Gascoigne centre stage

 

Twenty-Three days after touching despair on a lonely platform on Stevenage railway station, Paul Gascoigne returned to the consoling, comforting bosom of the game he loves.

Looking slimmer and fitter than at any time since his move south from Scotland in March, Gascoigne produced a familiar, erratic display, one that included moments of quality, a yellow card for a charmless hack on Scot Gemmill and the obligatory wayward elbow on Nottingham Forest's goal scorer Marlon Harewood. All in 79 minutes - some things don't change.

The booking, Gascoigne's fifth of the season, means an automatic one-match suspension in a fortnight, but, all things considered, it was an encouraging return. And, as is so often the case on a day assigned to Gascoigne, there was a twist in the tale when, 10 minutes after his substitution, with Middlesbrough leading 1-0 through Brian Deane's 22nd-minute opener, the 19-year-old Harewood's first senior goal gave Forest a barely deserved equaliser.

Harewood then almost stole two more points, but another Marlon - Beresford, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper - made a block on this occasion. Beresford had been slightly at fault for Forest's goal but even had Harewood scored a second, he would still have been a bit player on Gascoigne's afternoon.

Predictably, and sentimentally, Gascoigne won the television vote for Man of the Match. He appeared rather embarrassed by that and the fact that he was presented with a crystal bowl rather than the customary champagne. But that is just one price of infamy, or "fame", as Gascoigne calls it.

"It's good to be back," he said afterwards. "The fans have been fantastic, I appreciated all that and it was nice to run out on the park and get a strip on. But I've got work to do at the clinic."

Gascoigne confirmed he still has two days a week at the rehabilitation centre, and last night, according to the Boro assistant manager Viv Anderson, the player was again on his way south to Roehampton. There, his mantra is: "Enjoy football - and don't drink."

From the beginning all eyes were on him, of course, intensified by his non-appearance in the pre-match warm-up. When he did run out, hidden in the middle of the Boro line-up, it was clear that Gascoigne had been doing his own private work out, judging by his slim-line physique. Had he not been fully stretched by those, then the heat of the lusty reception - some Forest fans also applauded - would have set Gascoigne's generator running.

In a typically bubbly - but controlled - opening 15 minutes he was comfortably the best player on view, and a third-minute, first-time pass to Andy Townsend had the Riverside in raptures.

Crucially, though, the difference at half-time was only one goal, Dean allowed a field of his own before steering Townsend's diagonal pass beyond Beasant. It was Dean's first since his £3 million transfer from Benfica and it was the ninth goal Forest have conceded in eight days.

But after the interval they tightened up, stalled Middlesbrough's momentum and yet Harewood's breakthrough volley was still unexpected. It came from a header won by Chris Bart-Williams - who hit a post in injury time - but neither that nor Harewood's late effort would have taken the headlines away from Gascoigne.

Middlesbrough: Beresford, Fleming (Stockdale 74), Gordon, Vickers, Festa, Mustoe, Gascoigne (Stamp 78), Deane, Townsend, Ricard, Cooper. Subs Not Used: Schwarzer, Beck, Summerbell. Booked: Townsend, Gascoigne. Goals: Deane 22.

Nottingham Forest: Beasant, Quashie (Lyttle 73), Chettle, Hjelde, Stone, Gemmill, Shipperley (Freedman 81), Bart-Williams, Armstrong, Bonalair (Gray 75), Harewood. Subs Not Used: Rogers, Crossley. Booked: Stone, Hjelde. Goals: Harewood 88.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).