Football / International Postscript: Taylor troubled by his skilled labour: Joe Lovejoy finds the England manager with his two most gifted players inviting some searching analysis

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PAUL GASCOIGNE is not happy, John Barnes is not fit. England, in consequence, are neither happy nor fit to dislodge the Norwegians from the high ground in World Cup Group Two.

Another day, another holler. When Turkey were stuffed 4-0 in November it was all Hail Gazza, and wait until we get Gascoigne and Barnes in the same side. Three months on, Wembley had its first look at the dream ticket on Wednesday, and found it too soporific by half.

The second half, to be precise. It was around the hour mark, when the score against little San Marino was still only 2-0, that the crowd's patience snapped, and that dread chorus 'What a load of rubbish' rang round the old stadium.

Personalising their complaints, they booed poor Barnes every time the ball came near him, which was often enough to disconcert player and manager alike.

The bile was diluted by the three late goals which brought England the respectability of a 6-0 win, but the baiting continued right up to the final whistle.

Graham Taylor said it 'unsettled all decent-thinking people' - probably an exaggeration. Barnes himself responded with a spirit which would do wonders for his popularity, if only he would reproduce it on the pitch. 'I'm not going to let them drive me out,' he said.

'They' might not need to. Taylor would not have it that this was the enigmatic winger's last chance to re-establish himself, but he was profoundly disappointed with his old protege's timid performance.

His use of the ball had not been 'progressive', the manager said. He had played it 'too safe', electing to supply his full-back, Tony Dorigo, on the overlap rather than going for the line himself.

Like Gazza, Barnes failed to do justice to a talent which is second to none in the domestic game. The difference is that Gascoigne, having starred in the previous international, could afford to bomb in this one. Barnes has been in and out of the England team for a decade now, but has no recent credits to fall back on.

The great under-achiever has played 68 times for his country, and even Taylor, his mentor from way back, accepts that he has lived up to expectations in no more than the eight.

The manager said: 'John and Paul Gascoigne will have been disappointed that they couldn't give more in this particular game, but we have often been accused in England of turning our backs on gifted players. What do we do now? Turn our backs?'

Extenuating circumstances were advanced for both players, but the principal excuse on offer was a double-edged sword which, in the final analysis, does them no credit.

Neither of them was in the peak of condition, which was a matter of considerable concern, Taylor said. 'If the fitness is not there, the chances of them being able to dominate games are less. You have to maintain a fitness level to play international football.

'I will support these people, up to a point, but there comes a time when they have to take responsibility themselves, and their fitness has got to be better.'

In both cases, it would appear to be a question of mind over matter. The mind tends to wander, and the matter gathers around the stomach and hips.

Barnes, never the sleekest, was having trouble regaining his old shape and speed after the serious Achilles injury which kept him out of the European Championship. Gascoigne, on the other hand, cut a positively svelte figure on his return against Norway in October, but Taylor had detected a disturbing decline since.

Of the two, Gazza was the greater worry. England's well-being revolves around that of her best player, and all is not well with the windy one. Life with Lazio was not all beer and skittles, and he was feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

He was not happy, Taylor said. Nor was he likely to become so, given dwindling fitness and form. 'When Paul came back against Norway, he was fitter than he is now. After the Turkey game I voiced my concern. In his mind, he had won the battle with injury, but his overall level of fitness was deteriorating.

'There appears to be something not quite right, in the sense that he seems unhappy in himself. He's a very emotional boy, and Lawrie McMenemy and I sat down and had a good chat with him because he was unhappy with the way he played on Wednesday.'

Had he intimated that he was unhappy in Italy? 'I wouldn't want to go into that, but moving into a different culture can be difficult for some people.' Enough said.

'He's happiest,' Taylor went on, 'when he's playing football, and if he's not at the level of fitness at which he can play to the best of his ability, he's going to be unhappy. His fitness had slipped for the Turkey game, and its worse now. He doesn't deny it.'

Ebbing fitness would seem to have locked England's playmaker into a dispiriting downward spiral. Because his stamina is suspect, Lazio no longer play him for the full 90 minutes. Because he is not playing the 90 minutes, his condition deteriorates still further.

Italy's Serie A programme is suspended at the weekend to accommodate the national team, but Lazio are hosting a friendly tournament featuring Feyenoord and Parma, and wanted their record signing back straight after the San Marino match. They are unlikely to have been impressed by a request for two more days at home in Hertfordshire. As one Italian journalist put it yesterday: 'He will not get fit in Hoddesden.'

Attitudes, as well as circumstances, need to change if Gascoigne is to recapture his old form, fitness and influence in time for the next tie in the qualifying series, against Turkey in Izmir on 31 March.

The Turks are notoriously tough at home, and it is no place for players who are in anything other than the rudest of health. Barnes and Gascoigne together again would be an unacceptable risk.

Taylor's final thoughts on that 6-0 margin were from the damn lies school of statistics which made a laboured performance sound uncommonly good. 'We had 33 shots at goal, 21 of them on target,' he said. 'We put 62 crosses into the box, not counting corners and free-kicks, of which admittedly too many were not of the highest quality. We had a penalty saved, Gazza hit the crossbar and David Batty had a couple cleared off the line.

'We got six, it could have been 10, and if we'd scored three or four more, playing exactly the same way, everyone would have been satisfied. After three home games I expected to have six points, and we've got five. We shouldn't be too unhappy.'

Unless your name is Gazza. Or Barnes.

----------------------------------------------------------------- WORLD CUP GROUP TWO ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Norway 4 3 1 0 15 2 7 England 3 2 1 0 11 1 5 Netherlands 3 1 1 1 6 5 3 Poland 2 1 1 0 3 2 3 Turkey 4 1 0 3 5 9 2 San Marino 4 0 0 4 1 22 0 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Remaining fixtures: 24 February: Netherlands v Turkey; 10 March: San Marino v Turkey; 24 March: Netherlands v San Marino; March 31 Turkey v England; April 28 England v Netherlands, Norway v Turkey, Poland v San Marino; May 19 San Marino v Poland; May 29 Poland v England; June 2 Norway v England; June 9 Netherlands v Norway; September 8 England v Poland; September 22 Norway v Poland, San Marino v Netherlands; October 13 Netherlands v England, Poland v Norway; October 27 Turkey v Poland; November 10 Turkey v Norway; November 16 San Marino v England; November 17 Poland v Netherlands. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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