by Rob Shepherd.
There was more than one occasion watching England’s 2-2 draw against Ecuador on Wednesday night when I had to blink twice and make sure it was Ross Barkley not Paul Gascoigne who was pulling the strings for England.
Not since Gascoigne has an England midfield player performed with such panache, vision, subtle skill and bare faced cheek as Barkley showed in Miami.
There were dribbles, step-overs, nut-megs, probing passes and always a threat on goal. The things that not only take opponents out of the game and open them up but also put fear inside them.
Despite the demons that have invaded his life those were the attributes that still see Gazza revered by a generation, especially for how he transformed England at the 1990 World Cup finals.
But now at last there seems to be a genuine heir, in football terms at least, although I doubt a lad from Merseyside would take too kindly to the nickname of Rossa.
The manner in which Ross Barkley set up Rickie Lambert for England’s second goal in Miami was straight out of Gazza’s mercurial manual.
The big question is: will Roy Hodgson have the balls to unleash Barkley at Brasil ’14 as Bobby Robson did Gascoigne at Italia ’90..?
Judging by Hodgson’s comments in the wake of Wednesday’s game he is not ready to take the “gamble”. Yet in many ways Hodgson’s reluctant rhetoric echoed that of Robson ahead of Italia 90, so perhaps he is bluffing.
Hodgson has described the constant questions about Barkley as an obsession. Robson felt the same way when the press corps kept banging on about Gascoigne.
Of Barkley’s exciting display in Miami Hodgson said: “He lost the ball an awful lot of times as well. If he’s going to be the player we want him to be he has to make better decisions of when he turns with the ball.”
It is what Robson kept saying about Gazza in the build up to Italia ’90.
Indeed it should be remembered that Gascoigne, 21 by the start of that tournament, was as much an international rookie as 20 year-old Barkley is now.
Gascoigne had played bit parts in the qualifiers and it was only in a friendly match against Czechoslovakia in late April that he pushed himself into the frame when he scored one and made three in a 4-2 win at Wembley.
Even then Robson harboured doubts but when it came to the crunch he went with Gascoigne’s maverick style rather than the more “reliable” Neil Webb and Steve McMahon.
After a dour opening draw against Ireland, England came alive in another draw against Holland where Gascoigne’s lust for the game and penchant for the unexpected offered England a new dimension.
For once a Dutch team playing England looked scared of player who could out play them.
Galvanised by Gazza, England went on to produce some of their best ever football at a major tournament until losing to West Germany on penalties in the semi-final.
Given the system Hodgson plays there is actually more margin for “error” by putting Barkley in the team – especially if he replaces the jaded looking and over hyped Wayne Rooney. Also Barkley’s personality is less erratic than Gascoigne’s, so is his discipline.
The game breakers – the players who have the skill and bravery to take on opponents in the tightest positions – are liable to lose the ball as Barkley did against Equador. It sometimes even still happens to Messi and Ronaldo. But these are the players who raise teams to a different level and put a smile on the face of supporters.
Gascoigne did that for England in 1990 and Barkley can do that this summer.
So what if England can’t win the World Cup..? Hodgson, as Robson did, should at least give it a try.