England goalkeeper Ray Clemence loved to watch Paul Gascoigne train.
“Mastery of the ball was boring for Gazza,” he said. “Volleying the ball into the net from 30 yards out? He’d do it. In the end, he’d say, ‘I know I’ll do it with my eyes closed.’ He’d do that too. He’d try to find different ways to miskick the ball into the net.”
His most iconic moment in an England shirt were the tears in Turin. His booking against West Germany in the 1990 World Cup Semi-Final was academic in the end – he missed the third place play-off, not the Final – but it provoked intense emotion from the player and, later, from the rest of the world.
The tears should not overshadow his talent. In 57 caps, he gave us passages of greatness rather than the sustained excellence of a Bobby Charlton, but did enough for football writer Patrick Barclay to say that “in terms of technique, he was up there with Maradona.”
His first England manager, Bobby Robson, said of him: “He had all sorts of tricks. He could play the ball through an opponent. He could seem to be going one way but go the other. He could do the Cruyff trick where he opened his legs, flicked the ball between them and in half a second was off in the opposite direction. He could do all of those and change pace.
”A great strength was his running with the ball – not dribbling, though he could do that too – but running the ball 30, 40 yards up the pitch, even in the last minute.”
He had an aptitude for the game worthy of a Brazilian great. At just 23, in his first World Cup, he mastered the great Lothar Matthäus. In 1992, in a World Cup Qualifier, he shredded the Turkish defence single-handedly, scoring twice as England won 4-0.
At Euro 96, his flick and volley against Scotland was one of the best England goals ever. But then Gazza was, as Franz Beckenbauer said, “A true footballer of the streets – defiant, crafty and intrepid. He could cook up ideas you didn’t expect.”
He could have done more, as critics often noted, but he was still a true genius.