in the league and boasted the likes of Roy Keane and Stuart Pearce. In what he knew was likely to be his last match for Tottenham amid interest from Lazio in Italy, Gascoigne let the occasion get the better of him. To this day, his performance in the 1991 FA Cup final remains one of his biggest disappointments. All 17 minutes of it.
So hungry for silverware and so untameable in his ardour, the midfield ace immediately planted his studs with vigour right onto Garry Parker’s midriff. Lucky not to be off straight away, he then appeared from thin air to scythe down Gary Charles with all the courtesy of an industrial chainsaw.
But if the overexuberance was Gazza in a nutshell, his rolling around on the floor rather than protesting his innocence was decidedly not. He stayed on long enough to watch his England teammate Pearce place the resulting free-kick into the stanchion to hand Forest the lead. But immediately after, Gazza was stretchered off. The injurer had come off worst. Only later would the full severity of this injury emerge — both in the immediate sense and in terms of its impact on his overall career.Embed from Getty Images
Did it end up being his final game for Tottenham? Yes, but not because Lazio snapped him up immediately. Rather, because he missed the entirety of the following campaign with injury, only to transfer to Rome when back to full fitness. Spurs lost their best player for a year, and so did England for what would end up being an ill-fated trip to Sweden for the Euro 92 finals.
Off to Lazio he went, belatedly, and there were flickers of stardom during his time there. There was then to be an extremely successful stay north of the border, when following his European trip he spent three trophy-laden seasons starring in Scottish football for Rangers. The defining moment of his England career was yet to come, too. Time really did seem to stand still as the blond Gazza of Euro 96 looped the ball over the even blonder Colin Hendry and then volleyed cleanly into the net for a stunning Wembley goal against England’s oldest nemesis. The dentist chair doesn’t even require mention such is its fame and its legacy.
But for all these sparks of olde, these split-seconds of raw genius, the world was now absent of the Paul Gascoigne who had made the FA Youth Cup a joy to watch in the mid-‘80s, and who had brought a tear to the eyes of a whole nation during the heady summer of 1990 almost by the sheer power of telepathy.Embed from Getty Images
Well over a decade of Gascoigne’s career lay ahead of him when he finally recovered from his horror injury in the 1991 FA Cup final. And it was a successful career which included trophies, travels, and over 50 England caps. But there will always be those who hark back to his metronomic control and creative panache at Italia 90 in a way which half-implies his was a career of unfulfilled talent. To say such a thing is not slander, but a compliment if anything to his boundless ability.
Before he’d even left the field on that bittersweet cup final win in 1991, his England teammate Stuart Pearce had broken the deadlock from the free-kick Gazza had conceded in the first place. Years later, Pearce still remembered his mate’s injury just as much as his own stunning set-piece goal. “That wild tackle had a massive effect on his career,” Pearce said. “He was never quite the same player afterwards.”