Football: A nation prepares for the worst

European Championship: After Saturday's dreary draw Glenn Hoddle prepares for a match vital to his England future
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The Independent Online
IT WAS neat, small and very quiet. You could walk unchallenged though an open gate, under the stand and across the running track on to the touchline itself. Forty-eight hours before England would attempt to revive their faltering European Championship campaign within its homely surrounds, the Stade Josy Barthel was as peaceful as a cricket field in winter.

The match is being billed in England as Glenn Hoddle's latest last chance, but a closer look at the recently renovated stadium, which is situated in a residential area, revealed another perspective on the game. Behind the eastern goal, ringing the area reserved for English fans, was an eight- foot fence. Luxembourg, while hoping for the best, are preparing for the worst.

Twice in six years, in 1977 and 1983, English supporters ran amok in this charming capital city. Fans, some armed with axes, overturned cars, looted shops and cafes, beating up locals and police alike. On the latter occasion it took the army, together with German riot police answering an SOS from across the border, to restore order.

When the blood dried and the shattered glass had been cleared away, the city declared it would never accept England's supporters again. Nobody criticised them. Fifteen years on England have been allowed back. Having been twice liberated by the British this century, and often visited by tourists from across the channel, they have decide to forgive and hope.

More than 2,500 supporters with tickets from official sources, and an unknown number of unofficial followers, are expected to arrive today and tomorrow. Given that the official capacity of the stadium is only 8,000 this is an extraordinarily generous allocation. However, the bulk of the local population have little desire to attend.

With assistance from English police intelligence, various precautions are in place and a substantial police presence planned. The forecast is, say English sources, "encouraging". The Football Association, already smarting from Uefa's fine following England fans' hooliganism and alleged racist chanting in Sweden, is almost as worried about trouble as the locals.

A few miles west of here, security officials from Belgium, who will jointly host the finals with the Netherlands in 2000, will also be keeping a wary eye.

There are those, in both countries, who will have welcomed Bulgaria's point at Wembley on Saturday as keenly as the Bulgars. The present low- key approach to policing may change as the travelling support arrive. The bulk are genuine people, their appearance and sound exaggerating others' apprehension. But there are a significant number of less pleasant followers. It seemed inevitable that the first English vehicle I saw here was owned by two men publicly urinating in a service station car park, ignoring the provided facilities, and thinking the whole matter a jolly jape.

Given past history, and the more recent events in Marseille and Stockholm, the seige mentality around this game should belong to Luxembourg. Instead it appears to surround the England camp, whose coach refused to emerge from his bunker yesterday. Instead Glenn Hoddle left Michael Owen and company to meet the media.

During his purdah Hoddle will presumably be trying to work out how to lift the team enough to prevent what would be the biggest embarrassment in English football history.

Already without the injured Ray Parlour, Andy Hinchcliffe and Tony Adams, Hoddle yesterday lost Paul Merson, whose back problem worsened. Teddy Sheringham (calf and knee) and Sol Campbell (knee) have minor injuries, but the only other player expected to miss out is Graeme Le Saux, who picked up a knock on Saturday. Phil Neville is likely to deputise.

The pressure on Hoddle appears to have mounted with Graham Kelly, the FA's chief executive, and Noel White, the chairman of the international committee and the man who brought down Terry Venables, less than effusive in their support. Asked about the effect of Saturday's match on Hoddle's status, Kelly said: "I never talk about a performance directly after a match. Let the dust settle." White's only comment on the game was "very disappointing".

However, the sight of a bookmakers' running order of possible replacements may have sharpened their mind. Along with Roy Hodgson, whose Blackburn have had a grim 1998, were Bryan Robson, whose tactics and man-management have often been of dubious quality at Middlesbrough; Gerard Houllier, a failure as manager of France; Kevin Keegan, who could not take the pressure at Newcastle; the untried David Platt; Howard Wilkinson, sacked at Leeds; and Venables, the best man for the job but, as far as the FA is concerned, too marked by other matters to be considered.

As Germany found when they lost to Turkey at the weekend, changing the manager does not always lead to better results. What Hoddle has yet to demonstrate is that not changing him will do so.