Paul Gascoigne’s enduring ability to split opinions, stir emotions and provoke hot-blooded reactions was exemplified by his moment of magic in Euro 96 when he sealed England’s win over Scotland.
As England fans celebrated at Wembley, marvelling at the instinctive natural gifts that saw Gascoigne lift the ball over Colin Hendry with his left foot and volley home with his right, a contrasting scene was unfolding in the small Scottish town of Bridge Of Allan.
Witness to it was a man who stood alongside Gascoigne as captain in his finest hour, when he became a national hero in England’s run to the semi-finals of Italia 90.
“Gazza did me a real turn that day,” recalls Terry Butcher. “I was running a hotel in Scotland at the time and I knew I’d be slaughtered if England lost.
“England won and as we were serving in the restaurant I noticed a few guys coming in who had cuts, bruises and black eyes.
“I asked what had been going on in the village and they said there was trouble in the bars and pubs because Gazza scored. It wasn’t English fans. It was other fans turning on Rangers fans because they were cheering Gazza’s goal and saying ‘he’s one of ours’.
“That was Gazza right there. If fans loved him that was it – even patriotism didn’t matter.”
‘A magnificent, maverick talent’
It was all part of the tapestry of Gascoigne’s story, from the precocious teenager at Newcastle United through a career that took in Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio and Rangers before a steep decline played out against personal demons but always with the warm memories and best wishes of colleagues and supporters.
If Euro 96 provided that highlight, along with the agony of missing out on scoring the golden-goal winner against Germany in the semi-final by a hair’s breath, Italia 90 was the premature pinnacle for a magnificent, maverick talent.
Gascoigne, for all the later glory, was never quite the same again following a catastrophic – and it must be stressed self-inflicted – knee injury sustained with a horrific challenge on Gary Charles playing for Spurs in the 1991 FA Cup final against Nottingham Forest.
Chris Waddle’s career briefly crossed Gascoigne’s on Tyneside, then for Spurs and England, and he told BBC Sport the Italian summer of 1990 was the peak of his physical and footballing career.
“He was in unbelievable shape,” says Waddle. “He was the weight he wanted to be and in the physical condition he wanted to be. He worked his backside off to get into that condition.
“He tried everything you can think of to get to back to that weight but I remember him telling me he never managed it again.
“Italia 90 was what Gazza was all about – not scared or intimidated by any opponent, always believing he was the best player out there. Then again he always thought that.”
‘You couldn’t coach Gazza’
No chronicle of Gascoigne’s career is complete without the off-field difficulties and struggles with alcohol, weight and personal problems.
Waddle, remembering the glorious footballer, says: “He just wanted to play, show his talent. He played off the cuff. You couldn’t coach Paul. You could offer him advice.
“As we saw in Euro 96 against Scotland he was a game-changer.
“In a lot of games Paul will admit he was having a hard time, couldn’t get into it. A lot of problems might have been mentally, if he didn’t feel right, if he was a little bit overweight.
“It is not as simple as saying he was a normal kid who did this and that. We all know on and off the field he had his moments of madness and brilliance. He was a complicated character.
“If he was having problems off the field it could prey on his mind.
“What a talent though. He’d go where the ball was. He had great upper body strength, was hard to get the ball off. A lot quicker with the ball than without, which is bizarre.”
Would he have been a success at Man Utd?
Gascoigne was en route to Lazio when he sustained his Wembley injury and while he is remembered fondly in Rome, it was an injury-troubled three-year period, including breaking a leg in training attempting to tackle Alessandro Nesta.
One of the great question marks over Gascoigne’s career is whether life would have been different had he gone through with his agreement to join Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in the summer of 1988 rather than divert to Spurs at the 11th hour.
Waddle, who was at Spurs at the time, does not buy into the theory.
He said: “Terry Venables was a great fit for Paul. He didn’t bully him, he talked to him. He did give him a lot of telling-offs but Paul had massive respect for him.
“Would Fergie’s discipline have been the way? Everyone talks about London and the drinking culture but at the time Manchester United had a big reputation with the likes of Paul McGrath, Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Viv Anderson – they weren’t alcohol free. Would he have got in that group?
“They were very professional and successful as well but how do we know which road Paul would have gone down?”
‘He shouldn’t have gone to ‘Boro, Everton or Burnley’
Gascoigne’s last great hurrah was at Rangers under the guidance of father figure Walter Smith, where he won the Scottish title twice after signing from Lazio in July 1995, clinching one at the end of his first season with a hat-trick against Aberdeen at Ibrox.
Butcher, who became a Rangers legend himself, says: “The Rangers fans regard him as one of their greats. In fact he is one of the greats to have played up there.
“He was magnificent. I was there the day he scored the hat-trick against Aberdeen and he was unplayable, doing what the great players do, influencing the big games.”
Gascoigne could not resist a final crack at the Premier League but was a shadow of himself at Middlesbrough and Everton, with Waddle believing he should have stayed in Scotland.
He says: “Rangers had a good side and Walter handled him perfectly. With his injuries and the physical demands I thought Rangers was perfect.
“I don’t think he should have gone to Middlesbrough, Everton or Burnley. He should have had those years at Rangers.
“Paul fancied his chances back in the Premier League and knowing him he would have believed he was the best player there whether he was 21 or 41 but it was tougher physically.”
Butcher says: “Italia 90 was the pinnacle. You wish it wasn’t because there could have been so much more to come but he still had that touch of genius as we saw against Scotland. He still had great moments.
“I watched the Scotland game again recently and you wouldn’t have known he was playing until he won the match with a piece of brilliance.
“Gazza deserves his status as one of the greats – a creator, a grafter, a genius.
“And for all the problems he has had he is a generous, lovely, warm-hearted lad. Time melts away when you’re with him. Suddenly you’re back in Turin playing in a World Cup semi-final, you’re back playing for England at the old Wembley.
“He’s a special person and special footballer who I feel privileged to have played with.”