When football came home (on a Cathay Pacific flight)

Date published: Friday 27th May 2016 12:46

Paul Gascoigne

Jamie Vardy missing a warm up game to get married is a bagatelle compared to the controversy generated by the England squad twenty years ago. In this extract from his book, Michael Gibbons revisits England’s trip to East Asia to prepare for hosting the European Championship in 1996. After beating China and then struggling past the Golden FC Select XI in Hong Kong, the players’ work was done. With the squad for the tournament finalised and the flight back to London booked for the following day, there was just one more evening to while away before heading home. What could possibly go wrong..?

 

After a 12-course banquet back at the hotel the England squad were given the final night of their trip off to let their hair down. David Platt could sense trouble immediately. ‘As one of the senior pros,’ Gary Neville remembered, ‘he approached me, Phil [Neville], Nicky Barmby and Jason Wilcox, the young lads, with some friendly words of advice. “This could be one to miss,” he said.’ The young lads stayed put, as did several of the senior professionals.

Despite being goaded by Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, Tony Adams didn’t give in to temptation. ‘I went, “When we win, I’ll have a drink,” but inside I was so scared,’ he said. ‘I knew if I’d gone out there was no tournament for me, because I couldn’t stop. So I locked myself in the room, 15th storey, and I couldn’t wait to train the next day.’ He resolved not to drink for the whole of the European Championship.

David Seaman simply fell asleep watching a re-run of the 1993 FA Cup Final and woke up too late to head out. Stuart Pearce thought there was trouble brewing and skipped it, but there were still enough takers to warrant a chaperone. Bryan Robson, whose own drinking exploits as a player were the stuff of legend, was sent along to keep an eye on them for a night. As well as the end of the tour, it was also an early celebration of Paul Gascoigne’s 29th birthday.

The China Jump club in the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong had been recommended to the players. On arrival Robson had an area cordoned off with a bouncer on hand to keep the public at bay. The night started simply enough; Gascoigne and Fowler were play-wrestling after the former accused the latter of deploying the line, ‘Do you come here often?’ to a girl in the bar. The play-fighting became more boisterous, with shirts ripped and pints tipped over heads. The antics spread through the rest of the squad until several looked like they’d been serviced by a particularly aggressive car wash. Gascoigne then acted on a dare from the rest of the players to rip off Robson’s shirt, leaving nothing but the collar hanging around Robson’s neck.

A pair of boxing gloves on display behind the bar became part of the entertainment. The players, increasingly pissed on beer and Flaming Lamborghini cocktails, put the gloves on and took it in turns to exchange hooks. The focus turned to the centrepiece of the China Jump club, the Dentist’s Chair. Punters had to lie back in the seat with their mouths open wide, the only fillings available being tequila and vodka. About half a dozen of the players had a go in the chair, including Teddy Sheringham, McManaman and Gascoigne. The bar staff had also laid on a bowl of punch. With the bedraggled players now done with boxing, they would soon be another form of punch drunk.

‘About half an hour later they came back to the bowl and started sipping the stuff through straws,’ Bryan Robson wrote in his autobiography. ‘Within 20 minutes they went from near enough sober to absolutely wrecked, but funny wrecked. I’ve never seen anyone go so quickly. They were all in really good humour and just having a laugh.’ Terry Venables had given the players a 2.30am curfew. The now paralytic rabble were corralled by Robson and taken back to the team hotel.

England’s players had mingled happily with the other people in the bar all evening. Although 1996 was a world well before camera phones and the hobby of snapping or filming every single aspect of human existence, it was impossible for the England team to be incognito in Hong Kong. One watching China Jump club employee was having a meal with his girlfriend and parents. His girlfriend captured some of the shenanigans on camera as it unfolded.
The press had got wind of the revelry by the following day, and tried to source some photographic evidence from the bar. ‘In the end we sold our pics of Gazza and made £10,000,’ the girlfriend, choosing to remain anonymous, told FourFourTwo in 2014. ‘We gave £5,000 of that to my boyfriend’s parents as it was their camera. I think they bought double-glazing with it!’

A lot of eyes were glazed over the following day. Darren Anderton woke with a start at 11am. In a panic that he had missed a training session, he immediately called Ian Walker. ‘He told me not to worry, that training had been cancelled,’ Anderton wrote. ‘It was a massive relief. I don’t think anyone would have made it downstairs anyway.’

According to Fowler, one unnamed England player took a girl back to the hotel and woke up to a call from reception the next morning. There was a present waiting for him, left by a thief with a conscience. ‘Intrigued, he had it sent up and there was a parcel, nicely wrapped,’ Fowler recalled. ‘When he opened it, there were his own boots. Puzzled and still bleary-eyed, he looked around his room for the first time to see that it had been stripped of everything: kit, money, cards, even the toiletries from the bathroom.’

While the rest of the hung-over party came to at the hotel Gascoigne had been given the morning off by Venables to enjoy his birthday. He went to a smaller hotel around the corner and tucked into the champagne and cigars, before heading back for lunch. When people trooped down for lunch at 1pm they were greeted by the sight of Gascoigne in the dining hall, holding a bottle of champagne in one hand and lighting a huge cigar with the other. Venables had a private word with Gascoigne and told him to calm it down for the evening flight back to Heathrow.

The players had been allowed to stay in Cathay Pacific’s Marco Polo executive section in the upper deck of the plane, which caused a grumbling disapproval among the FA suits on the trip reduced to standard class as a result. The England team doctor, John Crane, had also been seated upstairs to keep an eye on things, and was sat next to the Neville brothers. Crane was keen on a drink too, and after a couple the sentry soon fell asleep at his post. The players occupied themselves with card schools and a few beers as the plane made its way back to England over Russia.

While Gascoigne resided happily in the land of nod, Alan Shearer walked up behind him and clouted him across the back of the head. Now wide awake, Gascoigne conducted an immediate investigation. ‘I went up and down the aisles, kicking all the seats, throwing cushions around,’ he admitted in Gazza: My Story. His prime suspects were Fowler, McManaman and Les Ferdinand a few rows back. McManaman and Ferdinand’s television screens and seats received a hammering from Gascoigne and the television feeds cut out.

‘While I was going around shouting at everyone,’ Gascoigne continued, ‘an FA official came up the stairs from their seats on the lower deck, and told me to stop all the noise, sit down and go to sleep. I told him to fuck off.’ A lecture in coarse Geordie about who exactly did the playing for England followed. The chastened official disappeared back downstairs. Things did settle down when Gascoigne’s fury blew itself out, with Adams even claiming that an off-duty co-pilot came out and joined the players for a drink. Yet the damage had quite literally been done.

When flight CX251 landed at Heathrow the police were summoned to inspect the damage and take pictures. They couldn’t pursue a criminal damage case as an overseas carrier plane didn’t fall under their jurisdiction. Instead Cathay Pacific filed a complaint with the Football Association nine hours after landing. Two television screens, the latest models for in-flight entertainment, had been broken along with one table. Cathay estimated the damage at £5,000.

The FA wanted answers and quickly, but had no chance of getting them before the story was leaked. The details started to leak out on 30 May. As the speculation began to mount, the following morning’s Sun published the pictures from the China Jump club, with one of Gascoigne at the centre of the festivities making the front page. Under the headline ‘DISGRACEFOOL’ was the sub-heading ‘Look at Gazza…a drunk oaf with no pride’. On the inside pages Sheringham was pictured guzzling drink while sat in the Dentist’s Chair. The players had been given the rest of the week off before convening at the Burnham Beeches Hotel on 2 June, the Sunday before the start of Euro 96. As the days passed Gascoigne, McManaman and Fowler were fingered in the media as the culprits for the damage to the plane. The latter two were so incensed by their coverage in the News of the World that they threatened legal action to clear their names.

‘I particularly want to know Gascoigne’s involvement, if indeed it was him,’ Bert Millichip told reporters. In a telephone poll published in The Daily Mirror, 86 per cent of callers wanted him dropped from the squad. ‘The FA cannot accept behaviour from players which it would not tolerate from fans,’ wrote Paul Wilson in The Guardian. ‘This time Gazza, if it is he, has to go. Any other team, any other football association, and the hooligans would have gone already.’ Croatia had already dropped Ivica Mornar from their squad just for being seen eating a sandwich in a bar at 3am. On behalf of the Professional Footballers’ Association all Gordon Taylor offered was a flimsy counterpoint. ‘If it’s drink,’ he said, ‘the airline must take some responsibility for giving young kids too much.’

Although he protested his innocence Gascoigne was a man on the run. He high-tailed it to a secluded retreat in Wales, where Hugh Grant had avoided the glare of the media in 1995 after being arrested for picking up a prostitute in Los Angeles. When a gaggle of 30 photographers tracked him down, he rowed across a lake to escape them and eventually bunkered down at a health farm in Leicestershire. Gascoigne and the rest of the England squad arrived at their tournament base in Burnham Beeches on 2 June for what David Davies called ‘an evening of endless huddles involving Venables, Macca, Gazza, Robbie Fowler and others’.

No player would take responsibility for the damage, or throw a colleague under a bus by picking out the guilty party. The senior players – Adams, Pearce, Shearer and Platt – all had their say. Venables decided that the whole squad would take the rap for the damage, and cover it out of the match fees from their first two games. Davies has since taken the credit for coining the term ‘collective responsibility’ to fend away the bad press. England had their first day of training at Bisham Abbey the following day. In a reference to the accused men, three players on the minibus to the training ground wore plastic bags with cut-out eye and nose holes over their heads.

When training concluded and the players returned to the Burnham Beeches Hotel, Davies confronted the media at the gates of the hotel to read a statement. ‘The England squad has accepted collective responsibility for what happened,’ he began. ‘The matter is now being dealt with internally. Financial penalties will be imposed. The players have expressed their sincere regret for the incident.’ If Davies believed that would draw a line under it, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

This is a slightly revised extract from the book When Football Came Home: England the English and Euro 96 by Michael Gibbons, available here. It is published by Pitch Publishing, priced £12.99.

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