Football: New model Gazza pranged

Stan Hey sees a streamlined England playmaker shine before a fall
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Paul Gascoigne's turbulent football career was never encapsulated better than in the friendly against South Africa at Old Trafford last night. Revealed in all his slimline bodywork, the new model Gazza looked to have plenty of miles left on the clock with his all-round performance and was just about to celebrate a successful test drive when a late shunt threatened to knock him back on to the verges of the international team.

Tackled from behind by a player called Linda Buthelezi, Gazza once again found himself on chewing terms with the turf as he clutched his left leg. Although the initial reactions looked ominous, once Gascoigne was eventually stretchered off he was able to sit up and applaud the England fans with whom he has an almost umbilical relationship.

The South African coach Clive Barker, presumably no stranger to such horrors, went to e`nquire about Gascoigne's health and was reassured that he would be all right on the night if Saturday's match in Poland is placed on his agenda.

"It's a heavy blow to his left calf," England coach Glenn Hoddle reported afterwards. "And he'll have treatment for it over the next few days. We've got till Saturday, so we have some time on our side."

Gascoigne's reappearance in an England shirt, his first since November last year, had revealed a player so dramatically slimmed down that you could almost have mistaken him for the diminutive David Batty. His eagerness for the fray was exemplified by the fact that he was the only England player to bring a football out with him, conjuring up images of a baby with a security blanket.

But Gazza is almost grown up now. He will be 30 next Tuesday, almost exactly a year younger than the now retired Eric Cantona. With posterity beckoning it almost seemed that Gascoigne had taken a leaf from the Frenchman's livre, utilising Old Trafford to rescue a career from roguery and anti- climax.

Almost too eager to please in the first half, Gascoigne had to make ball- shaped gestures to the England defence to remind them that he was back in midfield, rather than the less creative Paul Ince and Batty. Gascoigne duly delivered a delightful "nutmeg" which he celebrated as if it were a goal, and his general link-up with Ian Wright and Phillip Neville on the right looked very promising. It was certainly noticeable that the younger England players were often by-passing him with their pace almost like schoolboys not wanting to play with a granddad. But the second half saw Gascoigne drive on impressively. "He got stronger as the game went on," Hoddle observed approvingly, having noted his occupation of centre stage once the unfortunate Jamie Redknapp had been carried off.

By the time David Beckham came on with England in an ideal position for one of his free-kicks, Gascoigne was confident enough to shoo the young pretender away, revealing that his own dead-ball skills are still very much alive. Although it was relatively incidental to England's second goal, Gascoigne theatrically celebrated his free-kick, such was his hunger to be back in the limelight.

Whether Hoddle will risk him in such a vital game remains to be seen. The injury and Tuesday's birthday celebrations will have to be overcome. But Hoddle might also reflect that of Gascoigne's 47 internationals England have lost only five, including the two epic semis against the Germans, and have won 26. Gascoigne may not be a lucky player himself but with him in the team England evidently are.