Gascoigne happy to mind the kids

Glenn Moore talks to England's playmaker about his senior status; WORLD CUP: Home nations target a place in France in 1998 as England and Scotland open their qualifying campaigns

''Elder statesman'' is not an appellation which immediately comes to mind where Paul Gascoigne is concerned.

However, unlikely as it may seem to followers of his tabloid alter ego, this is the role Gascoigne the footballer is increasingly assuming in the England team. It is not that fatherhood and marriage have noticeably matured him, it is mainly the passage of time. As the seasons go by Gascoigne is finding himself to be a relative veteran in the international side, by virtue of both age and experience.

At 29 the Rangers midfielder is older than three-quarters of the 24 players summoned by the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, during the past nine days. Moreover, only Stuart Pearce has won more than his 43 caps.

This is especially pertinent as for two years England have barely played away from home. On the two occasions they have - the abortive trip to Dublin, and the goalless draw in Oslo, it has been for a friendly match in a familiar, English-speaking environment.

Now they are about to embark on a series of difficult away matches in the quest for World Cup qualification. They are already in Moldova for tomorrow's match. Then, after a home game with Poland, they travel to Georgia in November and Poland in May.

"Not having played any away games is a disadvantage," Hoddle said. "We have had a cushion, we've been playing friendly matches, and had that fantastic support in the summer. The different environment makes this a tough game.''

The last time England played a competitive match behind what was known as the Iron Curtain was in the summer of 1993 when they drew with Poland. Only Gascoigne, Paul Ince and Teddy Sheringham survive from that game.

A few months earlier Gascoigne and Ince had played Turkey in Izmir, Gascoigne heading the second goal of a 2-0 win. The players were pelted with rocks by spectators and kicked by their opponents. They needed a police escort off the pitch.

Yet Gascoigne's memory of the worst place he has visited goes back to a match he did not even play in, Albania in March 1989. Gascoigne travelled with the squad as a fresh-faced 21-year-old with two substitute appearances and, in a break from preparing for tomorrow's game, he said: "That was the roughest place I've been to. That was tough.

"Once you've got the shirt on you get a buzz but beforehand, in those places, you just stay in the hotel, watch TV, sit around and wait for the game. A few of the lads have got video games [on this trip] so I'll play them and play cards. It is a matter of keeping your mind on the game.''

Gascoigne's recollection of Tirana being worse than Izmir underlines how young players can be affected by unfamiliar venues. Gascoigne is hoping he can help the new crop of players through in the same way that senior players once helped him.

"I felt ready [when I made my debut - at home to Denmark earlier that season]. I enjoyed it. I got great encouragement from the likes of "Butch" [Terry Butcher], "Robbo" [Bryan Robson] and Chris Waddle. When you've got the senior pros telling you to relax and enjoy it it is not a problem. Hopefully we can pass our experience onto the kids.

"No, they don't come to me for advice," he said, laughing at the apparent foolishness of the question. But, he added: "They do not come to anyone else either. Someone like David Beckham, he's played in the Cup final, battled with Newcastle for the League, he's scoring goals from the half- way line - what advice does he want from me?''

Just being around is probably enough. This is the generation which grew up watching his achievements at Italia '90 and just being treated as an equal by Gascoigne is enough to lift them. While he has his faults, his infectious and usually generous spirit has helped many a young player settle into the squad. Nor is he as bad an example as popular legend has it. He is passionate about football, a ferocious trainer and, before he was blamed (probably wrongly) for the Cathay Pacific incident, was even showing a new mood in dealing with the media.

"These [World Cup] matches bring back memories of 1990," he said. "Glenn Hoddle's experienced it [the World Cup] as well. The more we tell these kids what it's like, what the atmosphere's like - and it is 'something else' - the better for them. I want to be part of it again myself.

"With these kids coming through I have to be on my game. But I don't worry about it [being selected]. If the manager did come to me and said 'your time's up' I'd say 'that's no problem', simple as that. But if I'm fit and I produce the goods hopefully managers will pick me.''

Hoddle looks likely to but it would not be Gazza if there was not a complication. This time it was the old bugbear, injury, rather than scandal. When he resumed training in pre-season Gascoigne discovered an Achilles problem. It ruled him out of Rangers' start to the season but, having played last week and passed a scan he is close to fitness.

"I just have to stretch a bit and get my wind after a while but the Achilles is fine," he said. "I'm looking forward to it.

"The new manager's system is similar to Terry [Venables]'s but different. He likes to play football the way it should be played and if we can play like we did against Holland in his system we will do really well. That game was outstanding. It was one of my most memorable games because of the way we played. Some ex-Dutch players said we were going to get thrashed and we stuffed that down their throats. Not only did we outfought them, we outplayed them.''

Something for Gascoigne to tell his grandchildren about - or, the way things are going, his team-mates.

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