Football: Taylor faces point of no return

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The Independent Online
ADVICE is not something an England manager can appear to welcome too openly but it comes all the same and Graham Taylor will take some of it into account as he makes the finishing touches to his squad for the crucial World Cup match against Poland on Wednesday week. A popular piece of counselling he will almost certainly ignore is to drop Paul Gascoigne, the one player who should have ensured that England did not get into the precarious World Cup situation they now face.

The decision involves a gamble now weighted heavily against Gascoigne coming to England's rescue as a goalscorer. Taylor must be considering whether to fly in the face of the critics who are waiting for him to revert to what they say is his true philosophy and play a rustic target man who perhaps has no international reputation. John Fashanu and Dalian Atkinson are obviously in his mind.

The dilemma for Taylor is whether he can continue to hope against hope that Gascoigne will ever again be the player he prayed would not be injured or destroy himself. From what we have seen recently Gascoigne can no longer be relied upon to offer more than a peek at what might have been, and the very occasional goal. Taylor knows that and is surely considering that the situation demands the inclusion of a powerful striker who can bludgeon England through their problems. In the pre-Gary Lineker days when England faced a crisis the manager usually come round to that way of thinking. Yet there remains the possibility that even if Gascoigne's lack of self-discipline has led to doubts that hours spent in a sauna can do much for his fitness, he can still change the course of a match with the unexpected.

Gascoigne's inclusion is worth the risk, but failure at Wembley would lead to his international future being in real doubt. If it went hand in hand with defeat for England it would probably mean the end of Taylor as well (though almost certainly through resignation rather than the sack).

The interdependent futures of Gascoigne, Taylor and England leave us clutching at straws. Although these past few days Gascoigne appears to have lost some weight, the possibility that he can pull himself together seems to have gone. What is more, Taylor conceded last spring that if this most talented player to emerge in England for a decade could not discipline himself during the summer and return to the England squad in better shape the time would have come to reconsider his value (something Lazio are now doing with increasing concern).

The deadline Taylor set Gascoigne has arrived, and the one he probably set himself is just around the corner. The impression he has given these past 12 months is of a man who is preparing for the worst rather than believing in a last-minute reprieve. His references to the satisfying achievement of becoming England manager rather than emphasising the possibility that he can inspire the team to recover the form which allowed them to lead the Netherlands 2-0 in the first half last April and brought adequate performances against Germany and Brazil in the United States, give an impression of his being resigned to resignation. His comment that 'I still want to do exceedingly well in the job' looks pretty thin after those defeats in Norway and by the United States.

Like all his predecessors, Taylor complains that he never seems able to maintain a settled team, but in all probability the decline of Gascoigne is the root of his increasing capitulation to pessimism. When he took over, Gascoigne could still have become one of the world's most exciting players. There were comparisons with Maradona, and there still are - but for the wrong reasons.

If England are to be rescued, perhaps only David Platt can act the hero, but Taylor knows that they could also be saved by bringing in one or two hungry players. Relying on Platt's goals is simply too much to expect of the player himself. The early evidence of this season in the Premiership has brought no lack of nominations, but the real pity is that Alan Shearer, the one striker who has the ability to become the natural successor to Lineker, has not played enough since his injury to be considered for a full game.

Taylor is being pelted with suggestions for the main striking role. Ian Wright is the man in possession yet he still fails to impress as an international. Taylor seems to have a lot of time for Les Ferdinand, but he too falls beneath the standard of a true international. The main question is whether, having included him in the three matches in the States, Taylor is now sufficiently encouraged by Nigel Clough's early performances as a striker with Liverpool to play him in that position for England. A partnership between Clough and Teddy Sheringham has attractions but looks frail, and whereas suggestions that Taylor brings in Atkinson or even Fashanu show a touch of desperation, what is England's position if not desperate? So there would be no harm in putting either Atkinson or Fashanu in the squad for possible use if the Poles hang on at Wembley, which they have done before.

Regrettably, now that we have watched England being shown up by the United States and recently seen victories only against Turkey and San Marino, the moment has come to think in terms of fighting through, which requires inspirational leadership. There should be no question of the urbane and influential Platt relinquishing the captaincy now that Stuart Pearce has become available, but even if Pearce is not fully back to fitness, his qualities as a formidable player are badly needed. An England with a fit Gascoigne, Shearer, Pearce and Des Walker could be expected to overcome the crisis they now face. Taylor can hardly be blamed for the fact that they are not. But like advice, blame for things not of the manager's making go with the job.