‘English football’s most precocious and precious talent is evaporating into the skies over Italy like the fading flares of a half-spent Roman candle. Somebody, somewhere, has to be brave enough and rich enough to say, Gazza Come Home.’

This was the Sun on 18 February, the day after England’s World Cup match with San Marino. England had won the game six-nil, but this was not reckoned to be much of a result. Had not Norway recently put ten past these postmen and bus-drivers, these Serie B rejects? For days the English press had been predicting a double-figure massacre, with bags of goals for Gazza. On the night, though, England laboured, and four of the six goals arrived late in the game. By then the crowd had remembered the words of ‘Wot a Load of Rubbish’ and had taken to booing John Barnes every time he touched the ball. Poor Barnes, just back after a bad injury, had played as he always plays for England, abstractedly, but he had made one of the goals and had done some nice things now and then. Why the yob nastiness? Some observers believed that the crowd’s exasperation had more to do with Gascoigne than with Barnes. Gazza had struggled from the start. He had been jittery, ill-tempered, slow. After Noway and Turkey, this match was meant to be a Gazza-fest, but the star of the show looked as if he wished he wasn’t there. The hype-crazed fans had been let down–but how could they boo Gazza?

In fact, Gascoigne was by no means the feeblest England man on view. Nobody played well and the full backs, Dixon and Dorigo, probably had most to answer for; with no forwards running at them they should have been romping down the wings–getting to the byline, getting crosses in. Actually they did romp down the wings, but the crosses kept landing in the crowd behind the goal. Still, that was the way it was with Dixon and Dorigo: what did anyone expect? At one point, after Dorigo had been grounded with concussion, the England trainer told Graham Taylor: ‘Tony’s hurt–he doesn’t know who he is.’ To which Taylor is supposed to have replied: ‘Tell him he’s Ray Wilson.’ With Gascoigne the difficulty was that he was ‘not himself’, and most of the post-match analysis centred on this issue: what had gone wrong with our messiah?

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