Scots are feeling sorry for Gazza

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The Independent Online
In keeping with their image as the teetotalling, celibate antithesis of England, closer in spirit to Cliff Richard and Mother Teresa than to Jim Baxter and Jimmy Johnstone, Scotland's players yesterday resisted all invitations to fuel the criticism of Paul Gascoigne before Saturday's Group A "derby" at Wembley.

Ally McCoist, one of Gascoigne's Rangers colleagues, sounded more pastor than prankster as he defended England's troubled totem. "I'm going to try to have a word with Gazza," he said. "I feel sorry for him, the way he's been treated by the press.''

Stuart McCall also struck a blow for bluenose solidarity, despite the possibility that he may be asked to man-mark him. "Gazza put a lot into the first hour against Switzerland and was definitely England's best player. The stick he got was wrong - everything England created went through him.''

Andy Goram, the Rangers goalkeeper, warned that "noising up" Gascoigne would be counter-productive. "The last thing you want to do is to provoke him. When he's up for it he's the best player I've ever played with, including Brian Laudrup.''

Craig Brown was asked whether Gascoigne would rate a place in his own squad. "He might get on the bench," the Scotland manager replied, tongue poking through cheek. "He's very capable and I think most countries would be happy to have him.''

Joking, bluffing and counter-bluffing aside, Brown expects Terry Venables to keep faith with Gascoigne. Scotland's plan for stifling "the most talented player in England's side" would be informed, he maintained, by the ways Scottish teams stopped him last season - which few did.

"He deservedly won our Player of the Year award," Brown said. "He's got great strength and vision as well as the ability to run at defenders and a magnificent reverse pass. He set up a goal for [Nick] Barmby in China with such a great ball I could have run from the dug-out and scored. I know there are question marks over his fitness, but I can assure you I've seen him work for 90 minutes in Scotland.''

Unmoved by the bookies' trimming Scotland's odds of winning Euro 96 from 80-1 to 66-1, Brown insisted they remained underdogs and the host nation favourites. "Too many people have been writing England off. Their first- half performance against the Swiss was excellent.

"I've seen nearly all their matches on video and it's been flattering to see Terry change to the three-man defensive system we've been using for a few years. Whatever system he goes for, the Scottish team will be prepared for it. I'd also like to think he'll be worried about how we're going to play. All the pressure is on them.''

Talking of which, Brown believes Venables is shrewd enough to turn England's tabloid tribulations to his advantage by creating a "persecution complex". "Alex Ferguson used it brilliantly at Aberdeen where he convinced his players the West of Scotland was against them, and he's still doing it now. I'm sure they'll be highly charged on Saturday.''

It remains to be seen whether the same is true of John Spencer's mobile phone. "The boys at Chelsea have been telling me to make sure it's switched on after the game," the striker from the Gorbals revealed. "They reckon there'll be a few messages.''