Gazza Agonistes

The first time I recall seeing Paul Gascoigne play was the Euro ’96 game against Scotland. David Seaman has just elbowed Gary McAllister’s penalty onto the crossbar and the ball loops out for a corner. England win a freekick which Seaman lumps up field. There are around twelve minutes left. The ball is flicked out to Darren Anderton by Teddy Sheringham; Anderton plays a deft, scooped ball into the path of the onrushing Paul Gascoigne. Gazza, all peroxide bustle and dash, knocks the ball up over the closing Colin Hendry with his left foot, leaving the Scot on his arse as he sprawls to recover, before hammering a volley with his right past Rangers club-mate Andy Goram. He explodes, seemingly unable to know what to do with himself, the energy and relief that accompanies any goal compounded by his own personal joy at performing in front of the home crowd, his mentor Terry Venables, and at issuing yet another rejoinder to the critics who said his sojourn north of the border was symptomatic of his wane.


And then, in a moment of pure Gazza, attended to by his coterie of teammates turned fellow clowns, he throws himself on the ground, arms outstretched, as they squirt water into his mouth from bottles to evoke the dentist’s chair drinking game of a pre-tournament trip to the Far East. This is Gazza redux, a moment of sublime, game-turning wonder followed immediately by tomfoolery and mirth, a rejoinder and release at the same time, a bathetic silliness to accompany the moment of at once cool and instinctive footballing brilliance.

I was fourteen when Euro ’96 unfurled in resolutely English fashion, promising so much and then failing to deliver at the last. I was too young to read the tabloids, too young to be aware of Paul Gascoigne, or more appropriately of his dominant alter-ego Gazza, as anything more than the sometime flickering genius around whom we built our hopes in the tournament. I do not remember Italia ’90, when, so we are told, a nation fell in love with football, nor was I especially part of the post-’92 modernisation, or gentrification, of football. I did, occasionally, watch Football Italia on Channel 4, and I suppose I should remember Gazza from his appearances on that, but in truth, I was there for the goalkeeping, not the oddities of presentation that made this idiosyncratic football show such a retrospective pleasure. This period was a watermark, the era when, as Simon Featherstone writes, football appeared to undergo “a revocation of [its] working-class heritage”, the result of an attempt “to broaden the appeal of football by dissociating it from the restrictive cultural codes that had marked its earlier history in England” and a growth of fan “discourses of emotion or passion…[displacing] the largely inarticulate social rituals of football’s past.” Gazza straddled this period, had a gifted footballing foot in both the old and new.

Granta is a highbrow literary magazine, not the expected location for a piece on a footballer. In 1993, the year after Fever Pitch and Sky, it published a full-length essay-cum-biography by poet and critic Ian Hamilton titled . The title is a pretty horrible pun on Milton’s Samson Agonistes, evoking a parallel between strong, dumb Samson and gifted, dumb Gascoigne (Samson also suffered being tricked and dying in Gaza, which is a bit toe-curling even to write, let alone dwell on). Milton asks “But what is strength without a double share / Of wisdom?” and Hamilton, it seems, does the same. He first saw Gazza playing in the black and white of Newcastle 9 years before I saw him in the white of England: “I didn’t exactly fall for him that day but I certainly looked twice.” Hamilton was looking for a hero, though, for his team Spurs and for England: “Most soccer fans have a need to get hooked on the fortunes of a single player, to build a team around him so to speak. When England played well without Hoddle, I took a diminished pleasure in their triumphs…On the other hand, if Glenn had played, had made the winning goal, our patriotic joy would have been boundless.” Hamilton describes this odd process of discernment and fixation, of fanaticism, of being “part yob, part connoisseur.” Hamilton describes too the interplay between the Newcastle instantiation of Gazza and his forward, the Brazilian flop Mirandinha. He speculates that Gazza is trying to get a rise out of the expensive import, to send him up by playing the ball to where he should have been, before deciding that, in fact, Gazza is trying to impress the striker, to please him. As Hamilton correctly states, such supposition is “the spectator’s fate – we watch but in the end we have to guess.” It is this distance that allows us to project such interpretations or, even, fantasies, onto players, and no one invited such projection more than Gazza.

Gazza2As Hamilton says towards the end of the book, “we live in dreams, we soccer fans, and after a time we learn how to hoist ourselves from one dream to the next.” Hamilton began to dream of a Lilywhite Gazza, despite the usual caveats expressed by all and sundry, the weight, the headless chicken approach to matches, the occasionally selfish play, the (god forbid) banter, the pranks and drinking and vulgarity. His dream came true and the “Geordie hick”, as some unkind London souls described him came south to the Big Smoke, the “brilliant but inconsistent” talent at once energising and frustrating Spurs fans. His time in the white of north London came to an end with the infamous tackle against Nottingham Forest, which injured his knee, his pride, and his chances of fulfilling both his long-term potential and, in the immediate, his move to S.S. Lazio, which was eventually completed for a reduced price. Hamilton charts his time with the Italian club, the successes and the injuries, the home-sickness and stupid antics, what Hamilton describes as Gascoigne’s ability to make “short work of his halo”. He also describes his time at Rangers, with domestic success marred by indiscipline and failure in European competition, as well as the stupid sectarian celebration and the pressure of Glasgow’s febrile footballing atmosphere. The original essay ends with the dribbling away of Gascoigne’s promise at Middlesbrough, although the book version adds a postscript, to which I will return.

Of course, Gazza is perhaps most known for being metonymic of the English men’s national team’s succession of near misses and spectacular failures in the period. While Hamilton describes Gazza as at times appearing “oafish and deranged, not at all the sort of man to whom you would entrust a nation’s pride”, he recognises that as the most gifted midfielder, or perhaps player, of his generation, Gascoigne could have brought something special to England. Indeed, at times, he did, but it is fitting that his most memorable moment is one of bathos, of failure, the tears during the Italia ’90 semi-final. As Hamilton notes, “The warrior’s tears were felt as patriotic tears, our tears” despite their elicitation being the result of selfishness of being booked and thus condemned to miss the final, should England have reached it, as Hamilton himself recognises. Such conflicted reaction was typical of the weirdly oscillating view of Gazza that he had to endure for his whole career. When things were good, Gazza was good: “His immaturity was now being hymned as ‘childlike’; his aggression was ‘fire’, ‘guts’, ‘determination’; his yob prankishness sprang from a simple need to ‘entertain’.” When things were not good, when he played poorly or behaved so appallingly that even the greatest Gazza apologists had to censure him (such as the hideous litany of domestic violence and abuse visited on his partner then wife Sheryl), the press’ appetite for uncovering yet more pushed Gazza further into the spiral of drinking and isolation that football increasingly did little to ameliorate. As Hamilton points out, this media-driven desire to expose and criticise, while sometimes merited, became obsessive: after the Cup Final tackle “in England the fear that a great talent may have been destroyed was less pressing than the need to pontificate, to gloat.”

Gazza3But there is sympathy in Hamilton’s essay for this tortured, hounded Gazza, the “daft as a brush” lad, first seen as “plump, twitchy, and pink-faced, and on the small side” (the twitching especially, the result of witnessing a childhood friend die in a car accident) transformed into a poisonous clown, capable of reminding us of his sublime gifts, but ultimately at best asinine, at worst deeply unpleasant. The sympathy stems from the root of this transformation or, rather, the situation that seemed to force Gazza into much, if not all, of his behaviour (there never is and never will be an excuse of any sort for domestic violence). Gazza was unlucky enough to emerge at a period of transition in football, as I described above. Alongside the increase in press interest in footballers and the general growth of celebrity and tabloid ‘culture’, the post-Sky explosion of the game’s financial clout merged with the cultural shifts described above. Gazza was subject to all of this. He was one of some sort of ‘us’, one of the terrace lads of old football, but he was also glitzy, tabloid, famous, rich, a harbinger of new football. And he cried. That was new football, the football of Hornby, sport as psychological catharsis, not working class pastime. Hamilton describes this tension as rooted in class: “In England, there was an essential hostility to Gazza: a class fear, a culture-dread…If we were to meet him, we’d be ill at ease – both awed and condescending, with condescension somehow managing to win the day.”

Of course, this is a very subjective ‘we’, the ‘we’ of ‘new’ football. Hamilton, as a poet, literary figure, intellectual, presents an engaged, even affectionate portrait of Gazza, but he cannot escape the fact that his sketch of the man is distanced by his own position. A review in The Independent described Hamilton as an “armchair biographer”, an unfair slight given his regular attendance at games and his visits to Rome when Gazza was at Lazio to do research, but this elision with the sort of fan who came flocking to football post-Italia ’90 is instructive. Hornby and Hamilton were genuine, match-going fans, but they represented a shift in the football consumer and gave that new consumer a voice. Gazza’s tragedy was that he straddled this period, as much as it was his personal demons, the alcoholism and eating disorders, the twitches and obsessive behaviour. He could not fit neatly into old or new football and ended up being disliked or, at the least, distrusted by both.

Hamilton himself, in his postscript to Gazza Agonistes in the Faber edition, recalls that Euro ’96 goal against the Scots, my first experience of Gazza, describing it as a “beautifully crafted” goal followed by “a tawdry spectacle” of a celebration. With horrible prolepsis, he writes in hope that he might see “the real Gazza, at long last, in top form for the millennium. And why not? After all, in 2000, Gascoigne will only be – what? – thirty three. The best, perhaps, is yet to come.” It was, of course, not to come. Gazza’s career tailed off into further injury, short spells for lower league clubs and a tiny stint in China, an unsuccessful attempt at coaching, and then a continuing tailspin into alcoholism and occasional mania. He is now a fallen idol, a shattered fraction of his former self, prone to meltdowns on social media and destructive, insane behaviour. His elevation and debasement was in some ways an unwanted, though perhaps necessary, exorcism of the ‘old’ football in the eyes of its neophyte consumers but it left a broken man in its wake. Gazza Agonistes is at once a fitting tribute to that man and emblematic of the process that broke him.


Simon Featherstone, Englishness: Twentieth Century Popular Culture and the Forming of English Identity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

Ian Hamilton, (London: Faber and Faber, 2011; first published as Granta 45, 1993).

The Independent, book review by Robert Winder (published 26/11/1993)

This article first appeared in – my thanks to Mark Godfrey for commissioning it


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