Football: Gascoigne fixes sights on January return: Venables sees no reason to rush Lazio midfield player back into action - Aberdeen's veteran striker set for first international start

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The Independent Online
PAUL GASCOIGNE will not be playing for England against the United States at Wembley tomorrow but he remains a core figure in Terry Venables' plans. Judging by the England coach's behaviour at Bisham Abbey yesterday he also regards the mercurial midfielder as his most vulnerable player.

Entering a press conference with Gascoigne, he took one look at the drop behind the dias on which the pair were expected to perch and said: 'We're not sitting there, it looks far too dangerous. I'm not having you fall off that.'

Some impromptu furniture shifting later and Gascoigne's feet were firmly on the ground and that, Venables intimated, is where he is hoping he stays.

For though Gascoigne's natural optimism has been understandably tempered since his latest injury his desperation to return to football would, if not checked, lead to a premature comeback.

Medical opinion regards a double-fracture of the type Gascoigne's right leg sustained in a Lazio training session last April as needing a year to heal. Having made good progress the patient is already talking of a return in January though he admits his London surgeon, John Browett, considers March more realistic.

Venables, with the European Championship two years hence in mind, quickly pointed out that as far as he was concerned there was no need for Gascoigne to rush things. 'It is hugely disappointing that he is injured but I know what he is capable of and I won't force anything,' Venables said. 'First he has to get fit for Lazio.'

Venables, who signed Gascoigne for Tottenham six seasons ago, is aware that winning the physical battle is only half of Gascoigne's task. He has proved before that he has the dedication and belief to recover from injury, the difficulty is keeping him content while he is rehabilitating.

'He is very disciplined, he attacks the work required as hard as anyone,' Venables said. 'The tough times are when he is sitting at home and out of contact with people. If he can get his mind right he will have years ahead of him.'

That is one reason why Venables asked Gascoigne - in the country to see Browett - to join the England camp at Bisham yesterday. He needs to feel involved and the player admitted: 'It has helped a lot. The lads have been good, English footballers are very different to Italian ones and I have missed the crack.'

After months getting 'cheesed off' with the exercise bike, Gascoigne is delighted that Browett has given him permission to start walking and light jogging. Once he has had an operation to remove the metal rod in his leg Gascoigne should feel he is well on course for a return. 'Every time this happens I just have to get back to playing again,' he said.

In recent years injury has become more familiar to Gascoigne than playing. Since Christmas, 1990 he has made 46 League appearances, many of them incomplete, and won 10 England caps. 'I feel I have missed three and a half years of my career but I am only 27, I still have time, though not as much as when I was first injured which makes this one harder to cope with.'

Even when he puts his feet up it appears Gascoigne cannot avoid reminders. A few weeks ago, hoping to kill his boredom by watching one of his library of football videos, he switched the VCR on to see a hole being drilled into his leg.

'Someone must have been watching it and stopped the tape there,' he said. 'I couldn't watch it, I turned it off straight away.'

It was said with a humour Gascoigne has retained throughout most his personal and professional life. Given what he has been through, his mental insecurity - as demonstrated by such superstitions as needing to straighten towels - is unsurprising. But as well as his talent he is blessed with courage, determination and ambition.

There is confidence, too, and that is undimmed. 'I'm a good player. I now have to get fit and prove it again,' he said. When he has done that he may, at the end of the season, come back to England: news that could spark an almighty transfer scramble.

In the meantime, he will have to settle for just watching England and a lonely fight for fitness.

Everton's central defender, David Unsworth, makes his England Under-21 debut in tonight's European Championship qualifier against Portugal at Filbert Street.

ENGLAND UNDER-21 (v Portugal, European Championship Group Six, Leicester, tonight, 7.45): Gerrard (Oldham), Watson (Newcastle), Gordon (Crystal Palace), Campbell (Tottenham), Unsworth (Everton), Redknapp (Liverpool), Sinclair (QPR), Bart-Williams (Sheff Wed), Joachim (Leicester), Barmby (Tottenham), Fowler (Liverpool). Substitutes: Oakes (Aston Villa), Roberts (Millwall), Makin (Oldham), Dyer (Crystal Palace), Parlour (Arsenal).

Holdsworth wants move, page 43

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