Gascoigne's continental drift

England's most gifted performer needs to use his head rather than his heart.
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The England players were going through a training routine at Bisham Abbey last week in which one tries to dispossess another within a circle formed by the group. Unfortunately for poor Alan White, the promising 20-year-old Middlesbrough central defender being given work experience for the week, he was paired with Paul Gascoigne.

Gascoigne's sleight of foot was breathtaking; backheels, ball switched bewilderingly swiftly from left to right foot, Cruyff turns (Johan, not Jordi). The hapless White was reduced to tackling thin air. After a minute that must have seemed an hour, the torment ended for the breathless White and the England playersapplauded Gascoigne.

Welcome to the highest level, where the demands and quality were emphasised a few days later as Gascoigne himself floundered against Poland at Wembley. There are several reasons why England laboured so sloppily and unsatisfyingly to a 2-1 win and the indisciplined, ineffectual performance of Gascoigne was a large one.

His week began with the Channel 4 Cutting Edge documentary Gazza's Coming Home, a less revealing portrait than we had been led to expect, which recalled Bruce Springsteen's line"It's a sad man, my friend, who lives in his own skin and don't like the company", and begged the question about what might lie on the cutting-room floor.

It did move neatly, however, from the ridiculous off the field to Gascoigne's astonishing capacity for the sublime on it - the only place, he once said, he feels truly free. Rangers will be hoping for a little of the latter in their make-or-break Champions' League match against Ajax on Wednesday.

It is time for Gascoigne, in danger of becoming a big fish in a small pool, to take stock. Much has been made of Terry Venables's ability to coax the best from him; now is the hour for Gazza to take responsibility for himself. At times against Poland he was a liability, failing to do his defensive work in midfield and giving the ball away annoyingly in dangerous areas. When going forward, he sought to dribble in inconsequential positions rather than keep the ball moving with a pass.

Glenn Hoddle's public criticism was restrained, the England coach aware from Graham Taylor's weakness for it and Venables's strength in keeping his own counsel that it can undermine relationships. He did allude however. "There were times I said to him and Steve McManaman, 'there's another area there and sometimes at this level there is another penalty area outside the penalty area, if you get my drift'," he said.

The drift - and drift is what Gascoigne did - appeared to be that the risk work should be saved for the attacking third of the field. In addition, energy should be conserved for the important moments. When Gascoigne did break forward incisively late in the game, his stamina waning, he no longer had the energy to go past his man.

"In the early period the difference between hanging on to the ball and releasing it was overdone," Hoddle added. "They seemed to fathom it out at the right time but that's something we can improve. I want to see it shifted around. We restricted them all week in training to three touches and it went like clockwork." Until the last 90 minutes, someone said, and Hoddle laughed.

Gascoigne seems annually to be at the crossroads of his career but, at 30 next spring, it is indeed an opportune moment - as Hoddle hinted in his eve-of-match words about Gazza needing to taking care of his body that fell only a little short of Taylor's "refuelling" comments - to evaluate his contribution.

Alan Shearer may grow more dominant, Steve McManaman more assertive but there should be no demand to throw King Baby out with the Venables bath water. Despite his childishness at times, his generous influence on the squad is usually beneficial. His potential, too; as one defence-splitting pass to Les Ferdinand showed. It is the most gifted who are often given the most criticism, because all want to see the talent fulfilled, as a sometimes surly Gascoigne should bear in mind. The question is how best to employ him.

As Channel 4 showed, he clearly likes to be the centre of attention but it is an instinct that needs to be curbed on the pitch. When persuaded to conserve his energy and preserve his skills for the most important areas of the pitch and at timely moments, rather than seeking to be a here- there-and-everywhere dervish, he produced one of the outstanding goals of Euro 96, against Scotland - and late in the game. One hopes that the so-nearly moment when he was a set of studs away from scoring a winning goal against Germany in the semi- final is not symbolic.

There is a suggestion that Gascoigne must change in the way that others who have suffered serious injury, such as John Barnes and Ruud Gullit, have. It would be to lose possibilities, however. Slowing down would help but there is still enough in Gascoigne for him to be effective as a ball- carrier rather than just a stroker of a pass. Just what is possible at such an age was shown by the neat, incisive Piotr Nowak, his 32-year- old playmaking opposite number, and the game's outstanding footballer.

Ten minutes from the end of the match, Hoddle went to the touchline to issue some instructions to Shearer; for he and Ferdinand to play closer to the midfield so that England became less stretched and open, "to play with our heads and not our hearts". It is something that should apply also to Gascoigne. Because he was wasting possession too readily, Poland were able to enjoy more of it than they should, flooding midfield.

Of course Gascoigne, and how best to use him and McManaman together, was not Hoddle's only problem. The coach's system of three at the back left serious doubts; little wrong in theory but without the right players to enact it, England were rendered worryingly vulnerable in as open and untidy a game as Wembley has witnessed for many years.

There must be questions about whether players who are by instinct full- backs can operate comfortably in the back three when they - and the spare man Gareth Southgate, who plays with more natural central defenders alongside him for Aston Villa - are unused to doing so at club level. Whether, too, Andy Hinchcliffe is apt at this level and if Teddy Sheringham, a personal preference, would be a better partner for Alan Shearer.

The captain - who wins praise from this quarter for his less heralded example of retrieving the ball after once being given offside - does like to have the run of the penalty box, as did Gary Lineker. The deeper creator Sheringham also prevents a gap developing between midfield and attack.

It may have been disturbing for England but not too damaging. The Venables era may have become rose-tinted but one recalls his embryonic team struggling similarly against Romania. With Georgia on Hoddle's mind, changes in personnel and approach can be expected, the recall to the squad of the changing Tony Adams, for example. Hoddle will be hoping, too, for a change in Paul Gascoigne.