Football Commentary: Wilkinson's England star in ascendant

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The Independent Online
Club football and the Beautiful Game played at international level may be chalk and and cheese, but England are not about to appoint a loser, and Chelsea's results need to improve, very quickly, if the Glenn Hoddle lobby are to have their way.

Five successive defeats have dragged Hoddle and his team down to 18th place in the Premiership, which will not look good on the managerial CV.

In contrast, the swaggering 4-1 home win with which Leeds United compounded Chelsea's problems on Saturday elevated them to fourth, and a run of nine League games without defeat finds Howard Wilkinson more firmly entrenched than ever as the bookies' favourite to succeed that lamest of management mallards, Graham Taylor.

Timing is everything in such things. The last time the vacancy arose, three years ago, Taylor's rivals on the Football Association's short list were Howard Kendall and Joe Royle. Neither need be in any hurry to brush up his interview technique.

Imagination is in notoriously short supply at Lancaster Gate, where the myopic old buffers on the FA struggle to see any further than the latest league table and, on that basis, Wilkinson's candidacy waxes stronger as Leeds's resurgence gathers pace.

Hoddle, bright and innovative, should not be discounted, but his claims are eroded with each new defeat. It is illogical to equate an attritional slog at The Dell or Bramall Lane with the more esoteric requirements of World Cup football, but it is human nature to do so. In fairness to the FA, it will have no other tangible evidence to hand when it makes its choice.

Experience at club level may be tangential, but Wilkinson's wily pragmatism gives him the edge over the Chelsea tyro. Hoddle's most appropriate role would be that of junior partner in a two-man set-up, apprenticed to an accomplished master like Terry Venables.

Even those of us who are not fully paid-up members of the Hod is God fan club should be willing him to succeed where so many others have failed. Chelsea, like England, has become something of a poisoned chalice - a short cut to managerial obscurity. Whither now Ian Porterfield, Bobby Campbell, John Hollins and John Neal?

Hoddle, praise be, has brought to the job the modern ideas British football has been crying out for these past 20 years. Not for him the dead hand of 4-4-2 which has kept us in the crawler lane while others have been overtaking fast.

Man-for-man marking, the sweeper, wing-backs and a roving forward in the so-called 'hole' - manna from heaven for those of progressive bent. Unfortunately, while the shape is good, the personnel are not. The fault lies with the individual, not the system.

To rely on a three-man picket line, with the full-backs pushing on into midfield, a team needs trustworthy, no-nonsense defenders. Chelsea's are anything but. Erland Johnsen, one of the two markers, was tried and found wanting under the previous regime and Frank Sinclair has pace to burn but is still a novice - new to, and fallible in, the pivotal role of sweeper.

Hoddle, who had been doing the job, gave up chasing shadows after four defeats on the trot, and is seeking refuge on more familiar ground. In midfield.

Chelsea's sudden debility has prompted suggestions that combining playing with management may be too much for him, and that, at 35, he should hang up his boots. God forbid. By definition, his is a doubly onerous trade, but the domestic game can ill afford to lose the pick of a dying breed: the pass masters. Chelsea certainly cannot. Hoddle's value to the team as a player was pointed up when he laid on Neil Shipperley's goal with the deftest of through-balls.

Unfortunately, despite the Herculean efforts of Dennis Wise, Leeds were 4-0 up by that stage, the game long since won and lost.

Wilkinson seems to be timing his run to perfection, last season's sharp decline a fast-fading memory. Successive 3-3 draws with Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday had proved that Leeds could entertain and score goals. On Saturday they went one better, harvesting four more and denying Chelsea all but an inconsequential late reply.

Chris Fairclough's deployment in midfield is compensating, temporarily at least, for the loss of David Batty to Blackburn, and the re-emergence of David Rocastle has invigorated the team where it was strongest in their championship year.

Rocastle had been a pounds 2m misfit after his transfer from Arsenal, unable to displace Gordon Strachan but, as Wilkinson has had to tell him on more than one occasion, everything comes to he who waits.

Peter Pan's injury has finally given Mr Impatience his chance, and he could hardly have done more to take it. A model of diligence and enterprise on the right, he also scored the goal of the game, when he shimmied one way and then the other, bemusing Johnsen, before driving the ball in from the edge of the penalty area.

Midfield is still their strongest suit, but Leeds are improving in the other areas, with Gary Kelly's emergence at right-back remedying last season's Achilles' heel and Rod Wallace starting to score with an acceptable degree of regularity. Two more here made it six in the last seven games.

Even that most drowsy of giants, Brian Deane, is stirring at last, thumping home his first goal at Elland Road since transferring from Sheffield United during the close season.

It was all too much for Chelsea, who survived the first half, courtesy of some top-notch saves from Kevin Hitchcock, but were overrun in the second, when they were passed and penetrated virtually at will. 'Our worst performance,' Hoddle said. 'It could easily have been more.'

Wilkinson loved it, of course. 'True to his name, Hitchcock kept us in suspense until half-time. But for him, it would have been an avalanche.' He was even up for some light-hearted sparring with inquisitors who wanted to know why Rocastle had been overlooked for so long.

'It has happened because of a player who is not bad called Strachan, but David Rocastle is a magnificent human being. If I had a daughter free. . .'

If he had, and she did, she would probably be given away by the new manager of England.

Goals: Deane (46) 1-0; Wallace (52) 2-0; Wallace (56) 3-0; Rocastle (70) 4-0; Shipperley (84) 4-1.

Leeds United (4-1-3-2): Beeney; Kelly, Wetherall, Newsome, Dorigo; Fairclough; Rocastle, Speed, McAllister; Deane, Wallace. Substitutes not used: Hodge, Forrester, Lukic (gk).

Chelsea (3-4-1-2): Hitchcock; Kjeldbjerg, Sinclair, Johnsen; Hopkin (Donaghy, 56), Wise, Hoddle; Peacock (Shipperley, 70); Newton; Stein, Cascarino. Substitute not used: Colgan (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

(Photograph omitted)