Paul Gascoigne made his Spurs debut on September 3, 1988, ironically against Newcastle United, the club where he had started his career. But he could so easily have been making his Manchester United bow that afternoon had Alex Ferguson acquired his signature – something both parties may well regret to this day.
In 1988 the football landscape was very different from that of today with English clubs banned from European competition following the Heysel tragedy and despite not being able to play on foreign shores domestic football was very much dominated by a Liverpool side who were leaving any would-be challengers in their wake.
Meanwhile, Manchester United were languishing in the wilderness having not won the league for more than 20 years and although Alex Ferguson may have had ambitions of removing Liverpool from their perch, he was far from achieving it anytime soon.
At the same time, up in Newcastle, a young lad who survived on a diet of Mars bars and Brown Ale, was making a name for himself long before ‘Gazzamania’ had even been heard of.
It was during the previous season that the man who was to turn around the fortunes of one of the most famous clubs in the world first clapped eyes on a player who he envisaged performing a pivotal role in one of the biggest rebuilding projects since Old Trafford was flattened by the Luftwaffe in 1941.
When Manchester United and Newcastle met at St James’ Park on Boxing Day 1987 the Magpies were hovering just above the relegation zone, but that didn’t deter the young Gascoigne, who continued to play with the freedom and creativity that would eventually bring him to the attention of the world
“My three central midfielders that day were Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside and Remi Moses,” Ferguson later explained. “All great footballers and he just tore them apart. When he nutmegged Moses and patted him on the head, I was out of the dug-out shouting ‘Get that f****** so-and-so’. Robbo and Whiteside were chasing him up and down the pitch and they couldn’t get near him.”
Ferguson knew what potential the soon-to-be PFA Young Player of the Year had at his disposal and the pivotal role he could play in an ageing United side who were desperate for an exciting midfield play-maker.
Unsurprisingly, the Scot wasn’t the only manager aware of this young lad from Dunston as a number of sides had been keeping tabs on him for a number of seasons, meaning that when he did become available there would be a huge scramble to prize him away from his beloved Newcastle.
United appeared to have got the upper hand though when, in the summer of 1988, talks between the player and then manager had gone well with an impressed Gascoigne even being shown around the club’s stadium and training facilities with a move apparently imminent.
“We spoke to him the night before I went on holiday,” Ferguson would later reveal. “He said, ‘Go and enjoy yourself Mr Ferguson, I’ll be signing for Manchester United.’ So I went on my holidays. But then Chairman Martin Edwards rang and said ‘I’ve got some bad news – he signed for Tottenham,’ I was furious.”
A last-minute U-turn had seen Gascoigne join Tottenham who were managed by former Barcelona boss Terry Venables in a decision which many still feel shaped the future of the youngster’s career and not entirely for the better.
“Spurs offered my family a house and United wouldn’t match it,” Gascoigne later explained. “I wanted to look after my mum and dad. Then they offered my sister a sunbed in the contract, which she got.”
Gascoigne signed for Tottenham in a then-record £2.3 million move and so furious was Ferguson that he didn’t speak to him for almost a decade, 10 years which would see the two men’s fortunes go in very different directions.
United won the FA Cup in 1990 by beating Crystal Palace at Wembley in a replay, a trophy which would propel the club to a period of success never seen before as they finally won their first league title for 26 years just three-seasons later before dominating the English game for the next 25 years.
Gascoigne’s dream move to Spurs, however, would soon turn into something of a nightmare with the only highlight during his spell at the club being the 1991 FA Cup final, but he would leave the field that day on a stretcher long before Spurs captain Gary Mabbutt climbed the famous 39 steps to receive the cup.
His reckless tackle in the early stages of that final would result in him rupturing his cruciate ligament before spending almost a year on the side-lines; just the start of a battle with injuries that would ultimately blight the rest of his career which might well have been so different had Fergie got his man.
Ferguson’s knack of man-managing often highly volatile characters while getting the best out of them on the field is well documented and could have made all the difference to a player of the greatest ability who was also susceptible to some of the biggest demons going.
His capacity to rid United of the booze culture that existed at Old Trafford when he first arrived at the club in the mid-1980s, to transform Eric Cantona from rebellious renegade into club captain, and the way he nurtured a young Ryan Giggs from shy teenager into global superstar are just a few examples of his ability to offer guidance as well as crack the whip.
Gascoigne would also have enjoyed playing alongside some of the greatest talents in the game had he picked Old Trafford over White Hart Lane and the thought of him teaming up with Bryan Robson in the middle of the park, feeding a young Ryan Giggs down the wing or supplying Eric Cantona with and endless supply of through-balls is almost too much for most Reds fans to comprehend.
Gazza would eventually leave Spurs for Lazio in 1992 when the Italian club forked out £5.5 million for the services of a player they felt still had plenty to offer, though his chance of joining United had long-since passed as he became something of a footballing journeyman; eventually finishing his career at Boston United after a successful period in Scotland with Rangers.
“I do look back and think about what would have been if I had joined, what would I have won at Man United?” he would later reveal. “When I signed for Spurs, Man United weren’t winning everything, but then all the young kids came through and they started winning everything. It’s probably one of the regrets I have.”