Football: Hoddle's ultimatum to Gazza

Ian Ridley says a lack of guile has refuelled the Gascoigne debate
IT IS no wonder that the "Three Lions" Euro 96 anthem lingers and Wembley's audience now almost insists on it being played at England international matches. Catchy and rousing, its lyric perfectly captures a populist feeling of optimism born of tradition, seemingly unquelled by the experiences born of reality.

The song's personification probably comes in the variable shape of Paul Gascoigne. How huge the potential, how slim the return. Strange as it may sound, sometimes footballers become better players by not playing. For Paul Gascoigne, this was one of those weeks.

England's functional peas-in-a-pod midfield of David Batty, Paul Ince and Robert Lee laboured competently enough against Georgia but it was a team and a game that cried out for the cry baby, his quick feet and close control inviting alarmed defenders to leave their stations and deal with his dribbling before the penetrating pass behind them to slip in a team-mate.

And that view too is misty-eyed. Like Bobby belting the ball and Nobby dancing, it belongs to another era, before a life hard-lived took its inevitable toll. Still, the absence of the invention of which Gascoigne remains just about capable showed why there is still some fuss made about him. The question seems to concern more the timing of David Beckham's move infield to provide the spark.

By now Gascoigne should be realising that he is close to being left behind as England move on without him. He will be 30 in the week England go to Poland later this month and it is not best to spend such a time on one's own. England, in turn, are finally close to losing a player with the capacity to lift them above the ordinary. The possible rewards for perseverance are why the England coach Glenn Hoddle endures the questions about Gazza and why he still entertains hopes of his rehabilitation, beyond any humanitarian wish he may have to help.

It was a week that marked a development of The Gazza Strategy from sympathy to "tough love", beginning with his pre-match refusal to state that Gascoigne would definitely be back. "If I say `yes he will' I don't know if the things that we have to address are going to happen," said Hoddle post- match.

Hoddle could well have brought Gascoigne - fit, if not match fit - into the squad for more talking and cajoling, or simply to keep him out of trouble. The time for that has passed, however. It is now more about shaping up or shipping out, and for Gascoigne to take responsibility for himself.

"I can't do it for him," said Hoddle in the aftermath of the 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Georgia. The night before, on television, the long-suffering former England manager Graham Taylor said: "There's no problem handling Paul. It's a problem of Paul handling himself."

Taylor once talked famously about Gascoigne's "refuelling" habits and on Sky's Footballer's Football Show expressed surprise that no one had really had the courage to follow up the comment properly. "That problem is now surfacing," added Taylor. "He has been plagued by injury," Hoddle said. "Now there are reasons why that happens sometimes." Late nights and what happens during them are one.

It is impossible to divorce Gascoigne's physical and on-field decline with his psychological state and off-field behaviour. At recent England squad gatherings, some players have been taken aback by the abstinence followed by the bingeing. Pasta-and-chicken days seem to be passing him by. Disappointment has spread through the ranks at his inability now to impress them in training as he once did.

Last Monday he played in a testimonial for Leicester's Steve Walsh and some there were shocked at his condition, which had nothing to do with his recent ankle injury. "I think people are laughing at him rather than with him these days," a Filbert Street witness told me sadly. The loss of respect by fellow professionals should surely be a factor in hastening a turning point.

All talk of counsellors and last chances has merely led to Gascoigne agreeing to go along with the process then going his own wayward way. Still he appears in denial that he is suffering from an addictive illness. He can surely do so no more if he wants to prolong his career at the top level. The change is that Hoddle still speaks of the long-term picture but has introduced a short-term cameo. And change is what Gascoigne has to embrace and now.

"He is about to play three club games in a short period of time and he has got to prove to me he wants to put some of the things right again," said Hoddle. It begins with Motherwell at Ibrox tomorrow night, Dundee United away on Wednesday and Heart of Midlothian away next Saturday. "He will be watched," added the coach. In more ways than one.

Gascoigne is fortunate that such a programme precedes an England friendly, against South Africa at Old Trafford on 24 May, at which he could well be given a chance ahead of the following Saturday's crucial match against Poland - after the polls, the Poles. Then comes the summer tournament in France, also involving Italy and Brazil. If Gascoigne cannot prove some measure of rehabilitation in that time then, despite Hoddle's insistence that the door will never be shut, he might need a locksmith to open it.

Which is what, in footballing terms, Gascoigne could yet be. Hoddle was asked if it was fair to say that the things Gazza can provide are exactly what was missing from England's performance against Georgia. "I think they have been missing in a lot of countries," he replied, and it was a yes. "I don't think there are many players as good as Paul at his best but when was he last at his best?" There were only glimpses at Euro 96, said Hoddle. Many critics even doubt whether Gascoigne has had one sustained, consistently good game for England rather than showing flashes of inspiration.

Yet flashes are all that is needed. The modern game demands athletes and toilers, which is why Hoddle may have erred on the side of caution with his selection against Georgia, and Gascoigne cannot expect to be spared some of those duties. But England would be enhanced by the odd pass no one else can see.

At least the spine of the side looks strong, with David Seaman, Tony Adams, Paul Ince and the precious Alan Shearer clearly walking tall as international players. Teddy Sheringham brings some guile but more is needed centrally rather than Beckham's wide area.

Though the performance was patchy, the result was all against Georgia and England can go to Poland knowing that a draw will secure second place. Poland's 3-0 defeat in Italy may have helped England with the Poles now needing to win, thus forcing them into greater ambition. Hoddle's teams are also likely to look more impressive away from home on the counter.

That thought could comfort come Rome in October when victory - with the spine missing at Wembley - may not be so fanciful. Whether it is with Beckham in central midfield, after the summer experiment in France, or Gascoigne remains to be seen. Hoddle was talking about missed chances but he might have been referring to Gazza when he said: "It's no good crying over spilt milk. You've got to go and find another cow."