Gazza grateful for small mercies

Simon O'Hagan finds reasons for a solemn display by England's showman
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The Independent Online
Paul Gascoigne looked a changed man yesterday, which may be better news for him as a person than it is for him as a player. True, this was never going to be an occasion on which England would be expecting a virtuoso performance, but that we got one that bordered on the self-effacing was an indication what an effect the last few weeks have had on him.

In the circumstances it hardly mattered that Gascoigne ran with the ball a mere four times, kept almost all his passes short, and did not have a single shot at goal. England had the game under control within 15 minutes and had killed it within 37, so for the most part Gascoigne could concentrate on doing the simple things well without being put under real pressure.

The suspicion remains, however, that Gascoigne may be starting to struggle for pace at international level. That was the conclusion to be drawn from the World Cup qualifier against Poland at Wembley last month, and yesterday it was perhaps significant that he only looked comfortable once a two- goal lead had been established, the Georgians lost heart, and England were in the luxurious position of making retention of the ball in midfield just about the summit of their ambitions.

When a still confident Georgia were running at England in the opening few minutes, the difficulty Gascoigne had simply getting into the game was obvious. And for most of a first half in which he went for long periods without seeing the ball he was upstaged by the lordly Temur Ketsbaia, an attacking midfielder rather in the mould of the old Gascoigne, who was more of a source of hope for the Georgians than Georgi Kinkladze.

While there was sadly little of the joy or expressiveness we have come to associate with Gascoigne's football, neither was their any of the petulance. He got into no arguments, barged nobody out of the way, pulled no silly faces. Gascoigne, surely, has never been this solemn, but you could understand entirely why, for his temperament was as much on trial as his talent.

His contribution did increase as the match wore on. Having been indirectly involved in both goals, he figured prominently in the second half, reserving his best moment for the last minute of the match when he brought a dropping ball under instant control - shades of Scotland in Euro 96 there - and delivered a wonderfully weighted pass to Ian Wright, who probably should have scored.

Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, praised Gascoigne for the disciplined way he had contributed to what was a disciplined team performance. "He played with his head not his heart," Hoddle said. That, of course, is not the Gascoigne we know and love, but it may be the one we are going to have to get used to now.