Football: Taylor left banking on Gascoigne

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The Independent Online
IF ANYTHING is ever predictable under the perplexing management of Graham Taylor, the chances are that the next two years will see England playing what he calls the football of their culture, which may sound grand but is not remotely the same as saying they will be attempting to play cultured football.

The largely frantic stuff you now see on Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and have dished up with such excruciatingly over-the-top enthusiasm by satellite salesmen on Monday is what you will get from England. Occasionally in the past a similar policy would have been condemned as a disavowal of available talent. Now it just seems realistic.

Over the past two years we have been through every conceivable hoop. There has been only one consistent truth: that Taylor could permute indefinitely but the depth of exceptional talent remained shallow and vulnerable. It consisted of Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker and Des Walker. Among the ifs and buts of speculation, it is tempting to believe that with all three fit and on form at the same time England would have been European champions this summer when standards of football on the Continent were shown to have fallen. In the event Gascoigne was unavailable and Lineker's goal-touch virtually disappeared. Sadly, the most proficient triumvirate of recent years is broken.

Taylor was a victim of that unfortunate circumstance, as he has been of successive injuries to key players at inconvenient times. Forlornly, he now says that England only really lost out in Sweden by conceding the second half of their last game against the hosts. You could say that, just as you could say the manager had a pretty remarkable record until things became important, but the past two years have been cloaked in such confusion that when for a while last week it seemed that Taylor was going to stop talking, it was almost a relief.

Over the last few months we were told that England were supposed to be embracing the Continental-style sweeper system because it was the only way to compete internationally. Then, predictably, it was discovered that Beckenbauers were a bit thin on the ground in league football. Everyone seemed to want Taylor to come out and admit that his preferred style was the long-ball game, which was a pointless request. At Watford he always denied that he told the players to hoof the ball upfield and, in any case, when did England ever fail to resort to a long-ball game and high balls to big centre-forwards just as soon as they found themselves outplayed in midfield?

So here we go again, trying to read deeply significant things into Taylor's first post-European Championship squad for Wednesday's friendly against Spain in Santander. Actually, concern about the squad was minimal. There was much more interest in whether Taylor's alleged new reticence and dislike of some press criticism would have him arrive at last Tuesday's press conference scowling and silent. He turned up smiling and courteous. He seemed to have realised that there was no future in being hoist by his own verbosity and, equally, no point in inviting more aggravation by acting mute. One suspects, though, that his natural inclination to chatter will not be subdued for long. People say he is thick-skinned. Prick his ego a few more times and there could be blood everywhere.

In effect he simply announced his squad, said that the injured Martin Keown and Tony Daley were still in his plans, that Keith Curle, Alan Smith and Neil Webb had been dropped (in the past he would have said something like: 'But they remain in my thinking') and that if anyone had any better players in mind to send him the list on the back of a postage stamp. Clutching at straws, someone suggested Peter Beardsley. 'He's been playing well.' That terse reply could be translated as: 'He's too old for the next World Cup and his best partner was Lineker, who has retired from international football. Next question?'

What little Taylor did give away was not contained in what he said but in the squad itself, not least the captaincy. Stuart Pearce will lead England throughout the World Cup qualifying matches. That in itself is indicative of the way Taylor is thinking. No England manager is going to come out and say: 'Our football produces cloggers, sprinters and long-distance runners, and Ray Wilkins and Glenn Hoddle are a dying breed'. Instead, Taylor will do his diplomatic best to couch his intentions in words like 'containment' and 'honesty'. Has he any alternative? Currently only one unusually inventive footballer is being held back and he continues to be in the squad. If Nigel Clough previously felt that he was being kept in the reckoning only because it allowed Taylor to plead that he is a lover of imaginative football, he will feel even more like the token ball player now that the future is being based on the hard core of the Swedish failure.

For various reasons, personal and professional, Taylor is not going to dwell on the loss of Lineker. Alan Shearer is beginning to look like an effective if not comparable successor, and the question that may concern Taylor more is Paul Gascoigne's part in the future. Once Gascoigne takes his place in a squad everything revolves around him, on and off the field.

Taylor delights in such enthusiasm and ability but Gascoigne is not a typical product of British football culture, more a freak of natural skill, juvenile audacity, physical strength and eccentricity. The reintroduction of a player who loves nothing better than retaining possession and beating the second or third tackle when all around him the name of the game is predictable, boring 'closing down' and aerial power will be something to behold. It could make or break England's World Cup hopes and Taylor's tenure.