by Mark Critchley

Late night cab drivers infamously hear a lot of nonsense. Inebriated mumblings, intoxicated ramblings and even drunker fumblings prove a harvest for any front seat voyeur, apart from when they’re escorting my altered state home. That’s because when I’m drunk, all I go on about is Gazza.

Cue either disagreement or shared reverence between myself and the cabbie; one of the two generally ensues. Quite how this conversation begins I’m not too sure, but I do know how it can end. I know it can turn nasty, and I know it’s a long walk home.

Yet like every other tragic hero, from Milton’s Satan to Marlowe’s Faustus (and if we have to go there, yes, a bit like Marmite too), the essence of Paul Gascoigne is in this ambivalence. Take his excellent technique but add the alcoholism, mix his glowing personality with the domestic violence, add a splodge of sublime with a dollop of abhorrent and you’ve got a character who can command glowing warmth or uncomfortable dislike in equal measure, and is all the more encapsulating for it.

If there’s one focal point for Gascoigne, and admittedly a tired one at that, it is 1990. For the best part of that year, I was taking my nutrients from an umbilical cord and, although ‘Nessun Dorma’s popularity may have enhanced my barely formed brain cells, Gazzamania itself didn’t quite reach the womb, rendering my experience of that summer and most of his career as retrospective. But what a retrospect, and what a player.

Tenacity and technique; light feet stuck on powerful thighs; looking like crap but playing with cadence; forgive me if this at all sounds a bit erotic but Gascoigne sat bang in the middle of the midfielder’s Venn diagram at Italia ‘90. Hence from then on he screamed the problematic nature which still defines him; because when two worlds collide to form something so wonderful, what exactly do you call it?

I’m just happy to call him English. For once, the country had produced a player with artistry and imagination, and was lucky enough to have him on form at a major tournament. Taking on the Dutch and selling the Cruyff turn back to them; inspiring with exuberance against Cameroon in the quarter-final; scoring one of the greatest free-kicks Wembley has ever seen in the FA Cup semi-final a year later, and almost giving Barry Davies’ a knee trembler in the process; at these points, Gascoigne’s peak looked a long way off.

Sadly, it wasn’t. In the subsequent semi-final, such zeal cost him when a rash challenge on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles backfired and saw Gascoigne come off the worse, snapping his right knee’s cruciate ligament. Then followed a number of further serious injuries, each one diminishing the expectancy which surrounded his consequent return – much like how certain admirers of Gazza increasingly doubt the man’s capacity for sobriety with every breaking newsflash today.

I for one don’t, but cannot say I’m not concerned. Travis Bickle, perhaps the most famous of all cabbies, angrily promised to clean up “the dogs, the scum, the filth”; a category which Gascoigne has seemingly been swept under by the football fans (and in my experience, taxi drivers) whom once adored him.

Yet, whether he needs it or not, for simply being as fantastic a player as he was at one point, Gazza deserves our unreserved support and the knowledge that he is still greatly admired. For once, when it comes to the most ambivalent man in British football, there’s really no two ways about it.

Read more from Mark on his blog, Spotter’s Badge, and follow him on Twitter @markcritchley.