Football: Mature Gascoigne is key to Venables' master plan: England's coach and playmaker stage special talks to air their desire for national advancement

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM TAYLOR used to be indecisive, now Terry Venables is not so sure. The Italian job had been a rewarding trip, but Venables's re- aquaintance with Paul Gascoigne had only deepened his tactical dilemma.

True, he had seen the jewel in his crown glittering in what may now be his ideal setting, but he was left wondering how best to set him off.

Venables looked on in smiling, edge-of-the-seat admiration in the Olympic stadium on Sunday when Gascoigne, and Lazio, played exactly the way the new coach would like England to play.

His instincts tell him that a measured passing game is England's likeliest route to renewed prosperity. Unfortunately, what the biggest Premier League in Europe and a crowded domestic fixture list tells him is that he will not have the time he needs with his players if he is to make radical changes to the traditional kick and rush. As ever, there will have to be undesirable, sapping compromise.

When Venables and Gascoigne met at a Rome hotel yesterday, first for the benefit of the massed media, then for private discussions, they agreed that the Italians had it right. England had played their up-and-at- 'em power game for nearly 30 years without winning anything. It was time to embrace subtlety, and put the emphasis on skill rather than speed.

Venables said: 'I know what I consider to be the correct way to play, but it takes time to make it work. We haven't got that time, so I've to come up with a way of getting as close to the ideal as possible.'

His belief in a more modern, sophisticated strategy was reinforced by the technical expertise Lazio displayed in beating Cagliari 4-0 at the weekend. He thoroughly enjoyed the game in general, and Gascoigne's performance in particular.

Partly because he is pacing himself while he strives to recover optimum fitness, but also because the Italians think it is the right way to play, old daft-as-a-brush showed impressive restraint and control. The range of his passing was excellent, the surge of pace is back, and he might have scored with two headers as well as his late free-kick, but it was his composure and awareness that made the deepest impression.

Playing this way, with the supercharger switched off, he is well suited to the more sedate pace of Continental, and international, football.

Maturity is what Venables says has improved the Gascoigne game, and he would seem to have attained it off the field, too. Certainly it was hard to believe that the confident, composed young man who gave a thoughtful, reflective press conference yesterday was the same boring boor who broke wind into an Italian microphone and appeared on television telling the people of Norway to eff off.

He was happy and content, and it showed. They appeared as a double act, and Venables went first. 'Paul's game has definitely matured,' he said. 'He's passing the ball earlier when it is needed, running with it intelligently and mixing the two well. He seems to have learned a lot here.

'It's harder to mark him now. People used to know what he was going to attempt to do, and how to set about stopping him. Now when someone gets in tight on him, he's laying the ball off, and just when they think there's no point in marking him any more, he'll go at them. He's got a surprise up his sleeve.'

Gascoigne nodded in agreement. He was enjoying his best spell since he came to Italy. 'I'm pleased with my fitness and the way I'm performing at the moment,' he said. 'I think everyone at Lazio is happy with me now.'

The Italian experience had improved his appreciation of the game. 'I've learned how to mix it up. I'm running when I should run and passing when I should be passing. I've changed and improved. If I'd played for Tottenham the way I'm playing now, Gary Lineker would have scored even more goals because now I can recognise the sort of runs he made which I didn't see at the time. If you were to look at some of the goals Nayim made for Gary, those are the sort of passes I'm putting through to Signori and Boksic.'

His return to fitness and form had coincided with the appointment of his old mentor as national coach. Happy days were here again. 'Sunday was the first time I've ever been comfortable when an England manager has been watching me. When Graham Taylor came, I always felt I had something to prove. Terry knows me, I've worked with him and I felt relaxed with him there and just wanted to put on a nice display.'

He had fallen out with the press, English and Italian, over what he deemed unfair criticism, and his appearance yesterday was testimony to Venables' powers of persuasion. 'I can only recall three bad games I've had for England,' he said. 'I wasn't in America for the US Cup and I missed the European Championship.'

The World Cup? 'Yes, I was involved in the qualifying series, and I played three bad games. So what? I know when I play badly and I know when I play well. I don't have to listen to what anybody else says.' When he had a good game he felt he was giving a two-fingered salute to his critics, 'and that's nice'.

Old grudges out of the way, he made a characteristically frank admission. He felt 'shamed', personally, by England's elimination from the World Cup. 'I can't believe we're not going when you look at some of the teams who are. We've got to put some pride back into our game.'

Venables loved that, of course. Suitably encouraged, coach and media entourage move on to Genoa today for more expatriate patriotism from David Platt.

Walker's targets, page 39