If you look closely enough, Gary Lineker can still replicate that expression.
Usually he reserves it for an uncomfortable spot of live television during the Olympics or even the sight of one of Mark Lawrenson’s adventurous dress shirts on the Match of the Day sofa, but it is impossible to forget where the former Leicester City and England striker first found that particular look.
It came nine minutes into extra-time of England’s World Cup semi-final against West Germany on a warm night in Turin in 1990. Lineker, like millions of captive eyes across the world, watched with mute horror as a young Paul Gascoigne – England’s enigmatic tyro – produced a tired two-footed lunge on Thomas Berthold and deservedly received the booking that ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.
Despite only being a footnote to England’s penalty exit, the 23-year-old’s resultant tears made the papers the following morning, but it was Lineker’s grimace- often captured in the background of Gascoigne’s personal agony – that echoes with particular relevance today.
The news that Gascoigne – a million miles away from his footballing nadir in Turin – has been fined £1,000 after admitting to a drunken train station assault earlier this month, is no longer surprising, nor, sadly, particularly newsworthy.
The first decade of Gascoigne post-football, much like his final years as a professional, has been a sad parody of his tabloid persona. Tales of meat pies, cat droppings and late night takeaway brawls replaced those sporadic, iconic, moments of quality for once he was known. Where once he could balance these exploits with a glorious piece of skill on a Saturday afternoon, he now needs acclaim to be able to walk to the shops.
The truth, however you dress it, is that Gascoigne never recovered from that night in Turin.
Paul Merson, a disciple of the ‘Tuesday Club’ drinking culture at Arsenal in the late 80s and early 90s, shares similar wild stories to those attributed to Gascoigne, however the key difference being that ‘Merse’ has managed to pull himself out of his funk and into gainful employment.
‘Gazza’ has pointedly failed to do either.
It is with some irony that Gascoigne’s latest downward spiral has coincided with ESPN’s decision to pull the plug on ESPN Classic: the broadcaster’s nostalgic TV mantelpiece. The channel – a common port of call for drunken students and insomniacs – acted as a constant time capsule where, in true Bill Murray- Andie MacDowell fashion, it was forever June 1996 and Gascoigne’s last great moments in an England shirt were relived in glorious sunshine.
Perhaps Gascoigne, now one of those drunken revellers, has himself sat in front of the screen at 3am reviewing that moment during Euro 1996 that his agonising slide failed to convert Alan Shearer’s pinpoint cross and catapult England into a first major final in 30 years. 17 years later, we’re still waiting.
It seems sad that a new generation will no longer be able to stumble across Gascoigne’s peculiar charms on a satellite backwater – even more so because they won’t be grabbed by his statistics in the record books.
You see, Paul Gascoigne’s enduring appeal was never about numbers. Players whose careers are cherished for their aesthetic qualities rarely are. Tottenham fans will talk about his free-kick against Arsenal in the 1991 FA Cup semi-final rather than his career-threatening kamikaze tackling that followed in the final.
Rangers supporters speak about the creative renaissance that spelled domestic domination in the mid-1990s rather than his sectarian flute celebration that courted controversy and ire.
And England followers will forever remember that goal against Scotland in 1996 rather than his hotel room meltdown after failing to make Glenn Hoddle’s 1998 World Cup squad.
Perhaps wrongly, we have always chosen to remember the best of Gascoigne wherever possible. His heartfelt honesty and vulnerability as he staggered around the Stadio delle Alpi with his England shirt yanked up from his navel bought him that much.
However, with no new football memories to enjoy, the Dunston-born entertainer is well and truly out of credit.
A group of celebrity friends and admirers paid for the cash-strapped Gascoigne to undergo a course of rehab in the US earlier this year, yet at no point was there any confidence that his personal torment was at an end.
For every George Best style story – and Gascoigne’s slippery slope continues to echo that cautionary tale – there are unlikely examples of a substance-abusing phoenix emerging from the flames.
Yet no one appears to see this as a remotely plausible end to the story.
When Lineker returns to our screens with Match of the Day later this month, watch closely for that familiar fleeting grimace when he is forced to talk of young current players treading Gascoigne’s path. You’ll recognise it, whether ‘Gazza’ will too is a different story.