“He’s still the same Gazza,” says Robbie Keane. “On the bus on the way in, he had me in stitches. I cannot repeat the stories …” Go on, Robbie. Tell at least one. “Something about a pheasant,” Keane replies. “But I cannot say any more than that. He had everyone in stitches.”
The Tottenham Legends squad contained some big names on Saturday, as the club staged the second of two test events needed to secure the safety certificate for their new stadium ahead of the grand Premier League opening against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
There was Keane himself, Dimitar Berbatov and David Ginola, who played for the first time since undergoing a quadruple heart bypass operation in 2016. And what about the opposition? Among the Internazionale Legends were Javier Zanetti and Juan Sebastián Verón. Jürgen Klinsmann started for Spurs before he switched over to Inter in the second half. The Germany World Cup winner played for both clubs during his career.
Even José Mourinho was there, on the Inter bench as the assistant manager. With Luciano Spalletti fighting to keep his job as the club’s manager, Mourinho’s presence felt like a calculated reminder of his current availability.
Yet one man transcended the occasion. Paul Gascoigne is now a weather-worn 51-year-old, his problems with addiction having taken their toll. When he left the substitutes’ bench to warm up in the second half, he stopped after 20 yards to feel the back of his foot. Something was wrong.
The outstanding English football talent of the late 80s to the mid 90s would still come on to huge cheers, with Fabio Galante, an old rival from the days when Gascoigne played at Lazio, immediately grabbing him for a playfight. Everybody wanted it to go well but it was quickly apparent that Gascoigne could not put his full weight on the leg.
He skipped in an attempt to get around the pitch and it was not an easy watch before, on 66 minutes, he signalled to the bench that he would have to come off. When he did so, the ball was nowhere near and the eyes of the 41,244 crowd ought to have been elsewhere. Yet a sympathetic sigh rippled around the ground. Everyone was watching him.
After Berbatov equalised for 4-4 – Inter would run out 5-4 winners – Gascoigne indicated that he would give it a little longer but, 15 minutes after his introduction, he was forced to concede defeat. Not for the first time, his body had failed him.
When Gascoigne’s No 8 went up, he left the field to a standing ovation. Moments later, when the crowd chorused his name, he got up from the bench to acknowledge them. Gascoigne’s cameo had been brief, illuminated by little in terms of touches, but it did not matter.
As an aside, at least Gascoigne’s achilles injury was not as bad as the one that Micky Hazard would suffer. Spurs’s 1984 Uefa Cup-winning midfielder ruptured the tendon. Was it worth it to play at the new stadium? “Absolutely,” Hazard says.
Gascoigne remains hugely unreliable. The club did not announce that he would play for fear he would not turn up; he has plainly done many foolish things over the years. Yet the force of his personality, coupled with the memory of the player he once was, always seems to hold sway.
“Everybody loves Gazza – the players, the coaching staff and Inter were the same,” Keane says. “He is a great character and he remembers everything, by the way. I played a tennis match with him 10 years ago in Dubai and it’s the first thing he said to me. ‘Remember that tennis game?’ It was great for him to get out there and play.”
If Gascoigne brought the stardust, he lit the way – in some respects – for Mauricio Pochettino and the current Spurs squad. It is essential for them to impose their personalities on the new ground as quickly as possible, to find a way to harness its power and spirit as they battle to secure a top-four Premier League finish.
“This is certainly a historic moment for Tottenham,” says Keane. “The stadium is up there with the best in the world. When you walk out, it has a White Hart Lane feeling to it – the pitch is amazing and the atmosphere is fantastic. That big wall in the South Stand will pull shivers down the players’s spines. It’s just magnificent.”