Football: Talents going to waste

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The Independent Online
FOR all of Graham Taylor's concern about Paul Gascoigne's state of mind and body, there is only so much he can do or say to save someone who in his mid-twenties seems to be drifting dangerously close to the same sort of self-destruction that has cut short the careers of too many wonderful players. But what is within his mandate is the international future of the more mature and almost equally gifted John Barnes, who suffered hateful and uniquely prolonged abuse from part of the Wembley crowd on Wednesday.

The last thing Taylor must do is appear to bow to verbal hooligans, but irrespective of the vendetta that some England followers have always pursued against Barnes, originally on racial grounds, the time has come to accept that the patience of his greatest admirers has been stretched too far. Bravely, he says he will go on facing the derision, but that is not the issue. For every loud-mouth there was some silent sadness that a decent, gifted man who was still not completely recovered from injury, had tried and failed once too often.

After hearing the crowd's jeers during the unsatisfactory performance against San Marino, Taylor, naturally, had to take a diplomatic line. To call even a section of the paying public heartless jerks, which must have been tempting, would not have improved the situation. He said Barnes had only just re- started his international career. He said that in the second half Barnes was asked to take on a selfless duty by pulling one of the 10 San Marino defenders wide to create space for Tony Dorigo. He stressed the problems of facing a queue of defenders none of whom was interested in gaining possession, only delaying the man with the ball. All worthy mitigation, and Barnes was by no means the only disappointment on a night when just one player, David Platt, really impressed.

So what to do about Barnes? Unlike Gascoigne, he can be guaranteed to stay on the rails and continue to seek proper match fitness. In future there could be occasions more suited to his style, but there have been many in the past and only rarely has he taken advantage. Those of us who have continued to say that England have too few players of outstanding ability to dispense with such a talent must now face the fact that sometimes cruel headlines hit the spot. Wednesday was a crucial day for Barnes. If you are worth your place, there is no excuse for playing a peripheral part in destroying the equivalent of a minor non-league side.

Taylor said it was the first day of a great player's international rehabilitation after injury, but that will not do. Since he returned to the Liverpool side last December, Barnes has played some outstanding club games in difficult circumstances. He has also played as if indifferent. Throughout his career his weakest performances have tended to come when his teams have been in most need.

It is not unreasonable for people who save hard to buy highly priced Wembley tickets to expect a player who earns so much to produce a high success rate. Whatever the extenuating circumstances, last Wednesday was another occasion when he failed. Nevertheless, the yobs should not be allowed to condemn him to the memory. For the time being he should, and no doubt will, remain a member of the squad. This will leave all of us with less expectancy and place him under less pressure. After all, 68 appearances and perhaps only half a dozen in which he played with the breathtaking skill seen at club level, is simply not a record that demands automatic selection. But if Gascoigne is missing, who else has such potential for ingenuity? Potential, the word that damned a master ball-player.

Since Barnes is now 29, he has to expect that younger men, not least Lee Sharpe, are waiting to replace him. Not so Gascoigne, who is 26 and only three months ago so dominated the match against Turkey that Taylor admitted to praying that no further injuries would befall him before the World Cup in 1994. In the event self-inflicted wounds have become the problem.

It transpires that in a long Christmas break his intake of pudding, and what-have-you, was slightly above the national average. For some that would be no problem, but since Christmas it seems that he has been unable to take off the pounds and may not have tried all that hard. While raising sympathy for Gascoigne's almost permanent adolescent behaviour is impossible, no one would want to see him spiral into permanent physical decline.

Taylor says he is concerned that Gascoigne is on the descending path at the end of which have fallen some of Britain's rarest talents. 'He's finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that he is not the star attraction in every game. I'm not too sure that coming back from Italy now would be the answer. If he did that he would see that as a failure. That would hurt him. He would not allow himself to say he has made a mistake. I felt all along that once he got back on the pitch after his injury and he had lost this target, he might not keep on going upwards. The problem will have to be resolved by the man himself. I think he has difficulty in fitting his own personality into a different culture.' That last, a memorable understatement.

Would Taylor drop Gascoigne if in six weeks' time he turned up unfit and unhappy? 'I don't want to be without Paul Gascoigne and all I can do is present the concern about his fitness that everyone else can see. Can he do anything about it? It's up to him.' Self-discipline is the root of Gascoigne's problem and the strength of Platt, who in spite of not gaining an assured place with Juventus and admitting homesickness, has become fluent in the language and well respected. His talent is slight compared with Gascoigne's yet his ability to do the basics so well and become an inspiring leader were manifest on Wednesday. A year or two ago Stuart Pearce was similarly inspiring, but even his place in the team is no longer a certainty. Taylor was mistaken in not making Platt captain originally, but at least evolution may bring that about. What will evolve between now and Turkey as far as Gascoigne and, to a lesser extent, Barnes are concerned could determine whether England qualify for the World Cup finals. England without Barnes would be the regrettable acceptance of an international career unfulfilled. England without Gascoigne could be England again unfulfilled.

(Photograph omitted)

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