Football: Spurs await a different Gazza

Simon Turnbull says the trip back down White Hart Lane will be hard
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The Independent Online
ANDY TOWNSEND has been passed fit to return to the Middlesbrough team at Tottenham this afternoon. He missed the midweek trip to Leicester because of a migraine. It remains to be seen, and open to considerable doubt, whether the headache of Boro's last 10 days has been cleared by the fillip of their 1-0 win at Filbert Street. "As far as I'm concerned the Paul Merson issue is closed," Bryan Robson insisted after Friday training. The suspicion lingers, however, that Middlesbrough and their manager will be seeking a hangover cure for some time yet.

Merson made his bizarre departure with dark mutterings about the scale of Boro's problems. "There is a lot going on behind the scenes", he said. "Things that are quite deep, which I don't want to go into." Robson and Middlesbrough's chief executive, Keith Lamb, responded to the portrayal of a shambolic "Mickey Mouse" club by casting Merson as the villain of the piece. But the former rebel of the Riverside is a Villan now. And Middlesbrough must address the task of winning their spurs, at White Hart Lane and beyond.

Having spent pounds 51m over four years in building a team who still look short of the Premiership mark, Robson is no longer seen on Teesside as Boro's white knight. His shining armour has been dinted by a succession of lost causes: the failure to turn up at Blackburn two seasons ago, the failure to keep Ravanelli, Juninho, Emerson and now Merson. And talk of lavishing pounds 11m on Duncan Ferguson or pounds 3m on another South American, the Colombian striker Victor Aristizabal, suggests that Robson is continuing to suffer from not just a bad side but from bad judgement too.

He certainly staked a huge chunk of his managerial reputation when he bought Paul Gascoigne for pounds 3.45m in March. And it will take much more than one goal at Leicester on a Wednesday night in September to make the gamble pay off.

The winner Gascoigne struck at Filbert Street was his first goal in English football's top division since 15 December 1990, when he scored for Tottenham in a 2-1 defeat at Maine Road. This afternoon he rolls back the years again, returning to north London for his first competitive match at White Hart Lane since 4 May 1991, when he wore the No 8 shirt for Spurs in a 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest. The number will be the same, though the jersey will be red and extra large. The player will be rather different too.

The Gascoigne who has huffed and puffed into the Premiership with Middlesbrough is not the same impish genius who inspired Tottenham eight seasons ago. He carries the weight of his troubles on his shoulders, as well as the bulk of a spreading waistline, though Robson refutes the suggestion that his portly midfielder is the heavyweight disruptive problem down at the Riverside. The Middlesbrough manager has, however, seen fit to "have a chat", as he put it, with Gascoigne in the wake of the Merson affair.

"What we said will remain between me and Gazza but he has responded well," Robson remarked on Friday. "He couldn't have had a better boost than the one he got on Wednesday night. He worked hard at Leicester and got a goal. What he's got to do now is keep that going. It's up to Gazza to prove himself. But his fitness is improving all the time and he'll be going back to Tottenham in a confident frame of mind after Wednesday. I think things are settling down in his personal life. Hopefully, he's over most of his problems now."

For Gascoigne and for Robson's Boro, though, the future seems to be another problem waiting to happen.