“Those who become famous are up there for our use. The most they can hope for is to be used well, but used they always are. They are our dreams come true, not theirs.”

(Clive James, ‘Fame In The 20th Century’)

“I’ve had 14 operations and I deserve it more than anyone. I’ve knocked back the critics. I knew how good I was,” so bellowed Paul Gascoigne in the post-match interview down the Ibrox tunnel, a reflective breather between a brilliant demonstration of individual brilliance five minutes before and picking up the Scottish Player of the Year award a few hours later.

A career that seemed to be forever intertwined with genius and tragedy appeared to finally have some stability and consistency. The joyful revelation that was his international introduction juxtaposed with those tears in Turin. Tottenham’s FA Cup campaign of 1991 was propelled in the semi-final by his free kick against Arsenal, which started in a different postcode of Wembley, but was then shaken by his reckless wild challenge on Gary Charles in the final against Nottingham Forest, an incident that delayed his transfer to Lazio.

His header in the Rome derby that endeared him to the Irriducibili proved to be a false dawn in a spell littered with serious injury and clownish idiocy. Finally now, under the reliable hand of Walter Smith, there appeared to be genuine happiness in the world of Gazza as those gifts were harnessed to drive Rangers towards a double. Never was that more in evidence than on that bright April afternoon at Ibrox when his talent sometimes simply transcended a hitherto team sport. The problem with such unbridled natural ability, however, is the adulation that comes with it and, especially when embodied in such a vulnerable soul, it can be almost impossible to control.

The league title race of season 1995/96 was a lot closer than is often remembered. Only during the famous final-day decider in 1991 were Rangers under greater pressure during the Nine-in-a-Row era. Tommy Burns’ Celtic would famously lose only one league game, to Rangers and Paul Gascoigne in the opening Old Firm clash back in September. It was the 11 draws that were fatal to their challenge and two of those, home and away to Kilmarnock, came on the same weekends when Rangers lost to Hearts. Any slip by the champions could never be fully exploited and, despite the tiresome poetry written about that side’s ‘cavalier football’, they scored 11 goals fewer than a more balanced and clinical Rangers. With a single-point advantage by the penultimate game of the season, Walter Smith knew that a win at home to Aberdeen would seal the title and anything less would roll it onto the final day of the season, at Rugby Park, and a situation that he had managed to avoid for five years.

It was the following night that saw the famous Kevin Keegan outburst live on Sky, the week after Alex Ferguson had suggested that Leeds United had raised their game against his side and perhaps wouldn’t when Newcastle United visited. With that in mind, Richard Gough attempted to play the same kind of mind games with Aberdeen by saying that they were the ‘Leeds United of Scotland’. This prompted a degree of rage from captain Stewart McKimmie and manager Roy Aitken, who claimed that ‘there’s been nothing much between us this season.’ If we ignore the 30-point gap then Aitken had a case. Rangers had won 1-0 on their two visits to the North East but had lost 2-1 on a very disappointing night at Hampden in the Coca-Cola League cup semi-final. The other remaining encounter was a torrid 1-1 draw at Ibrox when Paul Gascoigne should have been sent off by John Rowbotham when he head-butted John Inglis while Billy Dodds and John Brown were involved in another altercation. Eoin Jess and Oleg Salenko threatened to bring the game into repute with a couple of fine goals, but it was a long-standing bitterness that endured.

For such a decisive fixture, Smith decided on a very attacking line-up. A familiar rearguard of Goram, Brown, McLaren and Gough was in place, with the reliable David Robertson, who had told Craig Brown not to bother with him at Euro 96' if he wasn’t first choice ahead of Tosh McKinley, at left wing-back and the ageing Trevor Steven on the other side. It was only Stuart McCall who provided any defensive cover in midfield, with Gascoigne, Laudrup, Durie and Erik Bo Andersen providing the attacking threat. The latter, with six goals in four games, was picked ahead of Ally McCoist, who had to make do with a place on the bench amidst intense speculation that this would be his final season at Ibrox. (He would sign a new two-year deal within the fortnight.) Aberdeen matched the 3-5-2 shape, with Michael Watt taking his place in goal, Gary Smith, John Inglis and Brian Irvine in defence, Stewart McKimmie and the highly rated Stephen Glass on the flanks, David Rowson, Paul Bernard and Dean Windass in midfield with Billy Dodds and Scott Booth in attack.

READ MORE: The day Rangers' 10-in-a-Row dream started to fade - Martyn Ramsay

The visitors were comfortable in their defensive shape, cutting out the threat of David Robertson on the few early occasions that he was able to break free. They had a threat themselves from Billy Dodds, booed by the home support, who had a good effort from distance in the first ten minutes. Just before the 20-minute mark, Aberdeen were ahead. A Stephen Glass corner was missed by Richard Gough, bandaged already after a head clash with Brian Irvine, and it was his opponent who was well-placed to opportunistically bundle the ball past Goram and Trevor Steven on the line. If an Ibrox party atmosphere had ever pierced through the tension then it was dampened quickly with a quite dreadful goal to concede. “The prevailing mood around the stadium was, ‘Ok we’re going to make it hard for ourselves,’” remembers David Edgar. “We are going to do this in the proper Rangers way by putting everyone through the mill.” 

The lull didn’t have time to take root and create a permanent state of anxiety. Rangers forced a corner two minutes later and Laudrup played the ball to Gascoigne on the front edge of the box. The rest was purely on him. He glided past Dodds and then Windass before managing to get it onto his right foot to rifle it past Watt and up into the roof of the net. “They’re aware of what he is going to do. They’re set for him. They know what’s coming,” said David. “But to do it, to adjust his body, to generate the power with no back lift and get it past Watt who, for his other faults, was a good shot-stopper, was incredible. He could do it in big games. A game where we needed our special players to do something special.”

The narrative of the rest of the first half was one of Rangers trying everything to get through a solid defensive set-up with just the odd moment of concern at the other end. Laudrup and Gascoigne buzzed around the Aberdeen half, taking up different positions to try and carve out another opening, Alan McLaren’s looping header onto the post the closest Rangers got. It was Aberdeen, however, who created the best chance of the half. On 34 minutes a Billy Dodds knock-on released Scott Booth one-on-one with Andy Goram. The Rangers legend simply stood up, whereas the striker fell to pieces and could only manage a tame effort. A sense of building frustration was very much the half-time mood. “We didn’t want to be going into the last day looking for a point at Rugby Park. We wanted it done. We were at home. We were all there. We all had plans for afterwards. Carry-outs had been bought. Days off had been arranged for the next day,” said David.

The match of the 3-5-2s resulted in the game getting bogged down at times, but when there was freedom Rangers were very wasteful, especially Bo Andersen who squandered four chances before being replaced by McCoist just after the hour mark. McCoist was one of a few players who went closer with headers, Durie and Gough being the others and even Laudrup lost his composure when he made the wrong decision with just over 20 minutes to go. When Aberdeen attacked, it was down the Rangers right with Trevor Steven being badly exposed by Glass, but Goram as always provided a reliable last line of defence, the best example coming from a Windass header that he tipped over the bar. Steven was replaced soon after by Gordan Petric, who had only made the squad after recovering from the most Petric of all injuries: a poisoned arm.

It was after 70 minutes that Gascoigne started to warm up for the big finale. Two of his corners found McLaren, who went close both times and he also created some openings for McCoist and Durie, but simply nothing was breaking down the stubborn resistance. With only ten minutes remaining and nerves frayed, it happened. Billy Dodds received the ball from a throw-in in the Rangers half but was dispossessed by McLaren, who gave a vocal instruction to Gascoigne as he won the ball from Windass: go and do something with it. From his own half, on he went. Easing past Bernard, he would be tracked all the way to the Aberdeen penalty area, but his strength and conviction held off all challengers. Laudrup’s intelligent run dragged Inglis away with him and for the first time, the other two defenders seemed strangely frozen in the beating sun. It was the first bit of freedom he had seen in an hour of football and it was all he needed to seal the title. Voted the greatest Rangers goal of all time by the listeners of Heart and Hand, it was as if, for three or four seconds, none of the other 21 players mattered. It wasn’t their game. For a brief moment, it was suspended in Gascoigne’s spell. “There is something absolutely intoxicating, still, about watching a player with the complete conviction that the ball is their property,” said the writer and Rangers fan Alasdair McKillop in a piece about Gascoigne for Nutmeg. “As he surged through the melting Aberdeen defence in the hot sunshine, his arms threshing, Gascoigne had that conviction: he powered towards the goal with a sort of gallus brutality.”

“There was relief of course but also that feeling that I had witnessed something very special,” recalled David. “Sometimes great goals are amplified by the occasion. If he scored that goal in a 5-1 win over Falkirk, we’d remember it fondly, but it wouldn’t become the legendary goal that every Rangers fan can play in their mind without the need to search it out online. Then we all said one of the stupidest phrases known to man but one that makes perfect sense in that kind of moment. 'Did you see that?!' As if you’re seeking confirmation from others around you that the extraordinary event that you think you’ve witnessed actually took place. But of course, there were over 40,000 roars confirming that it did. It was a world-class goal and it will live forever.” 

Rangers Review: Paul Gascoigne outwits the Aberdeen defence to score his second goal in the 3-1 win that sealed 8-in-a-Row. Paul Gascoigne outwits the Aberdeen defence to score his second goal in the 3-1 win that sealed 8-in-a-Row. (Image: SNS)

It was very much a Gazza goal. Anyone who saw him in Italia 90' wouldn’t be surprised by that. There’s bustle. There’s strength, like a street fighter. Laudrup scored goals that looked like he had a shield around him, such was his effortless grace. This was a kind of beautiful chaos, running straight into danger but with a heart of a lion. The coolest man in the eye of the storm. Everyone else seemed paralysed by his wizardry. Only he was in control of proceedings. The debate would rage amongst Rangers fans of the time about which of the two superstars was better. A question of taste, of course, but there is some similarity between them and the likes of Messi and Suarez at Barcelona ten years later. Laudrup and Messi looked as if they were stars of the Royal Ballet. Gazza and Suarez looked as if they had never left the streets. There was an undoubted appeal there, an everyman genius that Laudrup’s regality could never have, that supporters felt a different bond with.

There was time yet for another Alan McLaren assault on goal, but it flashed wide before the stage was set for the encore. From a Goram punch at an Aberdeen corner, the break was on and Durie was eventually felled by Bernard in the box. After pleading with McCoist, Gascoigne had the chance to crown his season and he duly did with ease to make it 3-1. Walter Smith had matched Bill Struth’s record of winning five successive championships as manager for the duration of a season, but there was only one man being carried shoulder high around Ibrox stadium. A man who needed to be loved and adored would struggle to find more of that during his time at Ibrox.

Not so throughout the rest of Scotland, however. For those who questioned the signing as an injury liability, a player whose best days were long behind him, any praise of his match-deciding abilities was through gritted teeth and packed full of caveats. Any criticism of his dark and daft sides was more fulsome. The ‘man-child’ schtick was a regular trope of the Sunday columns and Gerry McNee, who was able to describe the action at Ibrox for STV that day so well, could later barely use Gascoigne’s name when writing for the Sunday Mail, instead opting for the ‘Number Eight’ moniker. In doing so McNee was effectively dehumanising a man, not without obvious mental health issues. A superhuman footballer but a very real fragile human, for whom reading the Sunday papers was often a very difficult experience.

Rangers Review:

“Most soccer fans have a need to get hooked on the fortunes of a single player, to build a team around him so to speak,” wrote the poet and critic Ian Hamilton in his biography of Gascoigne, Gazza Agonistes. A Tottenham fan with Rangers blood in his ancestry, Hamilton didn’t take too long to fall for him, and neither did I. For me, no player provided more quality in a Rangers shirt, a catalyst of intelligence and individual character who sparked Rangers out of a relative slump and powered them on to fabled glories. I bought into it from the very start, waiting for hours outside the main door in the boiling July heat to see him finally paraded in a Rangers jersey and to shake his hand. I was too young to fully appreciate the signing of Souness. I was perfectly placed to understand this.

And yet my adulation, and that of thousands of others, was ultimately counter-productive as we projected onto him an ultimately unrealistic concept of perfection. Hamilton’s attraction to the genius of Gascoigne was that of the poet and how out of this chaos and unlikely frame came such beauty. There was also the acute understanding that a failure to bottle the brilliance can easily lead to self-destruction. “What’s at issue is the idea of a life given over to creativity; and the belief that because a person believes himself to be possessed of some profound and special gift, he has certain rights to live his life in a certain way.” McKillop extended this further by correctly identifying that, “it was others who invested most in the idea that Gascoigne possessed something special so he was offered a certain leeway that wouldn’t have been offered to less talented players.” Our need for heroes, our need to distil team sports down to the individual often creates a mania that would be hard enough for the more well-adjusted to cope with.

Any hope Paul Gascoigne had of a well-adjusted life was up against it from the start. His troubles can probably be traced back to the childhood trauma of seeing the younger brother of a friend killed in a car accident at the age of seven. Gascoigne had persuaded his mother to let him come with the boys to the sweet shop and that he would look after him. It was whilst he was ‘mucking around’ in the shop that the accident happened. “It was the first dead body I’d ever seen – and I felt Steven’s death was my fault,” wrote Gascoigne in his autobiography. “I had said I would look after him and I didn’t. I couldn’t understand why he had died when he was so young and hadn’t harmed anybody. It didn’t make sense.” Even before that, when he too was only seven, he had demonstrated considerable anxiety when he started to ponder his own existence and death. “Suddenly I was scared, and I ran all the way home, screaming and crying. I got into bed with me mam and dad, squeezed in beside them and cuddled close. I didn’t tell them why I’d been screaming, I just sort of hid it in my head.” There was no proper treatment of these demons during his professional career and their outward manifestations were indulged, not managed. Hamilton summed it up well when he said, “some feared … that he so little understood the nature of his own genius that he would be unable to protect it from the excesses to which his personality was irreversibly inclined.” Some of those excesses, the loveable larrikin sort, were ignored despite the fact that he was supposed to be a professional athlete. Because he was doing enough on the pitch, however, the excuses were excusable.

READ MORE: What was it like facing Rangers genius Paul Gascoigne? Six players tell their war stories

There were, of course, much darker excesses, such as that awful week in the October of 1996 when his lack of discipline in the Champions League clash with Ajax in Amsterdam, where he saw red in a desperate 4-1 defeat, was put into context when it soon emerged that his lack of control on the football field extended into his home life. Domestic abuse can’t be excused by footballing prowess, but yet that is exactly what happened. Vice-Chairman Donald Finlay QC said, “None of us here are going to get involved in somebody’s private life. If Paul Gascoigne, or anybody else connected with the club, asks for help or advice we will give it. We are not going to interfere. It is entirely a private matter. We will stand by anybody who works for the club who gives us 100 per cent loyalty. They will get the same back.” Walter Smith fined him and hinted that there was a limit to the club’s patience but that it hadn’t been reached yet. The club officially washed their hands of it and so did the fans.

Generally speaking, the Rangers support went into deep compartmentalisation and did all of the mental gymnastics possible so as to avert the cognitive dissonance that wasn’t far from the surface. There were the odd brave voices of condemnation, none more so than the editor of the Follow Follow fanzine, Mark Dingwall, but they went very much against the grain. Myself included. Albeit I was only 15 years of age, but any deep unease was quashed by what he could potentially win for us that season: the nine. It really was a kind of mania. It was Aberdeen again who visited Ibrox for the first game following those revelations. Gascoigne sent a free kick into the top corner from 30 yards. All seemed instantly well again.

It wasn’t, of course, and although future success would come, it would eventually unravel for Gascoigne at Ibrox and then, with his dramatic exclusion from Glenn Hoddle’s squad for France 98', sadly for the rest of his career and his life. His story was never black and white. The horrendous behaviour was seized upon by those who seemed to revel in tragedy because it provided the opportunity to attack Gascoigne, and by association the club, with no interest in discussing any deeper psychological explanation. In much the same way as his best moments on the field were sometimes distorted by his worshippers as evidence of the norm, despite it being a career that never got close to meeting its potential. “There was something in his personality that ran counter to the fantasies his soccer gifts induced,” observed Hamilton. “Wasn’t the whole drift of Gazza’s story a drift towards some calamitous comeuppance, some terrible bringing-down-to-earth?” Ultimately this was really the familiar tale of fame. Otherwise rational observers getting close to believing in supernatural power. Devotees willing to ignore the worst human behaviour, lest it reduce the aura of the gods. John Lennon committed the same offences and yet few enjoy The Beatles with any such caveats. More importantly, it is the human being who gets lost when the fame takes over. Gascoigne was the loveable, footballing hero for his fans and the thuggish, overrated oaf for his detractors, but he was the troubled human being for far too few of us.

At the very end of his excellent documentary series, Fame in the 20th Century, Clive James summed it up perfectly: “If fame comes from achievement, it’s worth having and worthy of admiration. But achievement without fame can be a good life and fame without achievement is no life at all. Finally, what separates human beings is less important than what joins them and the famous people we like most seem to tell us that by their way of staying human. As if there was a frail, fallible human being behind the glory. Which there always is.”