The Hoddle Sacking: England coach pays final penalty for crossing the hard men of the press

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a balmy evening in Stockholm last September. England were leading Sweden by a goal to nil and the 3,000 Englishmen at one end of the Rasunda stadium were beerily content.

To their left, however, in the press box, support was less enthusiastic. As Sweden scored twice in three minutes to take a surprise lead it became clear that, for some, their desire to get rid of Glenn Hoddle had overwhelmed their patriotism.

"That's more like it," said one, rubbing his hands. "Now let's see him get out of this one."

It was not always like this. As recently as last June the English press box had erupted in joy when Michael Owen scored that goal against Argentina. But even then the relationship with Hoddle was on the slide.

By the time England reached Sweden it had been shattered and, yesterday, Hoddle suffered the consequences. Make no mistake, the furore over his alleged comments disparaging people with disabilities is directly related to a relationship with the press which comes close to a state of mutual loathing.

It was all so different in May 1996 when the FA announced he would be taking over from Terry Venables at the end of that summer's European Championship. At 38, he was the eighth and youngest England coach and he brought with him an immense amount of goodwill generated by memories of his talent as a player with Tottenham Hotspur.

The honeymoon lasted six months during which he and the team acquitted themselves well, although it was apparent he was very different to his predecessor. Though Venables had enemies in the media he had enjoyed the company of journalists, entertaining them at his west London drinking club and spending time with them on trips to Europe and after press conferences at the team's Bisham Abbey headquarters.

Hoddle was different. His contempt for the tabloid media was thinly veiled. Garth Crooks, a former Spurs colleague now with the BBC, said: "It will be half-an-hour before he treats me like an old team-mate. He is now in a profession which has made him cautious."

Early on the FA hosted an off-the-record lunch between Hoddle and football correspondents in an attempt to foster better relations. It served little purpose, he was not prepared to let his guard slip and left early. Even the admirable decision to be more even-handed than Venables brought him little advantage, everyone felt left out instead of just a few.

After a potentially damaging home defeat to Italy in early 1997, doubts about his judgement began to surface. A series of good results meant relations were amicable, though rarely warm, when the return match arrived in Rome that October.

England had to avoid defeat to qualify for the World Cup finals and Hoddle, deciding the end justified the means, misled the press about the captaincy and players' fitness - even asking players to feign injury during the last training session.

Though England got the result they needed the press, who had made mistakes in print, were made to look foolish. Some big egos were dented and, while nothing negative was written, mental notes were made. "That was a turning point," said one senior FA official yesterday.

In the months that followed relations worsened, particularly with the arrival on the scene of Liverpool's young striker, Michael Owen.

First Hoddle told a journalist, in a pooled briefing, that the teenager had to be careful about "off-field-activities". Banner headlines ensued, Hoddle denied saying the comment and the journalist had to print a transcript of the taped interview to clear his name.

Then Hoddle said Owen was "not a natural goalscorer". He meant his game was about more than just scoring goals but tabloids seized on the quote and have never let him forget it.

By March, Hoddle and his minders were becoming paranoid. When England travelled to Berne to play Switzerland, Hoddle was asked to pose by a row of snow-covered bicycles."Oh, no," came the word from the FA. "We can see the headlines now: "On your bike Hod."

It got worse. The following night, after England drew 1-1, Hoddle was quizzed on team selection at Berne airport. "Basically", he said, "I don't care two monkeys what the press think - and you can quote me on that."

Little things began to matter. Most football press conferences are at lunchtime. Hoddle started arranging his, in Berkshire, at times which coincided with the M25 rush-hour and, more seriously, put journalists under great pressure to meet deadlines.

Traditionally the team and press had travelled to away matches on the same plane. Soon we were not even travelling from the same airport.

All this created a them-and-us attitude. The press responded by leaping on theinvolvement of the faith-healer Eileen Drewery with the team. She was derided as an ex-Essex pub landlady and "voodoo woman". Hoddle's eccentric beliefs were gleefully lampooned. Revenge was in the air but there was also a serious side. Hoddle's beliefs and personality were affecting the team - one player said joining the squad was like entering a religious cult, another was dropped after mocking Drewery. A player chatting about the World Cup told me: "You'd better leave that out, the manager doesn't like anything that sounds like criticism."

The World Cup highlighted England's reclusiveness with foreign journalists appalled at the limited access to Hoddle, his players and training sessions.

However, apart from the complaint that Owen should have been played earlier, criticism was muted while England were in the tournament then submerged by the gallant nature of their exit.

Hoddle's World Cup diary re-opened the debate with journalists seething at revelations which contradicted statements he made at the time. Selling it to The Sun made matters worse with rival newspapers .

Hoddle dropped his even-handed approach, meeting "sympathetic" journalists, placing positive stories and giving one-to-one interviews on specific subjects. This is what was supposed to happen with The Times. However, knowing Hoddle's tendency to blandness, the journalist concerned armed himself with a cutting about his views on reincarnation. With a page to fill it was not so much a trap as an insurance policy but Hoddle turned it into a noose and put his head in. The media has happily tightened the rope. Not even an appeal to the BBC by his daughter, Zara, yesterday afternoon could save him.

While some would claim his scalp, the press cannot take full blame - or credit - for Hoddle's dismissal. The golden rule of managing England is that as long as you are winning, you can get away with almost anything.

Hoddle's England have won three of their last eight competitive matches, two against Tunisia and Luxembourg. With better results, and the press behind him, he would have survived this storm. With both against he had no chance.



'You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason.

'The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap.'

The Times, 30 January

'The man asked me about reincarnation. I tried to give him an example of why people are sometimes born into poverty. There is an imbalance, and injustice.

'For someone to go and misconstrue this about disabled people is outrageous.'

Grandstand, 30 January

'The only reason people are saying I should resign is that they are saying I have come out and said that people disabled and handicapped have been paying for their sins, and I have never ever said that.

'I don't believe that. At this moment in time, if that changes in years to come, I don't know...'

ITN, 1 February

'It is absolute nonsense that I said these people are being punished for their sins in another lifetime. That is just not what I said.

'I am not angry, I am devastated and very frustrated about the situation ... I didn't say those things as they have been reported.'

Sky, 1 February

'The reporter from The Times did not misquote me, but he did misinterpret me.

'Certainly, I do not believe disabled people deserve what they get. That would be an obscene thought. But I am seeking some reason for their suffering, as I am sure many disabled people do for themselves.

'I now stand accused of being heartless, of being cruel and of deliberately upsetting and insulting handicapped people. I cannot overstate how much that upsets me.'

The Mirror, 2 February