Football: Gascoigne confounds the critics: After more downs than ups, Paul Gascoigne is beginning to feel at home in the Eternal City. Trevor Haylett reports from Rome

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The Independent Online
UNTIL now he has scarcely improved the standing of English players abroad and, in wind assisted-record time, has certainly lowered the reputation of his countrymen with a couple of crude and offensive outbursts. Now, at last, he has shown Lazio another side of his character: Paul Gascoigne the full-time footballer.

The praise here was fulsome for his performance in Lazio's 2-2 draw with the trendsetters of Serie A, Milan, on Sunday. In the Olympic Stadium they hailed his goal and his part in the equaliser, and particularly acknowledged the effort he was able to sustain over 90 minutes. If he can last the course like that every time he has a place in the Eternal City for life.

'Whoever wants our Gazza should give up the idea that he will become available. He will be staying in Rome forever,' Sergio Cragnotti, the Lazio president, said. Cragnotti inherited the purchase of the pounds 5.5m Englishman last summer and must have concluded at times that he had been left with shoddy goods.

After Sunday's game Cragnotti spoke with Jonathan Crystal, a director of Tottenham, who retain the first option on the former White Hart Lane idol should the Italians decide to sell. That would appear unlikely - for the time being at least - now that Gascoigne has looked the world's greatest club side in the eye and shown the Lazio tifosi the player that English supporters have come to know and admire. He refuses to converse with the press, Italian or English, and created a dismal impression by his public belching and farting which hit the headlines in recent weeks.

Then there is the fragility of temperament that led to his first sending-off in his adopted country at Genoa two weeks ago. Faults abound, but Gascoigne does possess genuine talent and among an English generation of grey players his ability must be cherished.

He has never been found wanting in heart or spirit either. Witness his determination to recover from the wretched knee injury which first threatened his move to Rome and then delayed his debut. Since then it has been Gascoigne in abbreviated form; moments of inspiration and promise, yet too many substitutions - some brought about by injury, but mostly by concern over his fitness.

With his fist-shaking exhortations to the heads that had dropped with Milan's 2-0 advantage he immediately hauled Lazio back into a position where they were not only able to find an equaliser but to threaten seriously Milan's unbeaten Serie A sequence, which now stands at 58 games.

A magical run, slalom fashion, at the start of the second half should have brought him another goal to add to his 38th minute side-footer but this time he could not repeat the finishing touch. Still he kept going, and contributed to the 87th-minute equaliser.

This time there was to be no premature departure. Had that been Dino Zoff's decision, the Lazio coach risked rather more than the derision of the Gazza fan club on the Curve Nord who, through the bad times, have kept faith with the man they see as their messiah.

At the end he turned to return their salute before sharing a handshake of mutual respect and admiration with that definitive defender, Franco Baresi, before disappearing out of sight. Just as quickly he was off and driving back to his sumptuous Rome villa with his girlfriend, Sheryl, devotedly in tow.

Not for the first time it was left to others to do his talking for him though never before has the translation reflected such glowing tributes: Lazio happy to acclaim his finest performance in a light-blue shirt.

'Gazza: healthy and handsome,' read yesterday's newspaper headline going on to borrow a line from Mussolini and declare that he was indeed a lion for a day.

The Lazio team manager, Maurizo Manzini, said: 'Gascoigne gave some examples of excellent football and kept going with the same determination for the whole game. If he goes on performing as he did today he is a player who any team would like to have.'

Rumours persist of a fall-out between Gascoigne and the other foreigners in the side, but they remain a puzzle to those who have seen them in harmony on the field or enjoying a millionaire's lifestyle off it. 'I work with the players every single day and I can absolutely deny that there is any problem,' Manzini added. 'All the players want him to stay.'

Indeed the indulgent Cragnotti is promising further signings to help Gascoigne become king in the playground of every football fantasist. 'I have big surprises in mind,' he said. 'We will change and renovate our defence and will put together a great team.'

With another World Cup qualifying tie rapidly approaching, the England manager, Graham Taylor, will be delighted Gascoigne was granted his full 90 minutes and psychologically the player will be all the healthier for putting the time to such good use.

Last month Taylor gave a dispiriting analysis of his fitness and morale after the San Marino game and there was more 'advice' in that vein from Fabio Capello, the Milan coach.

'Next season Gascoigne can be one of the Italian league's great players,' Capello said, 'but it's important he works on his conditioning. He is strong and quick, gets away from players beautifully and has the talent to reach that mark. However, he must work hard every day on his fitness. At the moment he is OK but he should do better.'

With Cragnotti, Gascoigne has been invited by Spurs to their FA Cup semi-final on April 4 with Arsenal at Wembley where, of course, two years before he had graced the same occasion with one of his greatest goals.

It seems impossible for him to attend. Lazio are due to visit Torino the same day and clearly he is now indispensable. In any case, it is not reminders of his past, however spectacular, that he needs for the present.

Forward to the future Gazza. Rome was not built in a day but against the most expensively constructed team in football history the bricks cemented on Sunday were an encouraging contrast when laid alongside predictions of the ruins of a career.

----------------------------------------------------------------- GASCOIGNE IN ITALY ----------------------------------------------------------------- SERIE A Date Opponent Score Mins played 27 September Genoa (H) 1-1 45 4 October Parma (H) 5-2 58 18 October Milan (A) 3-5 90 25 October Atalanta (H) 3-0 78 1 November Udinese (A) 0-0 90 22 November Foggia (A) 1-2 90 29 November Roma (H) *1-1 90 6 December Pescara (A) *3-2 83 10 January Brescia (H) 2-0 63 17 January Napoli (A) 1-3 45 31 January Sampdoria (H) 2-1 59 7 February Fiorentina (A) 2-0 90 14 February Cagliari (H) 1-2 90 28 February Genoa (A) 3-2 70 14 March Milan (H) *2-2 90 ITALIAN CUP 7 October Cesena (A) 1-1 60 28 October Cesena (H) 3-1 68 27 January Torino (H) 2-2 80 10 February Torino (A) 2-3 74 * denotes Gascoigne goal denotes sent off Lazio score given first in every case. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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