Having led Wales to a first World Cup finals appearance in 64 years, Gareth Bale is rightly getting a whole heap of plaudits. What he has done in the last decade with his country quite possibly makes him the greatest Welsh player of all time, challenging the feats of the late, great John Charles.
Bale has even been lauded as one of the best British footballers ever in light of his national team performances and five Champions League wins with Real Madrid, with former England striker Darren Bent saying Bale now sits on the same level as Wayne Rooney as the greatest these isles have produced over the last 40 years.
But to claim that is to forget about the sheer genius of Paul Gascoigne.
Let’s get it out of the way right now… Gazza has had his demons down the years. At 55, he is a shadow of his former self after an adult life full of addiction, mental illness, legal issues and various other scrapes. But if he was a well-spoken pundit instead, like so many of his contemporaries these days, not a single broadcast would go by without him being praised for his brilliance, and replays of his immense skill would be at every TV producer’s fingertips.
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Gazza could do things with a ball no British player could ever claim to match. He had the heart, desire, bravery and battling qualities to be able to more than hold his own in the middle of the park in an age when refereeing leniency meant that pretty much anything was allowed to pass for a tackle. He would have opponents doing their best to kick him, beat him up, whatever it took to end his runs, yet he had the ball control to be able to take himself on many a mazy run without ever looking likely to lose possession.
At his very best, he was simply unstoppable, and he so often saved his greatest performances for the big occasions. His run of form at both the 1990 World Cup in Italy and Euro 96 at Wembley will never be forgotten, while his match-winning exploits in the Rome derby for Lazio were something to behold.
The fact that he had his career blighted by injury and controversy meant his brilliance could often be clouded, but there can be no underestimating his place as the most naturally gifted player to have graced British football since the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan, even Bobby Charlton and George Best, were tearing opposition teams apart.
The reckless foul he committed on Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup final, which resulted in him rupturing his cruciate ligaments in his right knee, was the last we would see of him in English club football for seven years. Perhaps that is why his on-field legacy in some people’s minds is not what it deserves to be.
👀 “In my era and lifetime, I would have to go for Wayne Rooney or Gareth Bale!”
🔥 “They're the best two!”
@DarrenBent believes Rooney and Bale are the best British players ever! 🇬🇧
After taking over a year to recover from that setback, Gascoigne completed his long-awaited move to Lazio in Serie A, and three years later he was snapped up by Rangers. It was in those leagues that he dazzled rather than the revelling in the English Premier League, and the increasing spotlight on the new top flight meant that Gazza’s continuing brilliance was left in the shadows of the wider public consciousness.
But make no mistake, Gazza was technically flawless on the ball, with the physical game to make him every bit as imposing as he needed to be on the cut-up pitches and in the more carefree era of the 1990s. Of course, he did play some Premier League football eventually, signing for Middlesbrough and then Everton as his career began to wind down, but he was not his old self by that point.
He still had time to influence a young Wayne Rooney in his Goodison Park days, and the England record goalscorer was even known as ‘Wazza’ among his national teammates thanks to his prodigious talent.
Yet even Rooney himself will tell you that Gascoigne was on another level. Bale has been fantastic for Wales, less so for Real Madrid in recent times. Rooney was sensational for a long spell with Manchester United and England. But neither had the influence on games or the magic in their feet that Gazza could boast back in the day.
If he’d played amid the hype of the modern day, there would be no doubting Gazza’s place at the top of the tree.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change