Football: Hero who plotted his own downfall

Glenn Moore assesses the moments that may have swayed the England coach's mind against including the mercurial midfielder
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The Independent Online
SEVEN months ago Paul Gascoigne sat in a featureless room in the depths of the Stadio Olimpico and spoke of his joy at qualifying for the World Cup. Gascoigne, who had rewarded Hoddle's backing with an outstanding performance on his return to Rome, even joked about the possibility of not being at the finals.

"I'll kill him if I don't get there," he said. He then added: "If Glenn Hoddle honestly thinks other players are better than me to fill my place then I wish them good luck."

Last night he was left to do just that after Hoddle finally called time on the wayward star. It was said to be a football and fitness issue but it is impossible to separate the way Gascoigne lives his life from the effect it has on both.

Through his smoking, drinking and poor diet Gascoigne has laid waste to a body which is only 31 years old. The consequence has been a dramatic deterioration in his football. His lack of stamina means he trundles through matches, playing in short bursts. His lack of pace means that he gets caught in possession, struggles to go past people, and is late with his tackles. His body also betrays his talent in little ways, the imprecise passing, the sloppy control. These are the things at which he was once the very best.

Watching Gascoigne in Casablanca last week the idea that he would once again lead England to World Cup glory seemed fanciful. Against Morocco he insisted on taking one free-kick then stubbed the ball straight to the first defender. Against Belgium there was an off-the-ball kick at Vital Borkelmans. Against both he regularly gave the ball away and constantly appeared to be taking a breather. Against these, the little cameos - the dribble and shot against the Saudis at Wembley, a reverse pass that opened up space for Rob Lee against Belguim - are just teases, reminders of better days.

There were plenty of those. Widely regarded as the best English player since Bobby Charlton, Gascoigne first came to notice as a teenager with Newcastle. His dribbling, his surging runs, his close control and his passing were of a rare quality. He moved to Tottenham and achieved international recognition at the 1990 World Cup when he inspired England to the semi- finals.

That match, lost to Germany on penalties, saw the birth of the Gazza phenomenon when television cameras captured his tears after a harsh booking meant he would miss out on the final if England got there.

From then on Gascoigne could never escape Gazza. The next season he scored a stunning goal in the FA Cup semi-final and was then carried off, a victim of his own recklessness, a few minutes into the final.

He moved to Lazio and was plagued by injury and rows with the media. He came back, to Rangers, and suffered a series of disciplinary problems. Off the field his marriage was breaking up, the final straw coming when he beat his wife.

Hoddle was by now England coach. Like Terry Venables, his predecessor, he appeared to have a soft spot for Gascoigne. He supported him through the controversies over his wife-beating, his celebrity drinking sessions and his smoking. On Friday, after the Belguim game, he said: "There is no question that he has the talent, that he can pass the ball. He proved to me in the four matches he put together last year [France, Brazil, Moldova, Italy] that he can still do it.

"People have asked me in the past if he'd ever come back fully but I think he's given the answer on the pitch. He nailed it to the mast with performances like the one he gave in Rome."

Hoddle then added: "He needs to get fitter and sharper but he's worked extremely hard and he's still got time."

Two days later Hoddle decided there was not enough time and, maybe, not the will either. The precocious talent of Italia 90 is older, slower, but no more mature. He remains theoretically the best passer in the side but his growing vulnerability affects the whole balance of the team. Whe he has played, Hoddle has had to pick Ince and Batty to compensate for his lack of mobility and his tendency to give the ball away in dangerous areas. That means that the front players get isolated and, with Teddy Sheringham out of form, the team loses cohesion.

All this nagged away at Hoddle's mind as he considered his England team this weekend. So much of his World Cup planning had been based around Gascoigne.

It is not that Hoddle was clinging on to a romantic vision of what he once was; it is because, as was evident against Chile and Switzerland, there appeared no alternative. Now he must find one.

At 31 Gascoigne may yet come back, but it will depend upon how he reacts to this latest blow. He remains devoted to football and has always been a good trainer. However, given the shambles of his personal life one cannot be optimistic. Rome may prove to be his final hurrah with England. It was a high note to go out on, but far too premature.

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