Football: Growing pains good for Gascoigne

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The Independent Online
'HE IS beyond value.' Dino Zoff, coach to Lazio and, in his time, a goalkeeper who faced some of the world's most formidable goalscorers and creators, maintains the Italian hype about Paul Gascoigne and dismisses any doubts with words the fans in Rome want to hear. 'He will make things happen. Everything people expect he can do. Why should we want to change him?'

Zoff is wrong. After a few months mainly spent in Italy and away from his cronies at the Dunston Excelsior Working Men's Club on Tyneside, and only occasionally reunited with his mates in Hertfordshire, Gascoigne is noticeably changed. He is physically fitter than before he tore cruciate knee ligaments during the 1991 FA Cup final (he still denies that it was a reckless tackle on Nottingham Forest's Gary Charles but confesses that his first on Garry Parker was 'risky') and apparently less immature. Next Wednesday he appears for Lazio against Tottenham in the most important 'friendly' of his career and one with a significant bearing on England's international future.

The loss of Gascoigne from the England team was emphasised in the recent friendly against Spain, but several other events have also drawn attention to the fact that there is a chasm between his standard of ball mastery and the abilities of the rest of the England squad, as well as all other British players currently appearing in the Premier League.

For the last couple of Sundays, Channel 4's welcome televising of Italian League matches has probably surprised a good many people. The Italian game was always cursed by a reputation for sterility, but there has never been such a concentration of talent, attacking and defensive. This is a situation that leaves England's outstanding central defender, Des Walker, looking uncertain and David Platt struggling to get a place in the Juventus side. There is even talk of Gascoigne not being assured of a first-team berth in the Lazio team, but Zoff says a place must be found for a player who could be 'the best'.

The comparison between the hurly-burly of the average Premier League game and the last two Channel 4 matches makes the return of Gascoigne to the England side even more desirable. Then the defeat of Leeds by VfB Stuttgart in the European Cup on Wednesday and the indifferent performance of Scotland's top clubs added to the sense of need to prove that occasionally someone from these shores can be compared with the best. Only Gascoigne has that potential.

Is this gifted clown seriously reformed, determined to settle in the Italian League and ready to avoid the pitfalls of publicity and physical punishment? Earlier this summer he was far from reformed and still badly overweight. Recently he has shed well over a stone. Sometimes he still behaves as he always did, saving his most offensive rudeness for British journalists (he may need the Italian ones on his side) and generally being gauche (significantly, the first phrases of Italian he commanded were liberally spiced with expletives), yet those who have been with him recently and knew him at least two or three years ago seem to believe he has grown up. When he joined the England party in Santander he was remarkably (perhaps the word should be comparatively) sensible.

Reading between the lines, it appears that Gascoigne has realised that when at Tottenham and Newcastle he was almost permanently playing below his extraordinary potential because he was rarely fully fit. He was not given sufficient advice about diet and had little if no self-discipline. In spite of an improved overall fitness level in the British game, which is proved by its ludicrous pace, there is still a high proportion of players who have what might be called a confessional attitude. If they train to the minimum acceptable level and play two matches a week, then all their other weaknesses (not least substantially more boozing than athletes in any other field, including top class rugby) are forgiven. By contrast, Ray Wilkins, 36 last Monday, learnt about self-preservation in Italy and still plays impressively because he trains for 50 weeks of the year and sticks more or less to the sensible diet he got used to at Milan.

In terms of talent, Gascoigne stands high above any other British player, but so did George Best, Tony Currie, Alan Hudson and Stan Bowles, and all had the flaw of self-destruction. Gascoigne is now at the crossroads of his career. Fortunately he has never been intimidated by expectancy or defeated by disappointment. Bobby Robson more or less indicated that England's match against Czechoslovakia at Wembley in 1990 was Gascoigne's last chance. Such a threat could have ruined him. Instead he played like a dream and scored a wonderful goal.

Robson had to concede and put up with being worn out by Gascoigne's constant disruption of team discipline. Today, Graham Taylor is probably in two minds about the situation. Obviously, he would love to have Gascoigne's skills and goals but the idea of having him wandering around hotels at 3am, wanting to keep everyone else awake, is not something he looks forward to curbing. Perhaps Zoff will accept that there are some things that do need changing.

One of Tottenham's physiotherapists, Dave Butler, best summed up Gascoigne's last 15 months. 'He had a terrible fright and that's what some people need. He's different now. He's still a loveable lad and he's quietened down, but he's still got the cheek.' English football wants Gascoigne to prove it. Italian football will demand it.