How Paul Gascoigne, almost, came to town

GAVIN BERTRAM
Last updated 05:00 06/12/2012
Paul Gascoigne
FAIRFAX NZ, REUTERS

YOUNG BLOOD: Seventeen-year-old Paul Gascoigne shows his close control in Newcastle’s match against the All Whites in Christchurch in 1985.

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Three days out from Otago United's national league clash against Team Wellington, Gavin Bertram looks back to when Paul Gascoigne visited New Zealand and learns that if it wasn't for a dubious haircut, the English football legend might have played on Kiwi soil for Dunedin City. 

There's a letter from Jack Charlton on Newcastle United letterhead in Neil MacKenzie's old file of Dunedin City FC documents.

Charlton, a member of England's triumphant 1966 World Cup team, managed First Division side Newcastle from 1984 until early 1985.

He was bringing the team to New Zealand for four matches against the All Whites, and proposed that fringe players could briefly be loaned to Dunedin City.

This arrangement very nearly led to Paul Gascoigne, among the greatest and most controversial footballers of his generation, playing in New Zealand's national league.

MacKenzie is an unsung football campaigner, having coached both national league and New Zealand age-group teams.

He's taken the Otago youth development squad to the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland over the past decade, and has recently helped train Otago United's ASB Premiership team.

As a player during the 1960s, MacKenzie realised that good New Zealand players could thrive if given the chance.

In 1975, Middlesbrough FC visited Christchurch, and MacKenzie met Charlton, their manager.

"We got invited back to the Russley Hotel," he recalls. "Jack Charlton very kindly put a bottle of Johnnie Walker on the table. I'd always had this dream that good young players would make the grade if they were given the opportunity to work in a professional environment. I started writing to Jack Charlton, and he was very open to the idea."

MacKenzie's overtures bore fruit when Charlton took the reins at Newcastle. An informal arrangement was made for young players from Dunedin City FC's squad to visit the English club over the New Zealand summer, while Newcastle would send young players south.

Charlton's letter preceding the 1985 New Zealand tour mentions that possible candidates from the club would be in the visiting squad.

Although Charlton left Newcastle United before the trip, his successor, Willie McFaul, honoured the agreement.

WHEN Newcastle arrived in Christchurch to play the All Whites on May 25, a contingent from Dunedin met them.

Dunedin City FC president Dave Smeaton and Otago Football Association chairman Brian Cunningham joined MacKenzie. At the Latimer Hotel the trio sat down opposite Newcastle's representatives, including McFaul and the club's colourful chairman, Stan Seymour Jr.

The first player discussed was Peter Haddock, a defender who'd played plenty of games for Newcastle, but had suffered a horrendous knee injury.

Haddock was still recovering, but the club wanted him playing football during the English off-season. Terms for his stay at Dunedin City were agreed and contracts signed.

"Then McFaul said ‘Oh, I've got another player for you . . .' Mackenzie relates. "He mentioned his name, Paul Gascoigne, and I didn't have a clue who he was - he was only 17. They must have known he was a dodgy kind of a bugger and Peter would look after him."

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The youthful Gascoigne was just making the transition into Newcastle United's first team in May 1985. He had already been marked as a player to watch.

All White and later Oxford United professional Ceri Evans defended against Gascoigne in Wellington and Auckland during Newcastle United's 1985 tour.

"He had a reputation already within that group as someone who was potentially going to be one of the players of his generation," Evans says. "Every club had youth players coming through who they would see as promising. But they'd identified him as one who was more than promising."

MacKenzie remembers thinking that with two professional English players he could win the national league, before taking on the rest of the world.

As it transpired, his dreams of football glory quickly evaporated well before Gascoigne's journey to play for Dunedin City could be planned in any detail.

But it came so painfully near to being a reality, MacKenzie and Smeaton both insist almost three decades on.

"Willie McFaul signed the paper and he's handing it across the table to me," MacKenzie recalls. "I've got my hand on it, and I went to take it, when he says ‘there he is now'. I spun around and Gascoigne walked through the door. He'd just gone to the hairdresser's and had his hair shaved off and got a Mohican and coloured it. I was closing my hands on the paper and McFaul pulled it out of my hand. He said, ‘no, this won't work - you'll never be able to control him', and ripped the contract up. We were that close to having him in the squad."

At the time Dunedin City had no idea what they'd narrowly missed out on. But as soon as Newcastle United had dispatched the All Whites and returned to England, Gascoigne became a core first-team player.

He became a fan favourite for both his audacious midfield play and colourful off-pitch antics. Through the late 1980s and the 1990s, with clubs including Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio, and Glasgow Rangers, and 57 games for England, Gascoigne was a perpetual crowd-pleaser.

But his career was blighted by injury, ill-considered behaviour, alcoholism, and an inclination to feed tabloid interest in his personal life.

That was all ahead of the 17-year-old who visited New Zealand. It was an eventful trip for Gascoigne, though - he admitted in an interview this year that he lost his virginity here.

And he famously exclaimed, when told there was no bacon for breakfast at the team's hotel, "what, all the sheep in this country and there's no bloody bacon?"

PETER HADDOCK played 12 games for Dunedin City during the 1985 National League, making a huge impact, according to MacKenzie.

He also identified the substantial talents of future All White Michael McGarry, and was instrumental in having the high school student visit Newcastle to train with the reserve and youth teams.

While the weather was rubbish while he was there, over Christmas 1985, McGarry says the exposure to professional football benefited him. And he spent time with the nascent Gascoigne.

"He was making his claim," he says. "He was certainly a livewire; he was around us a lot and he was a bit of a hard thing."

In hindsight, MacKenzie says McFaul's snap decision to kill the Gascoigne deal was probably the right one. "I don't know whether I'd have been able to control him," he reflects. "He would have been on his own all day unless Peter Haddock was able to handcuff him. But if he had come, I'd be an after-dinner speaker now."

Otago United play Team Wellington at Westpac Stadium on Sunday at 1.45pm in the curtain-raiser to the Wellington Phoenix game against Sydney FC.

- The Dominion Post

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