Football: England's talisman out of condition and out in the cold

Sometimes talent is not enough. Ray Wilkins, former England captain, on the lessons of Gascoigne's demise
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The Independent Online
ONE THING you can say about Glenn Hoddle's period as England coach is that he is not afraid to make the big decision and leaving Paul Gascoigne out of the World Cup has to count as the biggest decision of all. Whether you agree, or disagree, you can only salute the manager's boldness in making it.

There was no hint that he was not going to be among the final 22 and that added to the sense of shock as the news filtered through. I was at home when a friend who works in radio telephoned. We were all anticipating the announcement of the squad, who was in and who was out, and this was not what we were expecting to hear. Over the last few months Glenn has intimated that Gascoigne was an integral part of his team, certainly of his squad, and we all assumed he would be going to France.

I have seen all three England games over the past 10 days and I have to say that he did look short of full fitness. This meant he was unable to do the things that make him the player he is. Gazza is a sublime talent and we all wish we were gifted with the assets he can call upon, but if you are less than fully fit, then not even an individual with Paul's ability can go past people or initiate those defence-splitting passes.

As you get older fitness becomes paramount. Gascoigne turned 31 last week and while age should never be a barrier in football (Italy have included Bergomi at 37 and Belgium have recalled Van der Elst at the same age), it becomes more and more imperative to make sure you do the right things to enhance your physical condition.

Train hard, rest a great deal, eat and drink the right things. That is the regime to follow and a player has to take responsibility for his own fitness. It cannot be denied that Gazza has come back from terrible injuries and while a couple of nights out with the lads won't kill anyone, you have to look after your body. The vast majority of today's players, both in the Premiership and in the lower leagues, are well aware of that.

It was interesting that Glenn used the term "athletes" when referring to the German and Brazilian teams. If you look at the domestic game, Manchester United and Arsenal are veering the same way: bringing players into the club who are good technical players, but who are also capable of getting around the pitch and sustaining a high physical output for 90 minutes.

This World Cup will be played in searing heat with only a few days in between games and that was why Glenn was so concerned about Gascoigne. It would not have been a decision to take without a lot of heart-searching and he will have studied Gazza closely over the last week in Spain. England's first group game is still two weeks away, but he was not convinced he could gain full fitness in time. It also wouldn't be an option to use him in short spells here or there as a substitute. You take a player to the World Cup for what he can do over 90 minutes - not nine.

It's a great shame both for the country and the player, but Glenn's decision was not just about Gascoigne alone. There were five other players the coach was forced to disappoint and I feel for them all. They have let nobody down and in the case of Dion Dublin his hopes must have been high after such a splendid season for Coventry.

Once he had assured himself of Darren Anderton's ability to cope with the demands of the tournament, Glenn's decision to plan ahead without Gascoigne would have become easier. Anderton has done well to recover his fitness after a long period on the sidelines and as a younger man he can sustain his energies over a tournament so much better. We also know from Euro '96 that the Tottenham player is capable of shrugging off more or less a full season's inactivity and quickly find form and conditioning again.

Obviously, England will miss the qualities that a fit Gascoigne would bring to any side, but all is not lost and I certainly don't agree with those who say we will be a lot less effective without him. David Beckham and Paul Scholes can become the creative impetus for the side, not to the same extent that Gascoigne can achieve but in a different way. We can have greater movement in midfield and with younger legs we can be more competitive. And in players like Anderton and Steve McManaman we have the means to run at opponents and unsettle them.

We will miss his influence in the dressing-room. Scotland have a similar situation now that Craig Brown has decided not to take Ally McCoist to France. Ally is probably the best player I have ever been around in a dressing-room. He was the life and soul of the place and when you are away with a group of players for a long period of time it is vital to have those sort of guys who can keep the atmosphere vibrant. But we've always been a nation that pulls together and in tournaments like this, players we perhaps weren't expecting to grab our attention come to the fore both on and off the pitch.