FOOTBALL COMMENTARY: Gascoigne fits the Rangers bill

Celtic on receiving end of an Englishman making giant strides on the comeback trail as Gullit wins the good fight; COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
He did not play the flute but, when it mattered in Saturday's Old Firm derby, Paul Gascoigne called the tune. In doing so the 28-year- old Englishman all but confirmed that, come May, his talent will finally reap a championship medal.

It also pointed at possibilities for the following month's European Championship. While Gascoigne flickered in and out of the match he demonstrated his growing fitness with the second of Rangers' goals in their 2-0 win at Celtic Park.

It followed a slick move, and was coolly taken, but the most impressive aspect was the 70-yard box-to-box run Gascoigne made to achieve it, passing eight players on the way. Equally significant was his role at this stage, an advanced midfield position where he may yet play for England.

Such a development would be a shrewd move. Gascoigne is as dangerous on the edge of his own penalty area as he is around his opponents' and the more chances he gets to concentrate on his dribbling, rather than his tackling, the better.

If the former helped open up Celtic for Rangers' first goal, the latter almost saw him off the pitch. Gascoigne failed to time any of his first four tackles and was finally booked, for swiping John Collins across the shins, after half an hour.

He was also the victim of some wild challenges. Pierre van Hooijdonk was very lucky to escape a caution after a crude over-the-top tackle narrowly missed Gascoigne's much-scarred legs. Gascoigne exploded with rage but the impressive referee, John Rowbotham, stepped between them in time.

Even so, at half-time Richard Gough was concerned enough to tell Gascoigne: "Make sure you stay on the pitch." The Rangers captain added: "I told him 'If you get sent off you will be letting your team-mates down'. He is an experienced player and you should not have to tell him, but these games do wind you up. There was a lot of niggling going on and he was a target - not that I blame them, I would try and wind him up if I was playing him."

Not exactly encouraging words for the big games ahead but, given Gascoigne's impulsive and passionate nature, a Glasgow derby was always likely to push him to the edge. After his goal he exulted with the 3,000 Rangers fans as if he was among them. Then he jogged back, sardonically patting his belly as he passed the Celtic support which had been chanting 'Who ate all the pies?' at him.

It was a disappointing afternoon for those green hordes but, if the result suggested that the Scottish title will again remain in Glasgow's West End, there were signs of hope for the hoops as well. Though Celtic's team, like its ground, is only half-built the club's fortunes are in the ascendant. Paradise is no longer troubled, just impatient.

The club's recent history mirrors Manchester City's. Supporters, disillusioned by their inability to match successful local rivals, agitate successfully to overthrow the board. In come a millionaire chairman, a new manager, and the builders.

However, this is where the tales diverge. While City have gone from poor to mediocre Celtic are building for a better future. Fergus McCann, the Canadian businessman who bought out the Kelly-White dynasty in March 1994, has since invested (or raised) pounds 25m.

The bulk of that has gone on a massive new stand which seats 27,000 and towers above the grim housing estates around it. The rest has gone on the team, enabling Tommy Burns to buy the sort of players that were out of reach of his predecessors.

While they imported Englishmen of dubious quality and average Scots, Burns has bought Andreas Thom, a German international striker, and several of the better Scottish players: Tosh McKinlay, John Hughes and Simon O'Donnell.

A share issue has given supporters a sense of involvement in the club and crowds, which had dipped to under 10,000, are rapidly rising - season tickets are up from 7,000 to 26,000 with a waiting list. They have also won their first trophy for six years - last season's Scottish Cup - and survived into the second round in Europe. However, Saturday showed that the gap between them and Rangers remains vast. Celtic dominated the first half without ever looking like scoring, only to concede a goal a minute before the break.

After Gascoigne had engineered a rare break-out the ball came to Oleg Salenko, who beat two players before crossing for the unmarked Alec Cleland to head in.

Twelve minutes after the break, with Celtic again pressing, Alan McLaren cleared to McCoist who fed Salenko and span off for the return. A first- time pass behind the defence found Gascoigne, who barely checked his run to score.

Game over. Though Collins, playing like a man in the shop window, and Paul McStay ran the first period, Celtic had tried to go through Rangers' strong centre where Gough was outstanding and Van Hooijdonk and Thom largely absent.

Burns admitted afterwards that he needs width. Since Blackburn's need for a passer is just as acute, the Collins-Stuart Ripley swap-plus cash deal may yet go through.

But there was enough Celtic promise to suggest they may be able to threaten Rangers in the near future. Such a challenge would be good for the Scottish game, though it would be even better if Aberdeen's revival is also maintained.

After several seasons of gloom there is a new optimism abroad. The senior side's likely qualification for the European Championship has been matched by the Under-21s, who put out Russia. At club level October opens with three teams still in Europe, a rarity in recent years.

This may be due to an increasing sophistication of the football. Burns has Celtic playing a passing game, and now Rangers, encouraged by the arrival of Gascoigne, Gordan Petric and Salenko, have stopped pumping long balls at Mark Hateley and are passing into feet and space.

Juventus, Rangers' next Champions' League opponents, will not be quaking in their sponsored boots, but they may be stretched, especially by an Englishman with something to prove in Italy.

Goals: Cleland (44) 0-1; Gascoigne (57) 0-2.

Celtic (4-4-2): Marshall; Vata (Walker, 73), Boyd, Hughes, McKinlay; Donnelly, McStay, O'Donnell (McLaughlin, h-t), Collins; Van Hooijdonk, Thom. Substitute not used: Bonner (gk).

Rangers (5-3-2): Goram; Wright, Gough, Petric, McLaren, Cleland; McCall, Gascoigne, Ferguson; Salenko (Miller, 78), McCoist. Substitutes not used: Murray, Thomson (gk). Referee: J Rowbotham (Kirkcaldy).

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