As the England team prepares to play Italy in its crucial World Cup qualifying match in two weeks' time, one man, coach Glenn Hoddle, will be praying especially hard for a win
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At Every third or fourth pace of his thoroughbred canter, Glenn Hoddle caresses the turf with the tip of his trailing foot. Probably in common with a generation of football followers, I'd always wondered why. A few months ago I got the chance to ask him. "I like to push my toe right down to the end of the boot," he said. "Then I can feel the ball better."

You also wonder why Ron Greenwood never asked him. Instead, the England manager assumed he knew the answer. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Greenwood picked then discarded, picked then discarded, a player considered to be the most naturally talented of his era and, in doing so, turned him into a national debate. Hoddle's mannerism, this dragging the toe behind him, contributed to his fate. "I thought that was a clear indication of his lack of belief in himself," Greenwood curiously concluded. "It was a giveaway for me."

Actually, the nation could yet have cause to thank Greenwood for alienating and angering the perfectionist who liked to feel the ball better so that he could more deftly use it. Returning as England's coach last year - at 38 the youngest ever - Hoddle is seared with a desire for the international success that he believes was denied to him as a player. England should have built a team around him, went the argument. Welcome to Hoddle's revenge. Now he gets to build his own.

Revenge, the Italians say, is a dish best eaten cold. In which case, victory for England, or at least the draw they need to send them to the World Cup finals next summer, seems assured when the two countries meet in a potentially epic encounter in Rome a week next Saturday. For Hoddle is among the coolest and most calculating of characters in the English game, and will have absorbed the lessons of a 1-0 defeat by Italy at Wembley last February .

"Life," he once said, "is mapped out for you. As long as you hit the right stations, you will be directed to where you are meant to go." It is an attitude born of a spiritual experience 11 years ago - Hoddle has always been open to such experiences, as hinted at by his trust as a young player in a faith healer to cure his injuries - when he visited Jerusalem with the England team. It was a touchstone moment. Though he is no happy-clappy, born-again evangelist, he now has a Christian faith. All who spend time with him speak of his inner strength and assurance.

Whether or not success is Hoddle's destiny, he believes that his current job is. "I've had a burning desire to do this since I was a very young age," he said when his appointment was announced in May last year.

Glenn Hoddle was born in Hayes, Middlesex, on 27 October 1957, but he grew up in Harlow, Essex. An outstanding schoolboy footballer, at 16 he became an apprentice at Tottenham Hotspur. At 18, he was in the first team. For the next 12 years Hoddle was not so much a player, more a symbol of a domestic game agonising over its character. The debate centred on work ethic and took in talent, touched on skill and encompassed temperament. Even he wondered how he fitted into the roll-your-sleeves-up English game.

There was little doubting Hoddle's skill. Elegant in midfield, with remarkable touch and control, he could manipulate a ball like few others in muddy old England. His range of passing was expansive. My favourite memory is of Tottenham playing the Dutch side Feyenoord, which included Johan Cruyff and Ruud Gullit, in 1983. By half-time, Spurs led 4-0, each goal the result of a through-pass by Hoddle.

Misty-eyed memory can overlook his shortcomings, however. "You could scare Hoddle out of a match and you couldn't depend on him to bring you a cup of tea if you were dying," said the Liverpool hard man Tommy Smith. It almost polarised into a north-south issue. The southern softie was even known as "Glenda" in the north.

Hoddle won his first cap for England against Bulgaria at Wembley in 1979. He created the match's first goal and scored the second with a sidefooted shot from 20 yards. He was then left out of England's next three games. Indeed, under Ron Greenwood, only twice did he play two matches in a row. Of particular disappointment to Hoddle was the 1982 World Cup finals tournament in Spain. He played only once, in a meaningless match against Kuwait. At the end of it, Greenwood described him as one for the future. Hoddle was almost 25.

"He was a gifted, talented player who stood out above anyone else at that time," Greenwood admitted. "The only problem that I could see he had, was his own personality. Glenn never realised how good he was ... He was a retiring type of person, rather shy. He was certainly not a flamboyant character, which would have been more fitting for him as a player. It is often down to the player himself about how many caps he wins. People say he should have got more, but they should also look at the character of the player as well as the ability."

Hoddle fared better under the more lyrical Bobby Robson, who became manager of the England team in 1982. He started all five games in the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, for example, even if he never played in the attacking midfield position he wanted. Robson had doubts, however. Hoddle could not, he felt, always see the need to make space for himself and give the passing player an angle to find him with the ball. It may be that because Hoddle's control was so good - team-mates spoke of him being able to take a ball in his stride, no matter how badly delivered - that he did not see the need for it.

The next season, 1986-87, Hoddle enjoyed one of his best periods for Tottenham as David Pleat's accommodating management used him to best effect. But Hoddle was becoming disaffected with the increasingly prevalent long- ball game played in England and grew restless for a more stimulating experience. He got it in July '87 when he signed to Monaco, where he was an immediate success. The team won the French title; he became the country's player of the year.

Bobby Robson, however, clearly felt Monaco was no preparation for an England match against the scuffling Republic of Ireland at the European Championships of 1988. Hoddle was left out of the team. England's ill- fated Championships campaign ended with defeats by Holland and the Soviet Union, Hoddle appearing in these last two games to make his final tally of caps 53. A player of his skills could have hoped to win double that amount during his career. Hoddle returned to Monaco more convinced than ever of the crassness of the English game.

But doing something about it only dawned on him when his coach at Monaco, the cerebral Arsene Wenger (now in charge of Arsenal), suggested that he too might make a good coach. At first Hoddle was amused; but during much time spent injured with knee and Achilles tendon problems, the idea began to appeal to him.

Wenger was an inspiration: sophisticated and with intriguing ideas. When the 6ft-tall Hoddle arrived, he was already a lean 11st 6lbs, but Wen- ger urged him to lose more weight to gain speed. Stretching exercises, a healthier diet and thoughtful tactical strategies combined to fuel Hoddle's imagination. When he returned to English football in August 1991, Hoddle was ready with a new approach. He was unsure, however, whether English football was ready for him.

For Swindon Town, it was like Cindy Crawford agreeing to dance with you. The small West Country team had been through turmoil, having had promotion to the old First Division withdrawn because of financial irregularities at the club. As player-manager, Hoddle brought a breath of fresh air. "Glenn was a gentleman," said the then Swindon chairman Ray Hardman.

Few imagined the Glenda figure of the past would become the tough guy of English management folklore. He may have had ideas - but did he have the personality? Was he too nice? "People who have said that don't know or understand me," he said curtly when I put the point to him at the time. He also clarified his version of Christianity. "This is my church," he said gesturing to the training ground.

Hoddle played himself as a sweeper, and Swindon soon assembled a brand of passing football that won the admiration of critics. It could be successful too: in his second season, Swindon were promoted to the Premiership via the play-offs.

It was inevitable that one of the bigger clubs would soon come calling; Chelsea made an approach even before the play-offs. Amid much acrimony at the time - though held in affection by Swindon today - Hoddle left. A pattern was by now becoming established: "We were all just stepping stones for him, weren't we?" said Ray Hardman.

Ken Bates, Chelsea's chairman, does not re- call Hoddle with fondness. "Bates, in fact," according to Brian Woolnough in his book Glenn Hoddle, The Man and the Manager, "found Hoddle self-centred, aloof and only interested in two things: himself and his bank balance."

Perhaps these views had something to do with a dispute between Bates and the late Matthew Harding over control of the club. Bates sensed that Hoddle sided with Harding, who was rather more generous in his assessment of Hoddle. "He isn't shy," he said disputing another myth about the man. "And he has enormous self-confidence. He's an achiever. He does appear to border on something arrogant but he is far from that. He's a self-starter and he doesn't suffer people he doesn't like or admire."

Both men would have agreed about Hoddle's effect on Chelsea. The club was a shambling giant in need of the direction Hoddle provided. Though they were only mid-table in the Premiership in his three seasons, he led them to an FA Cup final, an FA Cup semi-final, and a European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final. There was also a change of mood, from the haphazard to the professional.

Hoddle insisted on upgraded facilities at the club's training ground, and introduced breakfast and lunch at a new canteen so that players would arrive early, stay late and build up their camaraderie. New diets were introduced - along with afternoon training, which offended some players. There was access to a reflexologist, and even Hoddle's trusted faith healer. Lastingly, Hoddle created a youth-development system in which all age groups played to a pattern laid down in a so-called "playbook" detailing skills that should be mastered at each level. He also hired Ruud Gullit, almost as his legacy to the club.

"He knows what he wants," said Harding. And what he wanted was to be England's coach. When the country came calling, while others in the frame prevaricated, there was never a doubt that he would agree to the conscription.

Before the Second World War, England teams were chosen by a committee from the Football Association. Then, in 1946, Walter Winterbottom was appointed as the first manager. At that time it was seen as an honour. These days, it is more often viewed as a curse.

Lack of deference among the public, coupled with an unforgiving press, has put off many decent men. In the early Nineties, this reached its nadir with the ridicule of Graham Taylor, who spoke of "the impossible job". Terry Venables, with an impressive semi-final showing at Euro '96, re-established some credibility to the office, but when, in January last year, he announced his intention to resign, the queue to succeed him hardly stretched round the block. One by one the game's most celebrated names - Kevin Keegan, Bryan Robson, Gerry Francis - were linked to the position; one by one they dissociated themselves. All the while Hoddle, his contract about to expire at Chelsea, was non-committal.

The FA despatched the former England international Jimmy Armfield, now a broadcaster, to canvass opinion among the professionals. He knew where he should be heading. Within weeks he held a meeting with Hoddle. "I was surprised how confident he was," Armfield recalls. "When I came out, I was more comfortable about him as a possible England coach." Soon after, Armfield visited Hoddle at his home in Ascot. "After that I thought, 'he's our man'", says Arm-field. "He definitely has an inner strength. The last thing he is is a soft touch. He was assured."

The official FA interview held no terrors for Hoddle. "Any skeletons in the closet?" asked chief executive Graham Kelly. Adding, in reference to "Diamond Lights", Hoddle's foray into pop music, "apart from that record with Chris Waddle?"

At the announcement of Hoddle's appointment, Venables was alongside him, as the FA sought to show the transition was seamless. "Can we have a smile from the England manager please?" a photographer asked. "Not for much longer you can't," Venables quipped. While he guffawed, Hoddle grinned.

Hoddle and Venables are very different personalities, even if holding similar ideas about the way the game should be played. At first, Hoddle did not wish to disturb the "Euphoria '96", and his first squad, to play Moldova away, was almost Venables's. Except that his signature was on it; Alan Shearer was captain and Matthew Le Tissier, a modern enigma and debating point, was introduced, along with the Manchester United prodigy David Beckham. "He sees the furthest pass first," said Hoddle of Beckham. He might have been speaking of himself.

For the next match, against Poland at Wembley, Hoddle was asked about his policy of keeping the players together for the preceding weekend, whereas under Venables they were used to being sent home. "People might feel we should do it differently," he said. "My answer is that I am the manager and we will do it my way."

Then came Georgia away, and a decision to include Paul Gascoigne despite evidence of a wife-beating episode. Hoddle spoke of forgiveness and helping England's penitent wayward prodigy, the most naturally talented player of the era, to deal with the demons driving him.

Hoddle had employed just such an image, using the phrase "demon drink", when, unbidden, he had written to Tony Adams in Chelmsford Jail several years previously. He urged Adams to mend his ways. "It was a very powerful letter," says Adams. "One that I didn't appreciate at the time. It struck too many chords. Glenn had had his spiritual enlightenment going to Israel, and people in football joked that he had become a Jehovah's Witness. But he had just found a way of life that sat well with him."

In Shearer's absence Adams, now a recovering alcoholic, was made captain for the match in Georgia and may be again in Italy.

Hoddle has become more relaxed in the job, more open and giving to the media of which he was initially suspicious. In turn the press has so far indulged him - a record of nine wins and only two defeats clearly helping - and left his young family, two daughters and a son, alone.

He has never seemed concerned about his own youth, though. "I think it may even be an advantage with the players with me being young," he says. "Because I can remember what international football was like. If you haven't played for 20 years, you forget."

Last month he admitted to making mistakes, which he has been loath to do: he is now said to regret replacing the physiotherapist Dave Butler without informing him personally. It is probably a sign of less tension in the job. The 1-0 defeat by Italy was also evidence of errors. The maverick Le Tissier was not the man for such an important match, even allowing for other players' absence through injury. However, Hoddle was only sorry, he said two days later, that he had to substitute him in the second half.

Stubborn in support of Le Tissier's ineffective flamboyance that night, Hoddle is otherwise a pragmatist. After England had won Le Tournoi, a four-nation tournament in France this summer, by beating Italy and the host team, he was told about criticism of England's physical style. "Let's put it this way," he replied. "I would rather win the tournament than the Fair Play award."

The drawback to the job for Hoddle is the lack of day-to-day involvement with players, which may explain why he visits his office at FA headquarters in London's Lancaster Gate, a surprising three or four times a week, watching videos - he has England matches filmed from behind the goal so he can see every movement - answering mail and chewing the fat with his assistant John Gorman, a Scot loyal to him since their days playing together at Tottenham.

Hoddle takes England to Rome with his stock riding high, but aware how quickly things could turn sour. A bad result, failing to qualify for the World Cup finals - even qualifying then doing badly - and people will be calling for his head. But so far he has retained his equilibrium.

"When I was Chelsea manager, looking on from the outside, it seemed a difficult job. And it is just that," he said in the summer. "But it's one I'm enjoying and taking a lot of pride in. The ups are very high and the downs very down, but I've got a good family behind me and that is the most important thing whether you are up or down."

Hoddle is growing increasingly comfortable in the job, and it has nothing to do with the security of a four-year contract worth pounds 1m; double the length and remuneration of what Venables received. For Hoddle the contract is a sign of self-worth that gives him a freedom to do what he wants; something he has worked hard to achieve after the perceived mistreatment of his own playing days. And it is why he could be dishing up cold fare to the Italian gastronomes in Rome. !

Man of the match: July 1985, Hoddle prepares to play in the England v Mexico game (left); September 1982 sees Hoddle playing at Tottenham, where his elegant skills in mid-field won him great acclaim (above); pictured here with Lionel Richie and also Chris Waddle, with whom he recorded the hit 'Diamond Nights' (below)