Football: Gascoigne awaits the time of his life

The next month will dictate how the most gifted English player of his generation is regarded by history. Glenn Moore reports
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There is a scene in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which Bob Hoskins is attempting to saw through the handcuffs which keep him connected to the cartoon rabbit. The cuffs keep slipping so Roger, using his cartoon dexterity, slips out of them to hold the chain tight. Hoskins, realising the absurdity of the situation, asks: "Why didn't you do that before?" The cartoon replies: "I couldn't, it wouldn't have been funny before."

Comedy: it is all in the timing. So, however, it is in a classic tragedy. Although there are times, when he is belching at camera crews, getting hair extensions, and telling the News of the World "it wasn't three-in- a-bed, my mate Terry was there as well", when Paul Gascoigne's life reads like a farce, it is not. But it could be a Hamlet or a Macbeth.

Gascoigne is the greatest English footballer of his generation. He can do things with a football which his peers can only dream about, never mind the average park player. Yet, like all the great tragic heroes of the theatre, he is basically flawed. In Gascoigne's case his ability to play football outstrips his capacity to handle the consequences. He would be happy (possibly happier) as the star of a pub team doing a few tricks on Sunday morning after a lot of lagers on Saturday night. In short, he is too good for his own good and it is when the pressure is on that he lets himself down most badly.

It happened in his moment of greatest triumph, when a rash tackle got him a yellow card which would have meant his suspension from the World Cup final he had inspired England to the brink of. It happened a year later when, having carried Tottenham to the FA Cup final, a wild tackle saw him carried out of it.

And so it has continued, on and off the pitch. Untimely injuries have pock-marked his career while injudicious behaviour has ruined his reputation. Often the fall comes just as rehabilitation is in sight. Even this season, having won over an initially antagonistic Scottish press, he appeared drunk when he collected his player of the year award. Then, a fortnight before the start of Euro 96, he is linked to vandalism on a Cathay Pacific plane and loutish behaviour in a Hong Kong club. Gascoigne's involvement in the former was massively exaggerated but his boozy presence was prominent in the latter.

Even his private life has tragic elements. His relationship with his girlfriend, Sheryl, clearly has strong roots. How else would they survive the constant estrangements, the continual surveillance, Gascoigne's confession of physical abuse, his reported drinking and flirting even as she lay in labour with their first child? Yet it never seems to get beyond a state of constant flux and, at present, they appear to be apart again.

Now, for four weeks, Gascoigne again carries the hopes and fears of a nation upon his shoulders. At 29, he may have a lifetime's celebrity ahead of him but he will not have many more chances to justify it. Can our hero, at last, emerge triumphant, or will it end in tears again?

The omens are ambivalent. The biggest plus is his form as a footballer which has been improving ever since his hesitant return to action in last summer's Umbro Cup. "He was playing 15 minutes a game then," said Terry Venables this week. "Then for the first three months in Scotland he was showing cameo parts, living on the edge of games. As the season has gone on he has been involved in bigger chunks of it and by the end he was taking games by the scruff of the neck. He is looking sharp now.

"He was sensational when he was at Tottenham and I think he might be just as good as that now, even a bit better. It is a difficult comparison because he does things slightly differently. He shares the ball around a bit quicker which releases him to go on his runs. Before, the first thing he thought of was beating people."

The change is partly because his pace has gone, sapped by injury and his "refuelling" habits. But it is also a natural change, similar to that made by John Barnes.

Gascoigne has said that his ambition is to go through a match without giving the ball away. If he can do so without reining in his ambition, it will be some performance. It is, however, an attainable goal. He is the best passer in the British game, not just because he sees passes few players can, but because all his passes, even the simple ones, are beautifully weighted, they are a gold-embossed invitation to his team-mates to play.

So, his ability is in place. What about his mood? Since the Hong Kong revelations broke Gascoigne has refused to talk to the press. One has sympathy with his view, even if the chief protagonist is a newspaper he has happily taken large sums of money from in the past and may do so again.

Beforehand, though, he was sounding good. He interviews the way he plays, expressively, almost compulsively, with nothing left out.

He may have more eloquent and thoughtful team-mates, but none are as revealing to talk to. Two snatches of conversation linger in the mind from a quiet moment in China.

One was a question about his knee. When Gascoigne sits down in his football kit it is the first thing you notice, whatever his hair colour and length. A deep, purple scar is etched into his right knee like a river on a map. There are even tributary scars, so many are the operations he has had.

"It is not something I like to dwell on," he said, "but it is always there as a reminder that I am one bad tackle away from my career being over. It does make you aware of the need to make the most of things."

If he was reflective then, he was angered a few minutes earlier when it was suggested that Euro 96 offered him a chance to re-establish himself as a top-class international. "I don't have to establish myself myself as anything," he countered. "I've been an international for seven years, I've played in Italy, I've won the double with Rangers."

Maybe, but deep down Gascoigne must be aware that he has failed to live up to the promise of his compelling performances in Italia 90. He is, Venables said, very motivated for this tournament. That, as Venables knows from the 1991 FA Cup final, is a double-edged mood.

"You must not douse his fire and take away what he is so good at. The passion is part of his game," said Venables. "Just as long as he doesn't go over that line."

The Scotland game, against last season's rivals and team-mates, may present the biggest test of his temperament. On previous form he will score a hat-trick and then get injured or sent off. Or, if he survives that, calamity will befall him in the semi-final.

But maybe his luck is changing, and his mind. In recent games he has begun to adjust to the defensive discipline required by Venables; in China he showed an unexpected maturity off the pitch, picking his way through an interminable dual-language press conference with perfect diplomacy.

For believers in fate, and Gascoigne seems more fated than most, the most telling incident came midway through last month's Scottish Cup final. Gascoigne was bursting towards the area when, from his right, came a lunging Hearts defender. It was a terrible tackle, Venables gasped when he saw it on television later. Gascoigne said: "It could have put me back in Princess Grace Hospital." Once it would have; this time Gascoigne saw it coming and rode the worst of it.

Gascoigne will always be unpredictable, that is part of his attraction. There is a sense of danger about him. Only a fool would predict his fortune this month but, for his engaging honesty, his transparent pleasure in playing the game, and, most of all, for his indomitable return from injuries which would have broken a lesser spirit, one hopes the gods are at last on his side. He ain't perfect, but for once he deserves their blessing.