It was never just about the football with Gazza but rather the journey he took you on as a character. He was relatable, first and foremost as a man. From a tiny corner of the North East called Dunston, he brought Newcastle United fans along with him, then Tottenham Hotspur fans and, finally, England as a whole.
Football drove him and entertaining fuelled him. He glided across a pitch effortlessly, without a care for who the opponent was or how they would try to stop him. The joy he possessed and exuded almost preceded him. His personality captured hearts but propelled him to his greatest England moments; the tears on the pitch against Germany in 1990 and Bobby Robson’s consoling pep talk which followed was a peak behind the curtain.
He was still fresh to a nation at that point, a kid who came with no pretence. Football was about to become more corporate, more serious and less accessible than ever but Gazza reminded everybody what it really meant and just how much emotion played a part.
In 1996, Gazza wasn’t the youngster anymore, he was 29 years of age but known to love a party. His child-like ways gave him an edge on the pitch, he showed as much against Scotland in the group stage but found himself on the back foot with fans and the press that summer, after playing a key role in a night of heavy drinking and hijinks in Hong Kong which has almost became as famous as his goal against England’s closest rivals at Wembley.
The tragedy of Gazza is that his magic was also his curse. As a showman, with no inhibitions or real sense of responsibility, he thrived. Unfortunately he also exasperated teammates who had to take turns looking after him off the pitch around international camps, while simultaneously staying on red alert to guard against his next practical joke.
Of course he went too far but, in a strange way, that was part of his charm. Patience would invariably be tested for players and coaching staff alike but, in the end, they always put up with him because he was worth it. He represented a chance. Gazza was a leveller, a unique specimen never seen before or replicated since. Once the football stopped, the adulation and the camaraderie disappeared, big life problems began for him.
Nobody loves comparisons and rewriting history like English football fans and they are often spurred on by the press. Gazza found out himself just how far sections of the pack will go for a story, a hook and a narrative. Despite Gareth Southgate guiding England to the same stage in 2018, the semi-final showings remain the benchmark of togetherness and quality for a nation which has so often struggled for both when it mattered, even today.
There is an obsession with recreating the atmosphere from both, particularly Euro ’96, with England playing tournament football on home soil for the first time since this a summer as part of a Europe-wide hosting programme.
England want a hero. Somebody to build up and around, a man to pin everything on. It is the complete antithesis of their love of a scapegoat. If it goes well, hero status is guaranteed but if it goes badly? Well, you better run and hide with no access to the front or back pages for a few weeks. Just ask David Beckham, or Wayne Rooney, or even Gazza himself.
The hunt has started again and Gazza is the blueprint. The belief is that, in this technical football landscape, strength, pace and power won’t cut it alone. If England are to finally bring football home this summer, they need that bit of magic; somebody who can take a game by the scruff of the neck.
Jack Grealish, the Aston Villa playmaker, is the prime candidate. He is, as the belief garnering more of a consensus says, the most exciting player to wear the England shirt since Gazza. Ignoring the impact Michael Owen made in the 1998 World Cup or Rooney at Euro 2004. This is classic English sensationalist hyperbole, generated by the desire to force a narrative into the pre-tournament national discourse. Grealish has not announced himself with any real gusto, which may actually serve him to become a success for England in the future, but it waters down any link he has with Gazza, who exploded.
The 25-year-old is a superb footballer and he can be a difference maker but he isn’t raw anymore. His game was refined at Aston Villa in both the Premier League and Championship but only now is he reaping the rewards. Any suggestion he can carry the team like Gazza did is based on myth and prediction given his lack of international experience. Southgate is aware of both men’s quality, having played with one and coached the other and there is no guarantee that he trusts Grealish enough yet.
Players love hearing their names in context with past legends as it proves they are on track and often get into playing football to emulate their heroes. Phil Foden is another creative midfielder who has been spoken about with reference to Gazza and even went on to dye his hair the same silver as Gazza had 25 years ago.
Perhaps to them it is complimentary but, looking at the bigger picture, obsessing over the ‘new Gazza’, which has been a long-running thing, is unhealthy. It both adds unnecessary pressure on the player in question and strips them of their own identity but also badly undermines the wider cultural impact Gazza had. He was unique, and should stay that way, regardless of whether somebody surpasses him or not.
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