Paul Gascoigne recalls an international career brimming with goals, match-winning flair and a manic case of football fever on the Three Lions’ return from Italia 90.
It’s easy to forget that before this one golden summer in 1990, English expectations for football success had been low. Arriving in Italy, it would have been impossible to predict that four weeks later the team would be returning home as heroes, that the English game would begin a long, glorious renaissance, and that Paul Gascoigne would become the most famous footballer in England.
For Gascoigne, suddenly immortalised as Gazza, life would never be the same again.
What are your memories of Italia '90?
I remember being on the plane home and Bobby Robson just said to me, quietly, ‘You be careful now, Paul’. I didn’t know what he meant. I didn’t realise what people were feeling back home. We landed at Luton, and as we got off the plane, we couldn’t believe what we saw.
There must have been 100,000 fans at the airport. The noise was unbelievable. We got on the bus and some fella tried to grab the fourth-place medal off my neck. I wasn’t prepared for it at all. It was mad, and it never really eased up.
You’d played your first game for England just two seasons earlier…
It happened so fast for me with England that I never had any time to get nervous. It was a blur. Just five years before I’d been playing youth team football for Newcastle, in front of 100 people. And before that just kicking a ball around Dunston with my mates. Then it was quick progress through the Newcastle first team, then Spurs, then England. I didn’t have time to think too much, or get nervous, which was a good thing.
You made your debut in the friendly against Denmark in September 1988…
I remember running on the sidelines with Tony Cottee getting ready to go on against Denmark. I was buzzing so much, and I kept asking him, ‘Are you excited?’ It was the best feeling in the world to be playing for England and at Wembley. It was unbelievable really.
I always had confidence and was never afraid of anyone. Bobby just told me to get out there and get a goal. I loved every minute. And in my next game against Albania, we won 5-0. I scored, and set up a couple. To score for England was too much to take in. I just couldn’t wait to get back to Newcastle and tell everyone about it! I knew I could perform on that stage.
You soon struck up an instinctive midfield partnership with one of your England heroes, Bryan Robson…
He’s the best I ever played with. He understood how we could work together. Bryan just said to me: ‘I’ll take all the tackles and bruises, you go out there and play’. We complemented each other.
But a place in England’s starting eleven as the World Cup loomed was not guaranteed?
It wasn’t until Neil Webb got injured that I thought: I’m going to get a game in Italy. I suddenly realised that this was my chance.
What happened next is indelibly marked in the memory of every England supporter. At Italia 90, Gascoigne was England’s – and arguably the tournament’s – best player. He ran the midfield with skill, vision and passion. His free-kick picked out Mark Wright to score the only goal against Egypt, allowing England to scrape through their group; his pin-point chip to David Platt settled the tense first knockout game against Belgium; his surging runs guaranteed Cameroon a torrid time in the Quarter-Finals.
Inevitably, you’re remembered for the tears during the Semi-Final defeat to Germany in Turin…
I had a good game, and I felt I got the better of Lothar Matthaus – who Bobby Robson had told me was the best midfielder in the world. We were a great side – the best I played in, and I’m sure we would have won the final if we had made it through.
But I suppose the ma�in image people have of me is standing in the middle of the Stadio Delle Alpi, weeping. The instant the ref waved that yellow card in front of my nose, I knew that no matter the result, my World Cup was over.
My eyes filled up. My mind had gone – as Gary Lineker indicated to the manager. I was devastated. I felt I’d let myself down. The World Cup had been a brilliant, all-expenses paid holiday. I felt like I was at the best youth club ever! Great weather, great food, great hotels, great pals and the occasional game of football. I didn’t want it to end.
England’s adventure ended in Turin, in the all-too familiar manner of penalties…
I should have taken a penalty. At least I could have got a pizza advert out of it and made some money!
England didn’t perform well at a major tournament for another six years. What should have been your prime was marred by a series of shattering injuries, and in your absence the Three Lions underperformed at Euro 92, going out in the group stages, and failed to qualify for USA 1994…
I like to think I could have been the difference in those tournaments, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. But Euro 96 made up for it. To play at home, at Wembley, with such a great atmosphere, was amazing.
The tournament produced another defining Gazza moment, the incredible solo goal against Scotland…
People often ask me whether that’s the best goal I’ve ever scored, and it was a memorable one. Although I still feel like I could score that goal now, I can tell you! It was one of the best, although I scored one or two in Italy that never get shown on TV which were just as good.
In terms of what the goal meant though, you couldn’t beat it. I was playing in Scotland for Rangers at the time. I had taken a beasting about the game, so it was really sweet. And to have 70,000 odd fans singing your name is just unbelievable. The game against Holland stood out even more, though. To win 4-1 against such a top nation was really something, and I felt it was one of my best performances in an England shirt.