Football: Two sides to the Gascoigne story

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Paul Gascoigne could be on his way back south of the border. Phil Shaw questions whether the England midfielder could still hack it consistently in the Premiership.

Paul Gascoigne's display in Rome last Saturday clearly revived Premiership interest in the man-child who was once the English game's most coveted talent. It may not be too cynical to suggest that it also presented a window of opportunity for Rangers to recoup their money on a player whose impact has been less than Olympian this season.

The admission by Rangers' chairman, David Murray, that they could be ready to listen to offers provided coded confirmation that the Scottish champions have decided the moment is right to sell Gascoigne.

South of the border, however, his stock is higher than at any time since his last game for an English club. That was the 1991 FA Cup final, in which his contribution to Tottenham's success was curtailed by a serious injury sustained in the act of scything into a Nottingham Forest player.

The evidence of his most recent visit to Wembley, for the 4-0 rout of Moldova, and of the crucial draw with Italy which followed suggested the 30-year-old Geordie was back to, or at least approaching, his best.

A more wide-ranging appraisal indicates that Aston Villa, Spurs, Crystal Palace and other potential purchasers might be playing with fire in a firework factory. Now in his third season with Rangers, having extended his contract during the summer, Gascoigne has failed to exert the influence that marked his first two years and remains troubled by temperamental problems.

When he arrived in Glasgow for pounds 4.2m in 1995, following two fitful campaigns with Lazio, there were question marks against his ability to maintain his physical and mental well-being in the frenzied, attritional Scottish game. The behavioural blips have been mostly minor, such as the time he butted an opponent in the stomach or brandished the yellow card at the referee.

If the beating he inflicted on his wife, Sheryl, was symptomatic of a much darker malaise, the penultimate game of his first Rangers campaign offered compelling evidence as to why the club were prepared to stand by their man. Gascoigne scored a stunning hat-trick against Aberdeen to clinch the title; for an institution obsessed with equalling Celtic's nine consecutive championships, such feats overrode other considerations.

Including, it seemed, Rangers' wretched showing in Europe. In that first year at Ibrox, when he could not inspire his new team to a single victory in six Champions' League fixtures, Gascoigne was sent off at Dortmund. Last year, when they won one and lost five, he took an even earlier bath in Amsterdam against Ajax.

This season, as they contrived to get knocked out of two Continental cups in a month, he came perilously close to an unenviable hat-trick. A reckless tackle on a Gothenburg player had the referee reaching for red, only to have second thoughts as Gascoigne helped up his victim.

Nor has he imposed himself on the domestic front in the way Murray and his manager, Walter Smith, might have hoped during the absence through illness of Rangers' one truly world-class player, Michael Laudrup. Only once, when he scored with an exquisite curling free-kick to help turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 win at Hibernian, has his input borne out the impression he made against little Moldova.

Whether Rangers really wanted to tie him to the club or were seeking to insure against his leaving as a free agent next year under the Bosman ruling must now be open to question. Of course it could be that he is no longer stimulated by the Scottish scene; John Collins and Pierre van Hooijdonk are among those who have left complaining about the boredom factor in playing certain clubs as many as five or six times a season.

Amid all the midfield drones in modern-day football, an old-fashioned playmaker who can pass a ball as accurately and imaginatively as he can should always be an asset. More to the point, his mentor figure, Glenn Hoddle, has reputedly advised him to return in order to hone his act for next year's World Cup finals.

But there must be some doubt as to whether Gascoigne, even in his new slim-line image, could hack it consistently in the foreigner-enhanced Premiership. In the four high-intensity club games he played prior to Rome, against IFK Gothenburg and Strasbourg, he was unable to impose his skills.

Instead of enhancing his claims to play alongside Paul Ince and David Batty at the heart of the national side, exposure to the greater depth of quality in England could arguably undermine them.

And if it is so hard for Gascoigne to live in Scotland with the tabloid intrusion of which he often complains, a trifle richly, it will be intriguing to see how those who are willing to pay Rangers' pounds 4m asking price plus a king's ransom in wages propose to protect him from the paparazzi in the capital or the Second City.