Football is filled with what-ifs.
What if the linesman had correctly ruled that Sir Geoff Hurst’s goal hadn’t crossed the line? What if Wayne Rooney had crossed the Manchester divide and signed for City? The opportunity to get deep and philosophical is a rare one in football, but sometimes the what-ifs really do make you think. One that springs to mind is perhaps the most Shakespearean of all stories within the beautiful game: the outrageously promising and yet unfulfilled career of Paul Gascoigne.
Having won PFA Young Player of the Year and been named in the PFA Team of the Year for the 1987/88 season, Gazza was on the path to glory, and therefore on the radar of the country’s biggest teams. Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United were at the front of the line, desperate for his signature, and it seemed as though the Red Devils had crossed the finish line ahead of their southern counterparts.
When Alex Ferguson left for his summer holiday, he was given assurances from the young lad who enjoyed the odd Mars bar and Newcastle Brown Ale that “when you return, I’ll be a Manchester United player”. However, Spurs were not about to let this mercurial talent slip through their grasp so easily, and called Gateshead in a desperate attempt to change his mind. Their final offer was a house in north London for him and his family. Bearing in mind that at 15 years old, Gazza had to take on the role of breadwinner for his family due to his father’s medical problems, this was a game-changer.
With Spurs on hold, Gazza made his parents aware of the new offer from down south. Gazza’s sister overheard, and, in a moment of opportunistic cheek, asked for a tanning bed to be thrown in as well. A positive answer meant that was that: Gazza decided to swap Manchester for north London, Terry Venables, and everything that was to follow.
Gazza’s off-the-field problems are well documented, and there are a plethora of documentaries focusing on different times in his career. Back in 2015, he made a rare television appearance on BT Sport’s Fletch and Sav chat show. Gazza was visibly upset when asked if he still misses the game. “I was in tears to my dad and my sister last week because I felt lonely. I miss football…. I feel I have unfinished business”. It was at this moment that Russell Brand did what every football fan has probably wanted to do to Gazza, and placed a warm arm of comfort around the troubled former genius. “The greatness is still in you, even if your body cannot do it anymore. You still have so much to give, you have a future”.
Brand and Gazza have a lot in common. Both have battled with drink and drugs; both have been vilified by the media beyond reason. Brand has conquered his demons and gone from being hated to crusading for the rights of the average man. It was heartwarming to see the two create a bond between themselves.
But as Gazza talked of unfinished business, it was hard not to agree that, despite all that he achieved, he could have scaled still further heights. Could things have turned out differently, had he kept his word and completed his move to Manchester United?
There was a time when Paul Gascoigne was not the darling of English football, but a podgy yet twinkle-toed working class lad from the north-east with a tendency for winding up players with his skills and cheek. To say he would not have been tempted by the same poisons that blighted his career later in life had he moved to the north-west is false. Manchester was at the cusp of a renaissance, and ‘Madchester’ was about to explode thanks to the likes of the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, the Hacienda, and of course, the chemical at the heart of it all - ecstasy. However, one thing is for sure: Alex Ferguson’s iron grip of Old Trafford meant no player could put their enjoyment above the success of the club.
Ferguson had a history of being able to focus players, with his philosophy that the team was paramount. This meant that almost everything was sacrificed in order to maintain focus on the bigger goal. There are many players who thrived under the influence of Fergie once he helped them see the light - Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, and Lee Sharpe to name a few. He also helped protect players from the occasionally disgraceful behaviour of the media; most notably David Beckham and, to a lesser extent, Phil Neville.
Of course, the former also saw the other side to Fergie’s love, and once it seemed that Becks thought he was more important than United, he was quickly shown the door. Lee Sharpe, Roy Keane, and Jaap Stam are among other famous casualties.
The BBC documentary ‘Sir Alex Ferguson: Secrets of Success’ tells two stories that sum up Fergie’s power and appeal. Rio Ferdinand recalls how upon his arrival and after “getting to know the city more than I should have” whilst injured, Ferguson had a little chat during a training session:
“Make sure we get off on the right foot. I know you’ve been overindulging in the night clubs, people tell me these things, you can’t hide anything from me. Make sure that you know that I know this won’t happen anymore”.
In contrast, during the same documentary, Cristiano Ronaldo told the tale of how Ferguson allowed Ronaldo as much time off as he needed to see his comatose father in the middle of the season. This act of kindness and empathy touched Ronaldo, and is part of the reason why the Portugal captain refers to the Scot as his ‘football father’.
So if you take one young and fancy-free footballer with phenomenal talent and a liking for a drink or two, one no-nonsense manager, a football club steeped in history in a city with a soon-to-be world famous nightlife, you’ve got quite the explosive cocktail. You would imagine that Fergie would have downed this cocktail without even a flicker of emotion, quite possibly succeeding in keeping Gazza on the straight and narrow in the process.
Taking things back to the football pitch, one can imagine that Fergie was dreaming of building his team around a central midfield partnership of Gazza and Robson - cheekily named “dog poo” by Gazza because “he was everywhere”.
In terms of personality, Gazza was probably at the opposite end of the spectrum to both Robson and to Roy Keane, whose signing a handful of years later was a large factor in turning United into a winning machine. But his moments of brilliance showcased an ability to lift teams as a whole and turn games on their heads. One could argue that without Gazza’s stupendous free-kick against Arsenal in the 1991 semi-final, Spurs may not have won the FA Cup that year.
Ferguson wanted winners, and Gazza, when his head was pointed in the right direction, was just that. With Hughes banging in the goals up front, Robson the midfield destroyer, and Gazza the creator, Fergie would not have had to wait until 1993 for his first title, and Liverpool would have been “knocked off their perch” a little sooner.
Due to his full-throttle style of play, it is safe to assume that Gazza would have had to spend some time on the treatment table at Old Trafford. Boredom and depression are the two biggest fears for any footballer when they suffer any injury as bad as those that Gazza sustained; the time spent away from the training pitch and in the gym is when footballers feel those fears the most.
It is at these times that players run the risk of being exploited by those ready to prey on their vulnerabilities. But the opportunity to be exploited so mercilessly could have been reduced in Manchester; under Fergie’s watchful gaze, it is unlikely that Gazza would have been as exposed to those looking to make money from his name, as was the case after the 1990 World Cup and his succession of injuries, beginning a year later (we may also have been spared his “Fog on the Tyne” single!)
Thoughts of 1990 inevitably lead to questions of how England’s performances would have been changed by a Paul Gascoigne playing regularly for United. Under Fergie’s daily guidance, the man who became the young star of the 1990 World Cup would have been fitter, happier, and more focused on playing. This would surely have extended to international duty: just imagine the potential of Paul Gascoigne taking a young Paul Scholes under his wing. The younger man is considered by some of football’s greats to be their favourite player: how much more could his abilities have been enhanced - and appreciated - had he had a mature, fulfilled Gazza as a mentor at both club and international level?
Gazza was somewhat indulged under both Bobby Robson and Terry Venables. Other managers did not treat him with the same care (and it is arguable whether Venables would have done so, without the familiarity of managing him at Tottenham). Under Graham Taylor and Glenn Hoddle, he never received a fair crack of the whip as concerns over his off-the-field antics, justifiably, meant those managers treated him with extreme caution. Take the drinking and craziness out of the equation, and a team built around one of the best playmakers in the world may have transformed England’s near (and far) misses of the 1990s into actual trophies.
And what of a Gazza-less Spurs? Financial crisis was only around the corner, and years of decline and slightly below-average performances, including the appointment of Christian Gross, looked inevitable with or without Gazza. The infamous free-kick and subsequent FA Cup final victory over Nottingham Forest may never have happened.
As it was, Gazza did his “Boys Own stuff” and led Spurs back to Wembley, where, like so often, a moment of genius was followed by a moment of madness. His reckless challenge on Garry Parker should have earned a yellow card and may have served as a warning; instead, he was let off, and minutes later scythed down Gary Charles, escaping what should have been a sending-off but not avoiding serious ligament damage and the beginning of his injury woes, which took their toll mentally as well as physically. Even Gazza’s high point at Spurs ended in anguish.
It may not have been as explosively entertaining, but it is hard not to conclude that Gazza at United would certainly have been able to fulfil far more of his blindingly bright potential.
By Tom Johnson.