Paul Gascoigne: The truth behind the tears

It was the dawn of the New Man, the middle-class brigade and the female footie fan. In fact, the World Cup in Italy is the point at which the game changed forever. So claim the history books. Nonsense, says Nick Coleman
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There were three of us sitting on the sofa: me, my girlfriend Zippetty and her best friend Doodah (names have been changed in this article to protect... well, to protect me). We had fags, beer and dips on the coffee table on which we also rested our feet, and the television had been pulled out into the centre of the room from its bookshelf recess to give everyone a better view. England were playing Cameroon in the quarter-finals of Italia '90, the World Cup that would change football forever – or so we're often required to believe.

I was well into it. But then I've always been into football. At least I have been since watching the FA Cup final for the first time in 1969, when I was nine, the occasion on which on our black-and-white TV the grey-and-black stripes of Manchester City edged the charcoal shirts and white shorts of Leicester City thanks to a single robust strike by the other great Neil Young. Football is one of the things I've nearly always loved with a passion, despite being middle class.

But this was not true of Zippetty and Doodah; not hitherto. In fact, until the start of Italia '90, neither had shown the slightest interest in football. Not even Zippetty, who genuinely liked rock'n'roll and a lager and always made the most in a rather charming way of her Essex upbringing, middle class though it was too. Essexiness was her calling card. But football? Naaaaah. Give over. Get a life. Eleven men chasing a piece of leather etc etc blah blah yawn.

Yet there we were, the three monkeys on the sofa, all a-goggle and sweary, not singing and shouting by any means but certainly determined to enjoy ourselves by whatever means presented themselves. And from the kick-off it was quite clear that Doodah's enjoyment would stem chiefly from cheering on the Cameroons and then bridling aggressively at my contention that however much one felt shame over our nation's colonialist past and prominent role in the rise of slavery, actually, it was still an act both patronising and pretentiously gauche now to support Cameroon against England in a World Cup football match.

"Bullshit," Doodah had said over and over again. "Bull-shit!" And then Lineker equalised from the spot and Zippetty, who had remained uncharacteristically neutral during the ongoing and now really quite tedious loyalty ding-dong, leapt up from her position on the sofa and kneed over a bowl of hummus. "Ye-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-s!" she screamed. "Oh Jesus," muttered Doodah despairingly to the walls. "Not you as well. You... you... you boy!"

"Oh right," said Zippetty, picking beige gobbets out of the carpet and wiping them off on the edge of the table, "so now it's patriarchal to want England to win, is it?"

And that was the moment for me when football changed as a cultural experience. Watching Italia '90 with feminists. Feminists who were really enjoying themselves.

A lot of rubbish has been imagined about Italia '90 over the years. The biggest piece of recyclable junk is the canard which holds that an entire nation of bloated, unfeeling, out-of-touch men watched Paul Gascoigne burst into tears after getting a second yellow card in the semi-final against the Germans, and in that chaotic moment suddenly discovered that they ' were actually travelling out of control in the outside lane down the autobahn to their feminine side. Were they, bollocks.

Every man I've ever spoken to about the incident thought very little about Gazza's snivelling and was actually rather more engaged by the much more interesting moment during the same episode when Gary Lineker was caught by the cameras goggling his eyes, pointing his finger and mouthing the words "Watch him!" to Bobby Robson, his manager on the England bench. That was interesting. Suddenly we were getting insight into the power relationships which must exist within England's footballing corpus. Who wouldn't be compelled by that?

It is absolutely true to say that, after the fact, the media went to town on Gascoigne's ruddy-wet muzzle, and then Gazza's people went to town on the media opportunity that his muzzle presented. But to football fans, the Lineker close-up was the "iconic moment", the tiny, observable dramatic revelation which inadvertently disclosed something worth knowing.

But it is not true to say that Italia '90 was the moment football changed. Or even that it was the moment when it "went middle class". Not even close. Any kind of serious analysis of the tournament in its cultural context will tell you that Italia '90 was the moment television got the World Cup right, by larding it with Italian operatics and focusing in tight with all the precision of a Scorsese or a Cassavetes on the private dramas enacted by Totò Schillaci and Roger Milla and, as Gascoigne's tears went by, on Lineker's exquisitely expressive scrunched-up nose.

Contrary to myth, football has had significant middle-class support virtually forever, but especially, in this country, since 1966, when an entire generation of small English boys watched the World Cup on telly for the first time and then, to the small boys' amazement and delight, England won. The point is that Italia '90 marked the arrival of that generation of small boys into powerful positions within the media, especially in the world of television. You might argue that Italia '90 was the first World Cup broadcast by modern football fans.

This isn't my theory; it's the writer Nick Hornby's. But I agree with him. He remembers Italia '90 much as I do, for its dreadful football, for the keen spectatorial involvement of women (all of them well into the Italia '90 narrative long before Gazza opened his floodgates) and for the way the broadcasters somehow got closer, as if this time they really knew what they were looking for.

Instead of squinting at tiny footballers zig-zagging remotely across parched Mexican mudflats in a blizzard of glare and interference, accompanied by the crackling, old-world expostulations of Brian Moore and David Coleman, suddenly we were examining faces, witnessing drama, feeling pain, hearing voices, experiencing the savage contactfulness of football – both the withering smack of thigh on thigh and the intimate agony of loss – the opera of football played out to the classless histrionics of a Puccini aria. It was much more like watching football in a football ground.

Hornby is quite clear in his mind about this, and he should know: it's his generation. He was there, from 1966 onwards. "Many of those grammar and public schoolboys," he says, "who watched enthralled in '66... they were the ones who ended up in positions of cultural influence, reviewing Fever Pitch and so on. The myth is that middle-class people suddenly started liking football in 1990. But they'd liked it for years. Bobby Moore and George Best had made the game less class-bound. It was in their era that the seeds were sown."

The other thing Hornby and I both remember Italia '90 for was its context. Its footballing context.

The decade had commenced, after all, with the publishing of the Taylor Report and its conclusions on what should be done in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, when close to 100 deaths resulted from the clumsy policing of fans who, before the policing had even started, were already being treated like battery animals in a pen. That treatment, meted out as a matter of course by authority to milling hordes, was a football-culture commonplace in the 1970s and '80s. Such counter-thuggery was felt to be justified by the hooliganism which had scarred the game's name for two decades, reaching a hideous apotheosis in the violence at the European Cup final of 1985 at Heysel Stadium (and as a result of which English clubs had been banned from European competition ever since). It had taken far too long to sink in: the wisdom which advises that if you respond to milling hordes as if they constitute a single subspecies, then the chances are that the hordes will stop milling and go all tribal on you.

But it hadn't all been bad news in 1990. The Liverpool side which strolled to the League title in 1988 had played magnificent football and, the following year, Arsenal and Liverpool had provided the English league season with its greatest-ever climax. Football, as football, felt all right in 1990. It just didn't feel all that glamorous. It certainly didn't feel very rock'n'roll. Or bling. Yet another reason why it appealed to middle-class boys such as me and Hornby and thousands more. Here's a statistic: in 1989, the average salary of a top-tier footballer stood at £40,000 per annum. After the World Cup in 2010, Wayne Rooney's Manchester United salary is expected to rise to more than £150,000 per week. And that's just what he gets for chasing the leather around.

So how did we get from there to here?

Well, in cultural terms Italia '90 played its part in edging history forward, no doubt, but it served more as an eye-catching marker-buoy for football-as-spectacle than as a sea-change for football itself. Indeed the only significant footballing amendment to arise as a consequence of the tournament's huge televisual success – and abject sporting failure – was the outlawing of the backpass to the goalkeeper, resulting in greater flow on the pitch and significantly speeded-up entertainment for the TV audience.

If you are looking for real sea-change then you need to fast-forward a couple of years to BSkyB's acquisition of TV broadcast rights to the newly forming Premier League in 1992, Rupert Murdoch's pay-television "battering ram". Now that changed everything. It put high-end football into a bargaining position from which it could not lose – well, not for the best part of a couple of decades, it couldn't. It meant that football, in due course, could make a full and glamorous entry into the endless swinging party that is popular culture, and do it as a player. Ker-bling! It meant football could get off the back pages and into elite nightclubs, on to Monday-, Friday- and Sunday-night telly, and even on to the shelves of bookstores everywhere.

Not that the success of Hornby's Fever Pitch was anything like a given, especially in the early, not very exciting days of the Premiership, when Sky would helicopter pop groups into Highbury Stadium to mime their hit in the centre- circle at half-time and 23,000 depressed Gooners would boo them off. It is often and broadly assumed that Fever Pitch was carefully tailored in 1992 to coat-tail Pete Davies' All Played Out (which told the fly-on-the-wall story of England's Italia '90) on to the bedside tables of a ravening new footballing bourgeoisie, eager to consume anything and everything to do with "the beautiful game". But actually, the game wasn't very beautiful at that point and Fever Pitch was rather cagily published by the middle-ranking Gollancz after being turned down by Heinemann on the grounds that one proper football book in the marketplace per half decade was probably enough. Hornby is happy to confirm that sales were slow to begin with and then picked up through 1993. Paperback turnover started to go through the roof later on, as foreign stars began seriously to take to English football money and, as a result, the football itself started to discover its own intrinsic glamour, by being better football.

You can argue that Italia '90 brought a new kind of focus to bear on this process of glamorisation but you cannot make the case that it changed football forever. It was television money that did that, and not in every sense for the worse.

Besides, football and pop culture had been subtly convergent for decades. Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, even Gerry & the Pacemakers, had all played their parts in stimulating that convergence, every bit as cogently as George Best and Bobby Moore had, although they'd had no idea at the time that they were doing so. The only ones who knew what was going on were the fans, and they didn't mind being ignored. They were used to it.

I did not get to see the fall of Gazza's tears. Not live; only on tape the next day. This was because when England played Germany in the semi-finals of Italia '90, I was at Wembley, watching the Rolling Stones. I was a music journalist at the time and had just interviewed my boyhood hero, Keith Richards, and had been granted an advantageous perch high on the mixing-desk gantry, along with Zippetty. Zippetty loved the Stones and was already almost beside herself with excitement when she paid a visit to the mixing-desk Portaloo. She arrived at the facility just as Jerry Hall issued elegantly from behind its green plastic door, as if in a nimbus. Their hands did not quite touch. "But oh my God," Zippetty had hissed in my ear afterwards. "The seat was still warm."

And then the match kicked off.

How did we know? We knew because the entirety of the Wembley playing surface was covered with Stones fans with mini-transistors clamped to their ears. From our elevated angle you could see the stubby little aerials everywhere you looked, sticking up like alien antennae. There was no getting away from it: this was a crowd with its mind elsewhere.

I had already learnt from the Stones' tour manager that a contingency plan was in place. "It's pretty straightforward," he'd said. "If England lose, we just ignore the fact and plough on regardless to the bitter end. But if England win..." He puffed out his cheeks. "Well, then we stop the performance, show the goals on the screens and then, while everyone goes mad, kick straight back into 'It's Only Rock'n'Roll'. I think that should keep everybody happy."

But as it transpired, England did not win. They lost on penalties, as everyone knows, and everyone at Wembley knew at the time, because the guys with the transistors were required to keep everyone else up to speed. So the Stones did not have to interrupt their performance. However, it was during "Wild Horses", the Stones' sumptuous ballad of cold-eyed heartbreak, that Gary Lineker scored England's only goal of the match, and when he did the entire stadium exploded into the biggest roar of the night, drowning out the music.

Mick Jagger's face was entirely visible, magnified thousands of times over on the stage-side screens, and although he did not break stride even for a second in his delivery of the song, you could see that he was furious.