Football: Fixtures lottery piles on agony for Hoddle

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S weary players staggered into Bisham Abbey yesterday to be greeted with the unwelcome news that next year's summer holiday was cancelled. Instead of sunning it on the Costas they will be running around under a Bulgarian sun.

And they will be the lucky ones, the less fortunate will be in the operating theatre having surgery on overuse injuries.

This became apparent as football's growing fixture nightmare shook England on two fronts. In Switzerland, Uefa arranged England's Euro 2000 fixtures by ballot after Poland reneged on an earlier agreement and left Glenn Hoddle bemoaning his luck. Then in Buckinghamshire the England coach watched his players limp in, those who were fit enough to get there, and moaned again.

Of the 26 players selected for England's friendly in Switzerland next week only 15 trained and four, all from Manchester United, did not turn up, Andy Cole joining Gary and Phil Neville and Paul Scholes on the injured list. Present but not training were the other United players, David Beckham, Teddy Sheringham and Nicky Butt, along with Andy Hinchcliffe, Ray Parlour, Graeme Le Saux and Steve McManaman. All but McManaman are doubtful for the Berne fixture.

"Every time we get together there are different players and I feel as if I am having to go over old ground all the time," Hoddle groaned. "It was like Emergency Ward 10."

United's players, in particular, are exhausted and the most sensible thing Hoddle could do is tell the remaining three to go home and rest. He could do the same for the home match with Portugal next month and, to avoid accusations of bias, do the same for the Arsenal players who will by then be feeling the effects of their own fixture pile-up. After all, England want players relatively fresh for June, Hoddle has other options for friendlies.

Instead, Hoddle is going to insist everyone in his next squad turns up unless they "are in plaster or in hospital" and regardless of whether they can play. "As long as they are fit to travel I want them here," he said. "You can't start planning for the World Cup in May, there are some important elements I still have to work on and I can't do that if key men are not here."

This is sure to lead to problems with clubs who would prefer injured players spent their time with their own physio rather than sitting on the motorway going to Bisham and back.

One can sympathise with Hoddle, the faults is not his, it is with the clubs, who will not reduce the Premiership, and Uefa and Fifa who keep increasing competitions. And it is only going to get worse. Next June, a month after the domestic season ends, England will be playing Sweden at home and Bulgaria away in the space of five days. This is the unpleasant filling in a qualifying routine which, to Hoddle's chagrin, starts and finishes with difficult away games in September when England are traditionally poor. "It always seems to be us that gets the wrong end of the stick. We always seem to be the ones who have to suffer," added Mr Grumpy.

The one positive aspect was that England should be able to stage their main home games at Wembley before the stadium's planned pounds 200m re-fit begins next summer. The England-Luxembourg tie on 4 September 1999 is likely to be held at Old Trafford.

Wales also received their dates yesterday and they were much chirpier. They begin with a lucrative home tie against Italy on 5 September - which the Italians did not want and is likely to be at Anfield. Old Trafford is favourite to stage the Denmark match - in which Ryan Giggs should face Peter Schmeichel - and Cardiff's new national stadium could be ready in time for Switzerland's visit. "I couldn't be happier," said Bobby Gould, the Welsh manager. And he's not even going to the World Cup.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP 2000 Qualifying matches: ENGLAND: 5 September 1998 Sweden (A); 10 October Bulgaria (H); 14 October Luxembourg (A); 27 March 1999 Poland (H); 5 June Sweden (H); 9 June Bulgaria (A); 4 September Luxembourg (H); 8 September Poland (A).

WALES: 5 September 1998 Italy (H); 10 October Denmark (A); 14 October Belarus (H). 31 March 1999 Switzerland (A); 5 June Italy (A); 9 June Denmark (H); 4 September Belarus (A); 9 October Switzerland (H).