Football: Taylor still in two minds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LEEDS UNITED'S stirring victory over Stuttgart has given England a welcome lift as they embark on the odyssey they hope will take them to the United States and the 1994 World Cup. Whether they get the Paul they need as much as the fillip remains to be seen.

Graham Taylor will spend the next 48 hours or so agonising over Gascoigne's readiness to return for England's first tie in qualifying Group Two, at home to Norway on Wednesday.

The manager's eagerness to have his best player at the hub of the team is tempered by the certain knowledge that Gascoigne is not yet fit enough to last the full 90 minutes. Taylor is unsure whether to start with him, and bring him off in the second half, or introduce him at some stage in the hope that he can quickly pick up the pace of the game from cold.

It is a tricky decision, but the man himself has no doubts. Gazza wants to play. 'Of course I want to be out there,' he said. 'The last World Cup was the best experience of my life. Fantastic. It is important that we win on Wednesday - important for the players, important for England and important for the manager.'

For his part, Taylor is anxious to play down the tie's significance. 'If, God forbid, we lose this one, all hell will break loose, but it won't mean we won't qualify. There are nine more games after this one, and in 1982 we lost three and still got through.'

True enough, but 'Defeat won't be catastrophic' is hardly the most inspiring of battle-cries, and a third loss in succession, after Sweden

(1-2) and Spain (0-1), could damage morale beyond early repair.

In more positive mode, Taylor is billing the World Cup as 'a new start with a clean sheet'. It was time to forget the European Championship debacle. 'What is past is past.'

The players were in good spirits, he said - 'and not just because of the inclusion of Gascoigne'. There was a 'brightness and desire' about the squad. 'This is a new beginning.'

Leeds' success in Barcelona on Friday had fuelled a burgeoning optimism. The England players had watched the match on television at their Bisham Abbey base, and had been encouraged by its outcome.

It had also been a welcome diversion from The Great Gazza Debate. Should he or shouldn't he?

Taylor had given his inclusion a lot of thought, and was still undecided, spelling out the dilemma as follows: 'If Paul starts the game, there is no way he is going to finish it, so I've got to pick what amounts to a 12-man side, and if I have him on the bench, the clamour for him to get on will be tremendous, and unfair on the others.

'I could have him among the substitutes and not need him, and then the demand from the crowd to bring him on could create a situation we don't want.'

Balance was another consideration. 'Bear in mind that we are likely to be up against a strong, five- man midfield. If we play Paul, how much protection are we going to have to give him to allow him to play the way he wants to play?'

Taylor admitted that the equation had been further complicated by the injury to Trevor Steven, whose energy and experience would have made him Gascoigne's ideal running mate. 'It is not an easy decision. I want to see Paul in action in training for another day or two before I make up my mind.'

Norway come to Wembley with maximum points from their first three qualifiers, and a 14-1 goal difference after beating San Marino at home (10-0) and away (2-0) and the Netherlands in Oslo (2-1). An eye-opening start, but no surprise to Taylor. He has done his homework, and cites the Norwegians' progress, and the work which lies behind it, as a shining example to England.

'One of the things I like about them is that they play with three centre-backs, not with a sweeper. Tore Pedersen is their right central defender with Rune Bratseth in the middle and Roger Nilsen on the left. Just in front of them, they have Gunnar Halle and Stig Bjornebye.

'They don't man-mark, they stay in zonal areas, but if they need a back four they bring Halle back on the right and Pedersen can play centre-back with Bratseth, with Nilsen at left-back. If they need to do it another way, Bjornebye goes to left-back, Nilsen plays off Bratseth and Pedersen becomes right-back.

Norway are not saddled with England's burden of expectation, and have the time to change direction and develop carefully, along progressive lines, without the win-or-else pressure. Emerald with envy, Taylor said: 'They have accepted that they are not going to win the World Cup just yet, and have instead concentrated on an international development programme, starting with their 14-year-olds.

'Success has come from everyone agreeing that the international teams should be their priority. They have done what we should be doing: drawing up a 10 or 12-year development programme that takes in the next three World Cups, and looking down as far as the Under-16s.

'Unfortunately, when you get to that level you run into schools jurisdiction, and problems.' After club v country, Taylor v Mr Chips. If England are mastered on Wednesday, he may have had his.