The apotheosis of Paul Gascoigne, when he bestrode the field, set up three goals, and scored a magnificent fourth against the Czechs, was one more episode on the long, depressing history of England teams and brilliant individuals.
The English love affair with mediocrity, at the expense of the idiosyncratic talent, was pinpointed by the late Arthur Koestler, the celebrated Hungarian writer who spent the later decades of his life here. For politicians to succeed, he wrote, they have, in each and every country, to pass through a kind of gauze. In England, it is a gauze of mediocrity.
Obviously he was thinking of politicians such as Ramsay Macdonald Baldwin and Chamberlain rather than Churchill and, in later years, Thatcher; hardly mediocre, whatever you may think of her. But the point, or the pinpoint, remains well taken. From Charlie Buchan to Stanley Matthews, Matthews to Shackleton, Shack to Hoddle, and now Hoddle to Gascoigne, the English maverick has traditionally had a hard time of it.
My Dublin-born father, an Arsenal fan, used. to speak to me wonderingly of Charlie Buchan, an reside-forward so clever, he said, that it was hard for other footballers to play with him. Buchan, virtual inventor of the Third Back Game, when Arsenal introduced it in 1925, a star with Sunderland before the first world war, a powerful figure in Arsenal's then obscure team, when transferred to them on a £100-a-goal basis in 25, won only a handful of caps for England. True, the Great War got in the way, but his career, a long one, spanned it.
Of Matthews, David Miller has written in his recent biography. He was an outside-right of astonishing gifts, renowned and revered throughout the world, his career much longer even than Buchan's yet what ups and downs it had! He was first capped as a 19-year-old in 1934 and, on his second appearance, ran into the chilling Battle of Highbury, in which the Italians were kicking almost everything that moved. Not a day for the young Matthews.
Matthews was not even originally chosen for the English World Cup party in 1950 in Brazil. He was grudgingly added to it at almost the last moment but played only one game, that against Spain in Rio, after England had been utterly humiliated in Belo Horizonte by the USA. That was the period when the selectors preferred Tom Finney to Matthews so often; even though three years earlier, in Lisbon, they had at last put Matthews on the right, Finney on the left and Portugal were crushed 10-0. A year later, in Turin, with Matthews and Finney in the same roles, England thrashed Italy 4-0. Finney scored twice, and Matthews tormented the stand in, blond left back, Eliani.
Shackleton was another salient example. When in 1955 he published his amusing and contentious autobiography, Clown Prince of Soccer, ghosted by David Jack, he devoted a chapter to The Average Director's Knowledge of soccer. It consisted of a blank page. He might, from his own point of view, equally well have devoted it to the Average Selector; who was, in any case, invariably a club director.
The other thing I always remember from Shack's book was his anecdote about the bitter day when he was turned down by Arsenal. It was just before the war and he was called into the office of sonorous George Allison, the Arsenal manager, who essentially a journalist, never before in charge of a football team. Allison told "this then frail boy," as he would later refer to him, that Arsenal were letting him go.
Arsenal lived to regret it, just as they did in the case of Charlie Buchan, whom they'd turned down in pre Great War days when an amateur with them. They were Woolwich Arsenal then, and they fell out with him over a matter of 11 bob expenses. Shackleton, like Buchan, would become a huge favourite at Sunderland, though first he returned to his native City to play for Bradford Park Avenue, then for Newcastle.
Glenn Hoddle, who alas has had his career blighted this season in Monaco by a severe knee injury and a difficult operation, made a memorable debut at Wembley against Bulgaria, passing and controlling the ball with exquisite skill, finally striking a spectacular right footed goal. His reward for that was to be dropped from the next game with the manager, then Ron Greenwood, announcing: "Disappointment is part of football."
There would be plenty of disappointments in the future, some from Greenwood, some from his successor, Bobby Robson. It took Robson a very long time indeed to come round to Hoddle, and then it was in a thorough grudging and reluctant way: until a burst of bizarre enthusiasm in Colorado Springs.
Robson is another England manager in love with mediocrity; with the David Platts rather than the Paul Gascoignes of this world. In 1985, Hoddle was chosen against Scotland but told, ludicrously, to play on the right wing. When the scene changed to Mexico and a pre-World Cup tournament, a kind of tacit conspiracy by the other England players allowed Hoddle to move inside and exercise his high creative skills. Sourly, after Hoddle had had an excellent game, Robson remarked that this was how he always wanted him to play.
And so to Gascoigne. A maverick indeed. An immensely gifted but eternally boyish, even puerile, figure, given to practical jokes. Such as the moment, in Stockholm, when he accosted an astonished manager of Sweden, Olle Nordin, said how pleased he was to meet him, and shook hands - with an electric buzzer in his hand.
That "Gazza" had practically every quality you could hope for or think of save acceleration was beyond doubt. He had outstanding technique, could beat a man with exquisite arabesques of ball control, had a thunderous right footed shot, deployed with especial success at free kicks, and the ability to make the kind of killer passes one had associated with his predecessor, in the Tottenham team, Glenn Hoddle.
Equally beyond doubt was his tendency to retaliate when fouled and get himself in trouble, to show off, to make the occasional silly mistake, But since there wasn't a single other midfield player, read inside forward, in the country capable of making the unexpected pass, the case for him as an England World Cup choice seemed unanswerable; expect to Bobby Robson.
Robson was at his Colorado Springs games again before the Czechoslovak match, saying that Gascoigne had played well at Millwall earlier in the season, against Yugoslavia B, but this was how he must play again. Gascoigne had indeed played well that night - I was there - superbly setting up a goal, but my memory, alas for Robson, is long enough to remember that he damned Gascoigne with faint praise, concentrating on a couple of mistakes he had made.
Then came that dazzling exhibition against the Czechs. An inspired through pass gave Steve Bull the equaliser. A brilliant passage on the right allowed Bull to head another. A wickedly swerving inswinger of a corner helped Pearce to the second English goal. The coruscating, last minute goal set the seal on his performance. Robson had before the game, implied that for Gascoigne, it was going to be now or never. It became, triumphantly, now.
England have thus been given a formidable new weapon. I cannot see them winning the World Cup, but I can see them giving everyone a good run for their money.
This article originally appeared in the April 1990 edition of World Soccer. Subscribe here for a limited time offer.