At 40 years of age, Glenn Hoddle stands convicted of being, by one reading, too thoughtful and insufficiently eloquent. English professional footballers are not supposed to worry about the next life. The next 90 minutes are their problem. They belong to a very particular culture, and they venture beyond it at their peril. After his famous initial encounter with Eileen Drewery, when she cured the young Tottenham Hotspur player's injury by means of something she described to him as "absent healing", Hoddle's mind was stretched beyond the limits prescribed by his background and his normal working environment. It is to his credit that he accepted the intellectual challenge; it is a pity, many of us may think, that the test was not a worthier one.
The tabloids were always going to get him one day. Hoddle had offended too often, by refusing to play the game their way. He had sometimes intentionally misled them, he had often let them see his contempt for them, and he had not given them the unbroken string of victories that would allow them to indulge the unfettered jingoism so pleasing to their circulation departments. But Hoddle was never quite comfortable with the beer-and-bulldog ambience of the Sun Bus, and his unease became his downfall.
Yet it was only be a seeming paradox that the clumsy and unnecessary statement last week of his views on handicapped people should appear in an interview in The Times. No paper appears to value football coverage more highly as a circulation weapon, wielded in conjunction with Sky Sport's Premier League contract. The Sun probably doesn't know whether to bemoan its own failure to provoke the scoop, or to dance a jig at the prospect of being able to write Hoddle's obituary at last.
Hoddle's words upset many disabled people and their representatives - a perfectly natural reaction. "Glenn Hoddle says that the lame, the blind and the halt have only themselves to blame," they were told. "How do you feel about that?" There could be only one response, and David Blunkett voiced it in unanswerable terms. Hoddle's attempt to suggest that his beliefs were more complex, fell on deafened ears.
It does no good at this stage to suggest that many of those leading the condemnation of Hoddle's views themselves subscribe to a cult whose believers - led by our head of state and our Prime Minister - have no trouble with numinous phenomena, whether they be serial plagues, the parting of seas or tricks with loaves and fishes. Or, indeed, with the basic notion of an afterlife. Hoddle's version of man's relationship with eternity certainly smacks of a shallow immersion in the debris of Sixties spiritualism, but he is hardly alone in that. It may, indeed, simply be a matter of degree. The Right Reverend David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham and the Church of England's most celebrated sceptic, acknowledged as much when he deplored the speed with which people are condemned for their beliefs - or for holding beliefs at all.
Yet the fact is that whatever good work Hoddle may have done for disabled people in the past, he has undone it all through words with which, unwittingly, he has enabled others to hold them up to ridicule. You do not have to believe in the doctrine of political correctness to understand that significant advances have been made in attitudes to illness in general and to handicapped people in particular, often expressed through the choice of popular terminology. Using the term "Down's syndrome" in preference to "mongolism" does make a difference. Hoddle's words could do nothing but achieve the precise opposite of their intention.
That mistake calls into question the overall accuracy of his judgement. But perhaps even that is being too kind. Perhaps the ability to hold such a belief, in apparent seriousness, is an indication of a deep character flaw, another expression of the man's inflexibility, also known as his self-belief. Such a quality can be seen as priceless when the man possessing it is an undoubted winner. But Hoddle has won nothing as England's coach, which denies him the right to such consideration.
A few years ago, the question that provoked the damaging quotes would not have been asked. No football reporter of the Sixties would have thought Alf Ramsey's theology worth probing. Had it come up, it would have remained unrecorded, in the manner of Jack Kennedy's philandering or the behaviour of MCC teams in distant parts of the Empire. In that way the fate of Hoddle resembles that of Clinton, except that the former's zip problem is with his lip. The question of whether this world or that one is the better is beside the point; this one - with its full-beam prurience and lynch- mob justice - seems to be the one in which most people are happy to live.
Almost the last vestige of sympathy for Hoddle's plight disappeared with his claim to have been "misrepresented and misconstrued" by Matt Dickinson, the journalist in question. It's true that apparently random comments are sometimes distorted by newspapers to suit their purposes, and this certainly happened to Hoddle recently, when a reference to David Beckham's disciplinary record was blown up into the semblance of a full-scale row on the eve of England's last match. That should have made Hoddle wary of anything he said, even to The Times.
But he had done enough in the past to be denied the benefit of the doubt when it really counted. A man so devious and insecure that he could order a player to lie about his medical condition - as, on Hoddle's own free admission, was the case with a reluctant Gareth Southgate in France last summer - may be thought at best marginally suited to the responsibility of leading the England football squad.
And who, now, would want the job? Since Ramsey's fall from grace after failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, no England coach has emerged unscathed. Don Revie became a pariah; Ron Greenwood lost much of his football reputation; Bobby Robson gave up in disgust; Graham Taylor became a laughing- stock; Terry Venables was engulfed by his own tide of sleaze. Thanks to football's popularity, it is a job requiring a range of qualities that can hardly be embodied in a single person.
It may be easy to say this now, after their delirious triumph last July, but maybe the French have discovered the best way. Their team is run by a group of solid, relatively anonymous men, mutually supportive, working together on a long-term project with clear philosophies to guide them. There are no colourful characters in the Venables mould, but when attacks from the press come - as they did before the World Cup, when the modest Aime Jacquet was the butt of severe and unjustified criticism - their solidarity provides an effective shield. A lesson here for the Football Association perhaps. Although surely not for Glenn Hoddle, for whom his belief is shield enough. Or so we hope, as he is carried out on it.Reuse content