Football: Barnes' national prospects fading: Henry Winter sees time run out for the enigmatic Liverpool midfielder

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THE case for John Barnes remains unproven - and there are some who would like it closed. After Paul Gascoigne, Barnes has been the English League's most captivating character in the last 10 years at the old art of taking on and taking apart defences. But - unlike Gascoigne - Barnes is not irreplaceable in an England shirt.

Waiting in the wings are the likes of Merson and Sharpe, McManaman and Anderton, and their time, certainly in Merson's case, may have come. Barnes, clearly still not 100 per cent match fit, began brightly but the overwhelming feeling taken away from Wembley by a crowd more than twice the size of San Marino's population was that the next generation could soon be asked to step up by Graham Taylor.

The England manager stressed afterwards his 'loyalty' to Barnes, who was subjected to a series of boos during the second half when he became an increasingly peripheral figure. 'I was disappointed by the crowd getting on to him,' Taylor said. 'But he's come through it. I asked him to play wide in the second half and let (Tony) Dorigo through and that's what he did. I'm trying to build a side.'

Dorigo, the Leeds full-back, was such a dynamic presence along the left flank that Barnes favours that he was soon foraging without the assistance of the Liverpool winger.

For a man who is England's 13th most capped player - his 68th appearance taking him ahead of Martin Peters - Barnes has not yet installed a store of unforgettable memories in the minds of those who follow St George's cause.

England's future seemed harnessed to Barnes's when the 20- year-old danced through that forest of bemused Brazilians nine years ago but repeated injuries and an inability to transfer completely his mesmerising club form to the international stage brought criticism and the conclusion in some quarters that last night might prove his last chance.

For four minutes and 40 seconds he wandered and we wondered but then there was a flash of Barnes at his best, a simple feint totally confusing his marker Bruno Muccioli. Yet apart from the occasional perceptive long pass and his flick-on of Gascoigne's corner to create David Platt's first, the number of Barnes's contributions began to drop off.

Barnes had been upset by recent comments that he did not have enough 'fire in his belly' and he responded to the bouts of derision from the terraces by increasing his work-rate against the supine Sammarinese.