Gascoigne's gifts vindicate Venables

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The Independent Online
Even allowing for the spectacular nature of last night's victory, few English-born footballers are equipped with the expertise and imagination to stand out in the very best company. But whenever Paul Gascoigne turns out in the national team he is bound to be the centre of attraction.

If impaired mobility makes it impossible for Gascoigne to be a consistently effective force in midfield, the team's morale is unquestionably raised by his capacity for thrilling intervention.

It was important to England's cause at Wembley that their most naturally gifted player should quickly establish technical parity with the leading Dutch talent, especially when there is the expectation of exploiting opportunities for decisive infiltration.

The daftness that caused a scandal before Euro 96 got underway is beyond toleration of people who see more in life than an obsession with a boys' game but it does not seem to have intruded upon Gascoigne's popularity.

In cheering when he came out to warm up in the old stadium north of London, the England supporters were responding not so much to his reputation for extravagant behaviour as recognising the ability that brought a stunning goal against Scotland.

To expect a repeat of that glorious moment was perhaps asking rather too much of Gascoigne last night. But his sensible use of the ball and presence generally vindicated Terry Venables' decision to keep him in the team despite widespread criticism of his form and apparent lack of stamina.

When Gascoigne orchestrated England's third goal in the 56th minute the persistent thought that a number of their players had entered the game on the brink of substantial improvement had been proved vividly.

Teddy Sheringham, in particular, justified Venables' respect, playing a decisive role in a crushing victory with the same complement of players who stumbled in the opening championship match against Switzerland and were almost held to a draw by a stout-hearted but limited Scottish team.

Here was vindication of the method Venables has been working to establish. Its effectiveness against opponents who were among the tournament favourites delivered a sharp crack in the eye for his critics, one of whom had scandalously described him in print earlier in the week as a "phoney".

Whatever apprehension England supporters may have felt when the Netherlands began the game with a 10-pass move that almost brought a shooting opportunity, they were quickly encouraged by the cohesion that developed in their own team.

There was a sharpness of purpose about the England players that was missing in the first two matches, and none of their opponents can have taken any comfort from this performance.

Where they had previously been bogged down outside the penalty area playing their passes across the field rather than into the path of runners, they found the intelligence and determination to devastate the Dutch defence.

Given the encouragement of a first-half penalty, England improved dramatically with Steve McManaman giving the Dutch as much as they could handle with his sorties along their left flank.

Venables got all the purposeful support running he could have wanted from his midfield players, and if the Dutch did waste a handful of intelligently created opportunities, they never embarrassed the England defence completely.

It is a long time since England registered such a decisive victory on their home soil, a long time since the better qualities of British football were so clearly and decisively represented.

In reaching the quarter- finals of the World Cup 30 years ago, England began with a draw before gaining two victories that saw them through from their group to a quarter-final, and, of course, the only major triumph in their history.

On this form you would not want to bet against them taking the trophy this time.