A sublime moment from the ridiculous

Euro 96: The world's oldest international football fixture proves its worth after a lay-off of seven years; Stan Hey witnesses a stirring revival of England's eccentric playmaker
Click to follow
The Independent Online
For a few moments yesterday Wembley must have felt a profound sense of deja vu - England one goal up thanks to Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne not doing much, and then a dramatic penalty awarded to the visiting team, exactly as against Switzerland last Saturday. It was the footballing version of Groundhog Day.

But this time the script had been amended in both England and Gascoigne's favour. David Seaman elbowed Gary McAllister's penalty over the bar, and seconds later Gazza, with energy to spare late in the game, produced a sublime moment of skill to send a defiant Scotland back to Stratford without a point, but still with a glimmer of hope of reaching the quarter-finals.

In contrast, England now face Holland with both sides knowing that a draw will be enough to send them both through - although the issue of who gets to use Wembley will be keenly fought over as England will want the support they generated yesterday to stay with them.

Scotland, always aware of their capacity for finding new ways of becoming victims, will have to suffer from the fact that they were killed off yesterday by their very own Footballer of the Year.

This twist could not have been anticipated in a first half in which the 1989 act of euthanasia on the traditional England-Scotland fixture had seemed entirely justified. The precise reason for the abandonment for seven years was post-Hillsborough revulsion at terrace violence, although the fag-end-of-the-season football it often produced was another hostile witness.

Happily that first element seemed to be completely absent yesterday. Fans of both sides mingled in the sunshine outside the stadium. The seven- year abstinence seemed to have finally drained the poison from this traditional rivalry.

The first period of football, however, offered little encouragement either to those nostalgic for the Jim Baxter/Bobby Moore era, or to the modernists who had hoped that the foreign influences in both Premier Leagues might have filtered through by now. The football was not only dull, it was about as visceral as the Chelsea Flower Show too.

Indeed when the players first went to the touchline to pick up drinks after less than 15 minutes a uniformed butler could have served them, so genteel was the contest.

Gascoigne, after his over-heated start against the Swiss, seemed to have been tranquilised and one imagined that the England trainers had conducted vile experiments to calm him down. "Cold Gazzarus" perhaps, in which our hero is laid out on a bed of crushed ice and then has his head wired up by jump-leads to a TV monitor so that the coaches can find out what goes on inside it.

Whatever had been done to him the midfielder proceeded at a sedate pace, plainly trying to save energy rather than waste it. This may have allowed the Scots to have the edge in first half possession, but it was evident from the start to the second period that England had had the jump-leads applied to another part of their anatomy.

Gascoigne duly provided a pass that eventually led to Shearer's thumping header, and England, with Jamie Redknapp on to inject some pace into the midfield, suddenly acquired attacking momentum.

The Scots, too, despite the shock of the goal, continued to offer spirited counter-attacks and David Seaman had to signal his defiance with a fine save from Gordon Durie's header.

But this was only a prelude to his dramatic deflection of McAllister's penalty, which owed everything to Seaman's instinct to leave his move until the instant the ball was kicked. Then came Gascoigne's party piece.

After a week of national recrimination he was entitled to enjoy the score but his celebrations had the hallmarks less of self-justification than of lessons learnt. Whether this acquisition of wisdom is temporary will be revealed over the next week. But yesterday Gascoigne and England reminded us of their viability, as did the oldest international fixture in the world.