Secrets keep you sick, Gazza

Hoddle's act of mercy will aid rehabilitation. Now the player must respond, says Ian Ridley
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The Independent Online
There were times early in the Nineties when Paul Gascoigne appeared to be the sporting symbol of the lager-and-video, loadsamoney, me-me-me culture. Now, perhaps also symbolically, it seems he is paying the price for the moral backlash.

Gascoigne's inclusion in the England squad for the World Cup match in Georgia this Saturday has predictably met with outrage after the allegations against him, not denied, of his alcohol-fuelled wife-beating. It is sometimes difficult to remember that he is just a footballer, albeit the most naturally gifted for a generation.

But suddenly the argument that events off the field should be separated holds little water. Clearly, Gascoigne has been taking his personality - in need of, and finally receiving, counselling - on to the pitch. No longer is it the only place where he once felt free. His sending-off for Rangers against Ajax was the last straw.

Finally, in Glenn Hoddle, we have an England coach open-minded and knowledgeable enough to confront Gascoigne. Hoddle has sat in on a counselling session with Gascoigne and has talked to the player at length. Drinking and eating habits are elements of the problem, he agreed, but there is something else yet to emerge. A nation awaits.

One thing Gascoigne should be encouraged to do this week is to face up to interviewers, as Paul Merson did, however the FA control the environment. He has to begin facing his responsibilities, notably in apologising for his action towards his wife Sheryl. When it comes to illnesses such as these, it is said that secrets keep you sick. Compassion is one thing, kid-glove treatment another when "tough love" is really required.

Some have interpreted Hoddle's act of picking Gascoigne as weak, one cynically designed to win a football match. In fact it is a brave one, not just in resisting the supposed moral majority but also in confronting the player rather than indulging him any longer. "He has given football fantastic moments. He has also given football some headaches", said Hoddle. "We are trying to give him the aspirin to get rid of the headaches." Hoddle's decision has been to do with the person first and then the player, in the hope that a change in one will lead to improvement in the other. It is clear the coach believes both to be necessary.

"I still believe Paul can be the Gascoigne of old," Hoddle insisted. "He might have to change his game because of the physical effects of ageing. I am hoping in the long term that the state of his mind will be better, which would enable him to take a lot of things on board. Before he hasn't. Now I think he will."

Those who have adapted well to age and the after-effects of serious injury include Hoddle himself, John Barnes and Ruud Gullit. All have become less explosive attacking players and more thoughtful in withdrawn roles. Gascoigne, notably against Poland last month, has looked a liability in those areas.

"I still think he is best in and around the opposition penalty area," said Hoddle. "He has still got a lot to offer. The Gascoigne of old with a more sensible head would make him an even better player. As a young player there are things you don't understand in a match but your legs and enthusiasm get you through. When you come to 29 you reach your peak and there are a new set of curtains opened.The game becomes so much easier.

"I am hoping that we can look back in two years and this will be a turning point. Everyone will see that, off the back of something dreadful, he turned his life around. He loves playing for his country and he now has the opportunity to play in the World Cup again."

For all the help, responsibility for any recovery rests with Gascoigne and one can only hope that he is finally ready to take the lifeline of redemption fulfilment. Hoddle could not bring himself to say that this was the player's last chance but the doorman is surely preparing for business at that particular saloon. Ultimately the coach will be judged on whether he qualifies for France '98 rather than on his quality of mercy.

It is why, pragmatist that Hoddle also is, he will consider carefully whether Gascoigne should actually make the team rather than just the protective custody of the squad. David Platt presses for a recall and the balance of the team will become more important for 90 minutes than the balance of Gazza's mind.

With Alan Shearer injured - another echo here, after Gascoigne, of the Graham Taylor era - Les Ferdinand is likely to spearhead and this commentator's preference is for the canny Teddy Sheringham to link just behind him a defence and midfield that became stretched out in the unimpressive 2-1 win over Poland.

A change in defence forced by injury to Gary Pallister is likely to see Tony Adams recalled; he may even be captain again to send another Hoddle signal. Not long ago the Arsenal totem was seen on television news refusing tabloid money for his story as he drove away after admitting his alcoholism. Lager and loadsamoney no longer?