Football: Gascoigne fit to serve up a feast

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The Independent Online
David Beckham, on the right, crossed to the near post where Andy Cole had made a good run but Gary Neville was alert to his movement and headed away for brother Phil to clear. Brian Kidd, standing alongside Nicky Butt on the Old Trafford touchline, nodded appreciatively.

It could have been a Manchester United training session, it was actually an England work-out and there were also a few people not associated with the champions as the national squad went through their paces at the theatre of dreams yesterday.

Most significant of those was Paul Gascoigne, who looked like a boxer on the eve of a bout with his newly muscled lean frame. Nearly a decade after he rejected Manchester United in favour of Tottenham, Gascoigne will finally play a home match at Old Trafford tomorrow.

That much was confirmed by Glenn Hoddle yesterday. He added: "This is not a make or break game for Paul. He has been out for a long time. If he gets through 90 minutes that will be a bonus, that will be progress. If he plays 90 minutes on song that will be the icing on the cake."

Who else plays for England against South Africa is uncertain. One player who desperately wants to be involved is Alan Shearer. This is partly his innate desire to play for England. While not prepared to be drawn on the high profile withdrawals of Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, he said: "I would be very upset if anyone suggested I did not want to play for England. I want to play every game."

He is also motivated by the location. Earlier this month he suffered a constant stream of vitriol when Newcastle played at Old Trafford (Shearer has twice rejected them). Shearer said he did not know what reception he would get, and it did not bother him, but it is sure that he would hate to appear to be hiding.

Hoddle said he hoped Shearer would not be barracked - "this is about supporting England." However, that did not save John Barnes at Wembley and Gary Pallister at Leeds from being abused.

A fair response is important to Old Trafford's hopes of staging England matches when Wembley is being rebuilt - as is a good crowd. At present only 35,000 are expected, less than Mexico attracted to Wembley and poor considering United sell out regardless of the opposition.

With so many United players in contention an early team announcement by Hoddle might help but, apart from naming Gascoigne, he will not break his custom of waiting until just before kick-off. One obvious choice is Paul Scholes, if only as a substitute. It is the ideal time and place to give the ginger-haired United player a first taste of international football.

As well as Gazza and ginger what else can England offer potential spectators? Not posh spice - David Beckham coyly said Victoria would not be attending - nor, according to Clive Barker, flair.

Barker, the South African coach, confirmed his reputation for plain speaking. "You have a problem with flair and I think we have more talented players. We have more players who are comfortable on the ball. You have better organisation and strength. In the long run I believe talent will prevail, you need flair to break teams down.

"I have a lot of respect for English football but I am not in awe of it. In the 50s and 60s I thought England were going to be one of football's great world powers but you have under-achieved."

Harsh but true, Howard Wilkinson said much the same in launching the FA's Charter for Quality on Monday.

As playmakers, South Africa can offer John "Shoes" Moshoeu, so named for his dancing feet, and Dr Khumalo, who once had a trial with Aston Villa. England can offer Gascoigne, Beckham and Scholes, one's past his best two yet to reach it.

Butt sat out training with a slight hamstring strain. Darren Eadie has an inflamed tendon and Rob Lee took a knock on his leg during training. Lee should be fit, but even if not Hoddle still has 22 players from whom to choose. That should be enough.

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