Football: Gazza looks forward and back

Simon Turnbull sees Gazzamania, but on a reduced scale, as a national hero returns home
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THE last time Paul Gascoigne was afforded a hero's welcome on English soil he flashed a pair of plastic breasts for the cameramen and the 150,000 members of the public who had brought Luton Airport to a standstill. He flashed that once familiar square-jaw grin too.

Gazzamania on Teesside yesterday was not quite like the original midsummer outbreak eight years ago, when the clowning Geordie tugged at the nation's heartstrings with the tears he shed in the World Cup semi-final in Turin.

Only 1,500 locals ventured down to the Riverside to see the blubbering face of 1990 unveiled in a Middlesbrough shirt. And that face had clearly been marked by time.

"Do you think you could smile, Paul ?" a photographer implored as Gascoigne's seven-minute press conference drew to a close. He duly obliged, but departed wearing the same funereal mask which had shrouded the proceedings.

"I'm very excited," was his opening line when asked how it felt to be joining Middlesbrough. His demeanour suggested otherwise. So did his stern countenance and, by degrees, his words too.

When the attendant representative of the Caledonian press corps probed the raw nerve, Gascoigne initially held the hurt in check. "I'm not really going to get involved in that," he replied when asked if he felt he had been pushed out by Rangers.

He was soon, however, betrayed by his feelings. "I was really upset I left the way I did," Gascoigne confessed and duly emphasised the point while attempting to steer away from the subject. "The most important thing," he said, "is to get Rangers into the Premiership."

Getting Rangers out of his system might take more time than helping Middlesbrough back into the Premiership. And that could be a good thing for Boro, and for England. At 30, Gascoigne is back in his native North-east of England with a point to prove. His pride has clearly been wounded by his exit from Ibrox.

Two months after the tears of Turin it was suggested in the High Court that Gascoigne was more famous than the Duke of Wellington had been in 1815. Eight years on, Scottish football did not want to know him.

It remains to be seen whether Gazza met his Waterloo in Govan. Dick Advocaat might have deemed him unsuitable for his intended Ibrox blend but in Bryan Robson's opinion he is still an intoxicating spirit.

Gascoigne is the 14th player for whom Robson has paid pounds 1m or more in his four years as Middlesbrough's manager. His spending on transfer fees alone now stands at the pounds 45m mark.

At an estimated pounds 10m (pounds 3.45m to Rangers, the rest in wages over three and a half years) Gascoigne would appear to be an expensive gamble. Robson begged to differ.

"I know, when he's fit, I've bought the best midfield player in Britain," he said. "There's no doubt about that."

There is no doubt, either, that such faith is reciprocal. "I've come here not just to play in the North-east," Gascoigne said, "but to play for my favourite player, one of the guys I idolised. I'm just pleased to be part of Bryan's plans for the next three and a half years."

Gascoigne, by his own estimation, has joined his boyhood hero "70 per cent fit". "I probably need 10 days' training and a couple of games," he said. "As soon as I get 100 per cent fit you'll see the best of Paul Gascoigne."

At club level the best of Paul Gascoigne, however, has not been seen for more than a year now. His form, like his fitness, has been fitful since the January night last year when he suffered ankle damage clattering into the Ajax goalkeeper, the appositely named Fred Grim.

Not that Gascoigne would agree. Asked about his chances of featuring in Glenn Hoddle's World Cup plans, he pointed to the praise that followed his most recent nights of national service, last autumn.

"After the Moldova and Italy matches you lot wrote I was one of the greatest things since sliced bread," he said. "If you go on my last two games for England I would say my chances are good."

The chances of Boro's new boy featuring in their big day on Sunday are even better. "He's in the squad - that's all I'm saying," Robson replied when asked whether Gascoigne would face Chelsea in the Coca- Cola Cup final.

It seems certain, though, that Robson's new recruit will play some part, probably of the walk-on variety after the interval. Gascoigne is unlikely to be unleashed from the start, as he was with a painful vengeance in his last club match in England, the 1991 FA Cup final.

The kamikaze challenge on Gary Charles will doubtless be recalled on Sunday. But there is another side to the Gazza coin, one that could possibly pay a quick dividend for Middlesbrough and their gambling manager. Not that Robson had the best of luck with luxury items yesterday. His new Mercedes collided with a truck as he arrived at the Riverside.

Hoddle leans towards experience, page 28