SPEAK to Paul Gascoigne about Leeds United and he breaks into one of those trademark grins which he is famous for.
In true ‘Gazza’ style, a wisecrack is not too far away either – one that can only be aired after the ‘watershed’ mind – but it is also accompanied by a sense of what might have been.
Back in the close season of 1995, Leeds called, as did Glasgow Rangers and Chelsea and if things had been different, the most gifted midfielder of his generation could have been playing in front of the Gelderd End as opposed to the Govan Stand.
What a delicious thought that would have been.
It was a move which got close. Director Bill Fotherby, the Elland Road deal-maker entrusted with bringing in some stardust to Leeds amid the largely fallow post-Cantona era, surreptitiously headed over to Italy to speak with Gascoigne’s club Lazio.
Over dinner, Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti told Fotherby that he would do a deal, while imploring him not to tell a soul that Leeds were in for Gazza.
I went to Rangers and never looked back, but I think it would have been the same with Leeds.Paul Gascoigne
The story goes that Fotherby got up the following morning, went for breakfast and picked up the La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper and was drawn to the striking headline: ‘Fotherby, managing director of Leeds United, here to sign Gascoigne.’
Cragnotti’s bid to smoke out others worked. Interest hardened from Rangers in particular with Walter Smith enjoying a more successful Italian expedition than Fotherby, heading to the hills above Rome to find Gascoigne’s abode and convince him to head to Scotland.
Leeds’s loss was unquestionably Rangers’ gain.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Gascoigne said: “I nearly signed for Leeds, but I ended up turning them down and joining Rangers.
“Chelsea also wanted to sign me, but I was not going there and the only English club I would have gone for was Leeds.
“But I ended up going to Rangers. Terry Butcher said: ‘go there and give it a try’ as they had Ally McCoist and Gordon Durie there. I went there and never looked back, but I think it would have been the same with Leeds.
“But I did not realise that after signing for Rangers, the next England game was at Elland Road (against Sweden) and I got hammered!
“Elland Road was an intimidating place. I remember taking a corner once and it was really scary. They were all singing Leeds, Leeds, Leeds.
“I also remember playing there with Tottenham and the ball came across and I was ten yards out with an open goal. I had just split up with my first girlfriend and the Leeds fans were hammering me saying: ‘Where’s your girlfriend gone.’
“The ball came across and I miskicked it and it went over the bar. It was the Leeds fans who definitely put me off. But it was a great atmosphere at a great club.”
A gifted footballer whose ball-playing ability would not have looked out of place in the great Leeds side of the early Seventies, Gascoigne believes he would have felt at home off the pitch in the Yorkshire city too.
It is a place he has visited several times, enjoying the ‘craic’ with its football-obsessed natives, whose fervent desire to witness success at one of the game’s sleeping giants – much like his hometown club Newcastle United – is all-consuming.
Just like Newcastle, Leeds is a 24-7 football-mad city and it is something that Gascoigne is quick to pay deference to.
“Every time I go to do a venue in Leeds, the fans are absolutely brilliant. It is like a home town to me,” Gascoigne continued.
“I have also been there a couple of times shopping and what I used to do was – if I was having a drink and did not want any people to know from where I lived – I used to shoot off to Leeds and go to the Living Room and the fans were brilliant.
“I watched a documentary on Leeds when they beat Manchester United to win the league and Leeds is a huge, huge club and I do think that one day, something might happen at Leeds which is similar to Manchester City with some big chairman coming in with loads of cash and investing in that club.
“At one time, with the young kids coming through, they were a great side. You had Rio Ferdinand, Alan Smith and Lee Bowyer and Ian Harte at left-back – and then there was the ‘big lump’ up front in Mark Viduka.
“Leeds is a sleeping giant and that team will come good again and the supporters are second to none. Every time I do a venue there, it is packed and the supporters are fantastic.
“Not so long ago I had 1,600 people there and it showed how much that club is a sleeping giant. I feel welcome every time I go there; I don’t know why.”
His memories of time with ex-international colleagues who played for Leeds also endure to this day, as do recollections of time playing at Yorkshire’s other great footballing powerhouse of Sheffield.
Gascoigne added: “I used to room with David Batty for a spell with England and it was brilliant. I remember when he joined the England B team and he didn’t have a tie so I lent him one.
“He was a salt-of-the-earth bloke and I know he likes motor bikes now. I also remember Nigel Martyn and he was a funny lad and I remember him coming up to the B team and borrowing his dad’s van.
“They were the times, bloody hell ... Yorkshire is a great football place. I remember the massive end at Sheffield Wednesday where the terrace went right back. We got a couple of good players from Wednesday and United who played for Newcastle such as Glyn Hodges and Tony Cunningham. Gary Megson too.”
After some much-publicised travails since retirement, Gascoigne is currently in a good place, with projects in the pipeline and his enthusiasm for life undiminished despite some hard knocks.
It is news that should be received warmly by any football fan, regardless of club colours, while collectively keeping fingers crossed for an individual whose vulnerability and fragility off the pitch has always contrasted starkly with his exuberance and carefreeness on it.
Gascoigne, now 52, said: “I am doing well and enjoying life again. You know me, I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. But everything is good and I am happy and I have a new manager at M and N Management. Everything is on the up.
“I have a book out next year called: ‘Thirty Years of Hurt’ and that will be exciting.
“I am really busy. It is good to be this way and I look forward to getting up in the morning.”
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Paul Gascoigne ... A football life...
1967: Born Gateshead, May 27.
1985: Football League debut for Newcastle United as substitute against QPR at St James’ Park.
1985-88: Makes 106 League and cup appearances for Newcastle, scoring 22 goals.
1988: Joins Tottenham for £2m. Makes England debut as substitute against Denmark at Wembley.
1989: Scores first goal for England in a 5-0 win over Albania at Wembley.
1990: Stars in Italia 90 World Cup fas England reach semi-finals, only to lose to West Germany on penalties.
1991: Ruptures cruciate ligaments in FA Cup final against Nottingham Forest. Later damages knee again in nightclub accident.
1992: Completes £5.5m move to Lazio from Tottenham.
1995: Joins Rangers for £4.3m.
1996: Plays starring role in England’s run to semi-finals of Euro 96.
1998: Joins Middlesbrough for £3m. Later Left out of England’s World Cup squad by Glenn Hoddle. Admitted to hospital with stress and drink problems in October.
2000: Joins Everton. Eventually retires in 2004 after short spells at Burnley and Chinese B-League side Gansu Tianma and as player-coach as Boston United.
2005: Has a 39-day stint in charge of Conference North club Kettering.