Hoddle cornered over Gazza

Norman Fox listens to England's coach defend his troubled midfielder
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The Independent Online
Glenn Hoddle had a lot on his mind last night as he sat and waited for the inevitable news that his already injury-hit England squad for next Saturday's friendly against Mexico would be further eroded by withdrawals. What was not concerning him was the one question that the majority of England fans really want answered. Had Paul Gascoigne's latest appearance in the tabloids following his alleged slapping of a woman in London, and yet another injury, finally ended his international career?

Gascoigne, whose cracked ankle bone prevented him from being considered for the squad, is obviously not suffering badly enough to cancel spending some of his "recuperation" (Hoddle's word) on holiday in the United States. Clearly he is fortunate that the England coach is also one of those forgiving souls who believes that no matter how many transgressions a wayward spirit tots up, if he has the will to seek contrition (or, at least, counselling) then Amen to that.

Graham Taylor felt the same way, though from not quite the same priestly standpoint. He, among others, will not be surprised to hear that Gascoigne has said he is sorry if he has let anyone down and that he intends dedicating himself to his future career. You hardly need to be a cynic to believe that probably only a short time will tell.

The danger is that England are moving nearer to another World Cup with the ever more unlikely notion that a Gascoigne fit in temperament and body could turn a "not bad" team into Cup winners. Despite the fact that there is still some magic left, the dream is wearing thin. However, Hoddle, having made a mess of his team selection for the last World Cup game against Italy, now seems prepared to believe that no matter what happens against Mexico and in the later friendly against South Africa, Gascoigne will be involved in the future World Cup qualifying matches that really matter. So a non-gambling man will be taking a huge gamble.

After announcing the squad last week, he defended Gascoigne on the basis that though injuries and self-inflicted problems keep cropping up, it is still not too late to stop him doing more damage to himself both physically and mentally. "We've got to make sure somehow that he doesn't get injured. I think you can prevent it. He's had to slow down a bit in his life, and as a player he needs to use his experience rather than his enthusiasm. He's come unstuck by diving into things where he didn't have to. But he's got a great love for the game. That's why he can even break a leg in training."

Hoddle believes he has had some effect on Gascoigne. "I've been able to work pretty well with him, which is a positive step. I believe Paul's still got it within him. But there are things he's got to work at to get back to his best. He hasn't been injury-free for three seasons. But the World Cup is still ahead of us and he has time to get back to his very best. If he keeps picking up injuries that won't happen. A fit Paul Gascoigne is very much in everyone's mind. This season I've felt that with Rangers he's been getting back to his very best - especially in some of his European performances. And his improvement off the pitch since Georgia I felt had been encouraging."

Hoddle was also quick to point out that Gascoigne scored "an important goal" against Moldova when he was only 85 per cent fit. "We would like to have had him in better physical condition, but his attitude has given me no problem. I can't comment about his private life."

Whatever Hoddle may achieve, controversy and Gascoigne will remain inseparable. Equally, the familiar problem of whether to put trust in highly talented but inconsistent players is going to haunt Hoddle perhaps more personally than it did his predecessors. His own career was blighted by such criticism, which could be why he seems to have cornered himself into remaining faithful to Gascoigne and Matt Le Tissier, whose performance against Italy he praised but who won little approbation elsewhere. It's bad enough having to struggle with another historic problem, that of club versus country, especially when the matches are only friendlies, but to find himself in the middle of what had looked like a dispute between Le Tissier and his club manager, Graeme Souness, was a character-testing introduction to the potential horrors of the position. Yesterday Le Tissier eventually admitted he would not be fit enough to play, a view Souness had always maintained.

With injuries, withdrawals and a squad selected without much imagination or sufficient young players who would gain from being included, Hoddle is going to be hard-pressed to create a team capable of restoring the confidence won in Euro 96 but deflated by Italy, or build any continuity. The nightmare of the job is beginning to dawn.