James Lawton: Gascoigne flaws serve as warning to Rooney

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There will be no more poignant - or alarming - headline in the build-up to Euro 2004 than the one that appeared above the name of Paul Gascoigne yesterday. "Why Rooney," it declared, "can be the new me." The impact of this statement was all the more terrifying because it touched on the darkest fears of anyone who has happened to notice the striking similarities between the two most precociously gifted English footballers of their generations.

There will be no more poignant - or alarming - headline in the build-up to Euro 2004 than the one that appeared above the name of Paul Gascoigne yesterday. "Why Rooney," it declared, "can be the new me." The impact of this statement was all the more terrifying because it touched on the darkest fears of anyone who has happened to notice the striking similarities between the two most precociously gifted English footballers of their generations.

Losing, because of the flaws in his competitive nature, one potentially great player was, as Oscar Wilde might say, unfortunate; mislaying another would be careless. However, despite the odd petulant outburst on the field from Rooney, an undercurrent of surliness when all is not going so well, the evidence that the young Merseysider is much less daft than Gazza at a comparable age, is encouraging.

Rooney's passion for the game - one which the young Gazza no doubt shared - so far at least, does not appear to have been touched by the love of celebrity which Gascoigne embraced so obsessively from the moment his tears in the World Cup semi-final in Turin 14 years ago made him a household name. This, given the forces at work around modern sport, can change at any moment, but for the time being we can only celebrate the possibility that Rooney will prove himself a genuine throwback: a footballer who most of all wants to play football.

If only that could have been said of the young Gascoigne, who even while he was confessing to the talkshow host Terry Wogan that he was exhausted after the 1990 World Cup, and had been granted a reduction in his early-season training schedule at White Hart Lane, was involved in modelling shoots and recording the excruciating "Fog on the Tyne".

There are many tragic aspects to Gascoigne's playing career, but undoubtedly the greatest is that he played in just one World Cup and that when he had the chance to be an utterly persuasive influence in Terry Venables's Euro 96 campaign, he was already well down the road to serious distraction - and dissipation.

That long ago ceased to be less a matter of reproach than haunting regret, but then some of the old frustration and anger at lost opportunity did resurface yesterday. It was created by the fact that beneath that disturbing headline Gascoigne paraded some conspicuously intelligent ideas about how Sven Goran Eriksson's England should tackle the coming challenge in Portugal.

In urging the selection of Frank Lampard, Gazza succinctly outlined the basic thrust of his football thinking, saying: "He has to be in the midfield, along with Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Steven Gerrard. The question is how you organise them. Sven clearly wants Gerrard on the left, but I think you have to get him in the middle with Scholes in the flat four.

"The fact is, though, that good players just play, and we can all become too obsessed with formations. Start by picking your best players and then come up with some kind of system."

There, from the man who once played an imaginary pipe of Billy's Army after scoring a goal for Rangers against Celtic, was one flash of impeccable logic. Others were offered to those great and loquacious friends Gary Neville and David Beckham. Gascoigne cautioned Neville on his euphoric estimate of the current England team's technical ability, pointing out that, for a start, the '96 squad had a goalkeeper of the quality of David Seaman in his prime - a disturbing comparison with today's accident-prone David James if ever there was one - and a backline which had, apart from Neville himself, the formidable trio of Tony Adams, Stuart Pearce and Gareth Southgate.

Sheer modesty, apparently, prevented Gascoigne from listing his own value as an exceptionally creative midfielder, but he did point out that in Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham his England squad were superbly equipped at the front, and that to say Michael Owen and Rooney - at least at this point in their partnership - are inherently superior is a "big call".

Finally, there was a little bit of timely advice for Beckham. "Of course everyone loves good publicity," said the man who initially had more than most, "but there are times when the shit hits the fan and if that's the life you have chosen, you just have to accept it."

All in all, then, from Gazza comes a thundering endorsement of the theory that too often in life youth is wasted on the young. Certainly Gascoigne himself provides the most compelling evidence. Only now, when it is too late, is he beginning to live the life of a professional sportsman. Only now, it seems, is he stopping to think at all deeply about the game for which he had such luminous gifts, and even when he does this there is, maybe inevitably, a touch of the old lemming instinct.

He dismisses the significance of warm-up games, pointing out that eight days before the start of Euro 96 he was in the notorious dentist's chair in a Hong Kong nightclub. A joke, no doubt, but it is no easier to laugh today than it was eight years ago when, after scoring a stupendously skilled goal against Scotland, he sprawled on the turf and mimed the guzzling of a drink.

Indeed, Rooney can be the new Gascoigne. So let's just pray that it is not the footballer he was, but the one he might have become.

Enemy within still England's worst fear

It is a timely reminder by Sven Goran Eriksson that by far the greatest threat to England's standing in the game is not indecision about the shape of his midfield, but that old gut-churning potential of the fans to wreck and befoul another European city.

Maybe because of that hiatus of peace in Japan two years ago - one almost certainly caused by a combination of travel costs and the clear resolve of the hosts to summon the Samurai if an English lout so much as spat on a pavement - some of us may have been lulled into complacency.

If this has indeed been the case, it is only human nature to hope for the best, especially at a time when large parts of the nation have been celebrating the dignity of the old men who returned to Normandy to recall the time when they arrived in Europe not to make a scabrous, shaming nuisance of themselves, but to offer their lives in the cause of freedom.

Freedom to do what? To live, for one thing, unhassled by having your streets filled with unkempt, beer-swilling visitors shorn of any respect for who you are and what you represent.

It is impossible to recall precisely all the times since Bill Nicholson, the manager of Spurs, was obliged to get hold of a microphone and tell rioting fans in the Feyenoord stadium in Rotterdam, "You make me ashamed to be an Englishman", when the spirit has plunged at the arrival of English "support" in some corner of Europe.

Marseille six years ago, when the French police loaded up on tear gas beneath my hotel window and one victim of the violence burst into the lobby holding a throat that had been slashed with a knife, sticks out somewhat, but perhaps the incident that lingers most was among the least dramatic.

It was on the seafront at Cagliari during the World Cup of 1990. Visitors and locals were having their coffee at the dockside cafe, reading their papers or watching the big ferry boat coming in from Genoa in the brilliant morning sunshine.

Then the English arrived, yelling, throwing their beer cans, abusing anyone who stood in their way. In a couple of minutes the terrace was bare of all but the invaders. Civilisation had simply retreated.

It is for the end of such a groundswell of ill behaviour in Portugal that Eriksson now appeals. Let us hope that he isn't whistling in that old, terrible darkness.

Yorkshire's best bowled over by delivery

Michael Vaughan's decision to walk away from the Test match in which he was leading England to be at his wife's side for the birth of their child has been variously described as the finest moment of new man or appalling evidence that the fibre of English manhood - and duty - has turned to mush.

At the very least, it seemed a bit wet. However, one side-effect was to recall another story from a delivery ward involving an earlier Yorkshire captain of cricket. It was of the time the great Lord Martin Bladen Hawke was taken to hospital to have his dislocated shoulder put back in place.

Hawke emitted a few groans, only to be told by the diminutive ward sister: "Now, now, what's a big man like you doing making a noise. A little girl of 17 has just delivered twins without a whimper."

"Maybe so," said the unimpressed Hawke, "but just try putting those little buggers back."