The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Gazza was and still is the greatest mistake of English footballing history. The “Hand of God” incident ranks pretty highly, but that was the fault of a Mr. Nasser, a lovely man I’m sure but a terrible referee. Wayne Rooney not being given anger management training before playing Portugal in 2004 and again in 2006 should be seen as an error, as should Beck’s decision to kick out at Diego Simeone despite the heavy nature of the challenge. But the biggest failure in English football history is the failure to manage a talent like Gazza correctly, a player like Rooney but simply better.
Gazza was recognised as a talent from a young age and developed to a certain extent to become an integral figure for Tottenham, Lazio and Rangers. His dribbling skills were considered to be incredible for the time, and his ability to see space led to driving runs from midfield ending in the penalty area and often resulting in game changing goals. His fantastic goal for Lazio in the Rome Derby, where he passed five players before hitting a wicked shot past the keeper to earn a late draw, made sure that his reputation was secure in Italy (in the suburbs of Rome at least). His genius in midfield can only really be compared to that of Iniesta in the current age, he was a rare talent since he was a passing midfielder who could dribble and shoot the ball as well as any winger or striker.
But with great talent, a player needs to have a great work ethic and self-control. Unfortunately for Gazza and England, wherever he went trouble seemed to follow him. The best example of this is his involvement in the England campaign in 1990. His yellow card in the semi-finals of the Italia world cup against Germany highlighted one of his problems: his desire to win and to be everywhere led to tactical problems. Gazza was voted into the team of the tournament but would have missed the final (had England been able to win a penalty shoot out) due to his picking up the yellow card against Germany. The same thing happened in 1996, and both times there was an emotional response as tears were shed on the pitch.
Off the pitch there were always difficulties, including a group of Roma fans spiking Gazza’s drink with LSD, a trip that took him on an adventure for two days. Alcohol was always a part of Gazza’s lifestyle, much in the same way as it was for George Best, and has lead to his hospitalisation for alcohol related problems on a number of occasions, including a trip to rehab two weeks ago. There were various adventures with dentist chairs and kebabs while on duty for the national team and Gazza was more than open about all of his adventures. He was seen as a professional athlete in the old fashioned style, as his talent enabled him to play well on the field, while off the field he was simply a normal person who liked to go to the pub with his friends. His brief stint as manager of Kettering Town lasted only 39 days and didn’t even result in a contract for that period.
Gazza is the sort of player that comes about once in a generation and it was fortunate for England that he represented the 3 Lions. Lest we forget how important he was he did have two video games named after him at his height and released a track called “Fog on the Tyne” that reached number 2 in England. His mark on English football was incredible at the time, but now his legacy makes us realise that some players deserve extra support through the stressful periods of their careers and retirement. And unless we want Gazza (and future stars like Wazza and Wilshere) to end up like George Best, there needs to be more support for the mental side of football and stardom. Michael Johnson, the Manchester City midfielder, had his career finish at 22 due to medical problems as well as mental issues, so even today there are careers that finish early due to the same problems that plagued Gazza during his career and after.