Redemption days at Goodison

Smith's gamble no longer looks so ridiculous as tortuous path of Gazza's life flirts with straight and narrow
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We have been this way so often that the landmarks have become indistinct from the scenery. Any assessment of the form and fitness of Paul Gascoigne is, like the weather, based on the understanding that tomorrow is another day. History suggests that the emergency stop button is never nearer Gascoigne's finger tips than the moment some degree of normality beckons.

We have been this way so often that the landmarks have become indistinct from the scenery. Any assessment of the form and fitness of Paul Gascoigne is, like the weather, based on the understanding that tomorrow is another day. History suggests that the emergency stop button is never nearer Gascoigne's finger tips than the moment some degree of normality beckons.

"You might have noticed in the conversation," laughs Walter Smith, the Everton manager. "I don't really pin myself down and I don't make definite statements. That's part of Paul's charm. No one who knows him will be pinned down. I always add, 'if he can ...' "

Having survived his share of Old Firm derbies, the Merseyside equivalent today should not present any unforeseen problems to Gascoigne, as Smith acknowledges, but that suggests a degree of logic that has never been previously traceable in the career line of England's most gifted midfielder. No one will be crossing their fingers more tightly than the inscrutable Smith, who knows better than anyone that Gascoigne and the limelight are always a combustible combination.

Smith has an uncanny knack of coaxing the best out of Gascoigne, which is why he alone of Premier League managers was willing to throw the dice one more time on behalf of yesterday's man. But the deal owed as much to the impresario nature of Bill Kenwright, the incoming Everton deputy chairman, who desperately needed a neon star to boost his latest production.

Talking once again on his special subject - if he was on Mastermind, the Life and Times of Paul Gascoigne 1995-2000 would surely be his favoured topic - Smith spoke last week as if he was the benevolent father and Gascoigne his recalcitrant teenage son. But, for a day or two at least, he can also wear the half-smile of a card sharp who has outrageously beaten the house. "Ah," he says, "a Gascoigne question, what a surprise."

"One of the reasons I took the gamble on him was the fact that I know him," Smith explains. "I know he's got a bit of pride about him. He would not have wanted to finish playing the way he did at Middlesbrough. That's the main motivation. People talk about managers - myself - having that sort of influence on him. I don't kid myself that that's the case.

"The fact was that I knew myself that he would not want to finish like that. His pride was hurt when he found he was getting a free transfer from Middlesbrough and there wasn't a Premier League club coming in to take him. I knew that would be a factor for him.

"He does like his football, he likes training and he likes playing and when he found that people were saying, 'Well, that's another wasted career', he wanted to prove that he's still capable of producing good performances at the highest level. During his career he's had little stages where his own motivation to do well was the main factor. I had a similar situation at Rangers because he'd spent most of his time at Lazio injured, so he had to come back and prove he could still reach a good level."

The surprise for the critics, though, has been the extent of Gascoigne's recovery. Those who had in mind a gentle 20- minute cameo have been surprised to find Gascoigne playing a full part as he undoubtedly will, injury and referee permitting, this afternoon. At Newcastle, detailed to feed off the runs of Kevin Campbell, Gascoigne followed instructions with an innocent glee that made Smith laugh.

"That's Gascoigne," he says. "In training, he's up right up for it and you just let him go and hope it continues. Most managers who've been involved with him, while obviously able to cite his faults, can also do nothing else but like him and the way he is. That can get exaggerated because you've got to get on him a bit as well, but I've not had to do that this season, thank goodness.''

So where are we now in the life and times of Paul Gascoigne? There is idle talk of an England return. He is a year younger than Teddy Sheringham, after all. The idea is not wholly as daft as it sounds. England are not so blessed with creative thinkers that they can afford to pass up the benefits of a fit Gascoigne as a matter of principle. Gascoigne can no longer go round an opponent, but then neither can any current member of the England midfield. The key, as ever, lies at the madcap core of the man himself.

At international level, the only coach who handled Gascoigne intelligently was Terry Venables. Venables taught Gascoigne how to dip out of a game, like Eric Cantona used to do so effectively for Manchester United, so that opponents were lured into forgetfulness. The vanishing trick was totally at odds with Gascoigne's hyperactive nature, but his fitful and telling contributions in the semi-final defeat against Germany in Euro 96 showed that he had belatedly mastered the art. But is all the idle speculation about a revived international career for Gascoigne a distraction to his club manager?

"No, not at all. He would want that himself. I don't choose the England team, but in the same way that we first thought he could come on and do a little bit for us at a certain stage of the match, he's more than capable of doing that at international level. Everybody's telling me that England have players who can run the midfield and maybe they want to turn to younger players now, but if they want to go back to Gascoigne he wouldn't let them down." In Smith's expert opinion, Gascoigne's much abused body is now the source of his slimline tonic.

"He's fitter now than he was in his last year at Rangers when I was manager. People talk about diets and so on, but it's a personal thing for him, that's what it is. If he's focused enough on doing something, then he'll do it. Sometimes, even at Rangers, there was a time when he could do with putting on a bit of weight. The fitter he gets the more motivated he is, and he's enjoying the fact that he's reached a fair level again. He looks as though he's enjoying his football.'

There was a poignancy to the comments of Steve Watson, who described Gascoigne's reaction on the spiritual journey back to St James' Park last weekend. As he watched the familiar landscape slip by, he detailed each milestone of the youth that is never far distant from his nature. "There, look, I used to play there and there, look, Stevie." Watson, a much travelled old pro himself, had to laugh and to admire the infectious spirit of the man.

Gascoigne, Watson says, is first into training and last out, has an undiminished enthusiasm for the game, and is committing himself to the cause of the blue half of Merseyside in a manner which seemed impossible during the dog days of his time on Teesside when America, the land of the free, seemed to be the only appropriate destination.

Gascoigne has sampled enough derbies - in the north-east, Rome and Glasgow - to know what will be in store at Anfield this afternoon. But the Merseyside version has a frenetic quality that might even surprise the old campaigner. Old Firm is serious business, Merseyside is family bickering. Despite the prevailing balance of power in the city, Everton have dominated recent exchanges, losing just once in the last 12 derby games. But it is just the sort of hyperactive atmosphere on which Gascoigne can thrive or fall.

Right on cue on Friday, Gascoigne bursts into the indoor centre at Bellefield, Everton's training ground, wielding a badminton racket. "Here's the secret right here," whispers Smith. "He's still here at five o'clock every damn night. Tennis, badminton, the lot. Honestly." And he scampers off to join in, the child himself this time.