Football: Despair for jaded journeymen

Road to Euro 2000: Hoddle's men produce prosaic performance as cruelty of critics is given new rein; A day that began full of hope ends in despair. By Andrew Longmore
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SO LOW has the personal vendetta stooped, Glenn Hoddle's use of English was the subject of ridicule in the tabloid press yesterday. Since A-level English has yet to feature in the list of qualifications for an England coach - even the loquacious El Tel would have failed the written paper - the headline "Them three points" surely revealed the poverty of some football reporting more starkly than Hoddle's grammatical lapses.

Either way, Hoddle must have been praying for a word- perfect display by his side, not the stuttering, unimaginative, prosaic, dispassionate performance roundly and rightly rejected by the Wembley crowd yesterday. The loss of two points could ultimately prove more costly than the defeat by Sweden in the opening game of qualifying. Winning home games has always been the basis of success in qualifying tournaments and England failed to spark the sort of revival the country so desperately needed. Partly through their own stupidity (Ince and Beckham), partly through injury (Adams), partly through a dismaying loss of confidence, the thrusting young England side of France 98 has been transformed into a team of jaded journeymen.

Even the man on the mike at Wembley, usually the last word in optimism, had lost his verve by the close. "We wish you a safe journey home" was his valedictory message to a crowd who moments earlier had serenaded England's departure with chants of "what a load of rubbish". And that after they had been been warned against the use of foul and abusive language. The result will do nothing to ease the daily pressure on Hoddle, two days before England tackle Luxembourg. If his language is under the spotlight, what next? His choice of socks, CDs, underwear?

Had England peppered the Bulgarian goal with shots, offered a wealth of attacking options only to be thwarted by the rub of the green or a goalkeeper in the pink, there would have been some consolation. One shot on target in 90 minutes was an apt summary of their poverty. Not once did any England player dip his head, make for the byline and cross back for the strikers. Owen and Shearer, strangers for much of the afternoon, were confined to a handful of chances, none clearcut, and Redknapp, whose early long-range chip to Owen had portended a belated fulfilment of his talent at international level, was quickly apprehended by the Bulgarian midfield patrol. Scholes, a peripheral figure in Sweden, yet a weekly linchpin for United, once again looked out of sorts. Instead of conducting play, too often he short-circuited it. By the end, he was a forlorn figure. Even Owen's spark had gone.

Hinchcliffe's early corners and a late head of steam prompted by the driving runs of Campbell and Le Saux proved the sum of England's solution to Bulgaria's suffocating tactics. For all Hoddle's continued optimism, England already have to rely on the inadequacies of others in the group to reach Holland and Belgium two summers hence. Bulgaria's glee at the final whistle was deserved.

Despite the advertised commitment of their new young coach, Dimitar Dimitrov, to the cause of attacking football, there was never much danger of a side which had conceded nine goals in their last two competitive matches throwing down the gauntlet. Dimitrov, who had taken little Liteks Lovech, a small town east of Sofia, to the league title, might have a free hand, but realism tempered his tactical thinking.

If "them three points" were good enough for England, tedium and a single point was understandably the limit of Bulgarian ambitions. The international experience of Iankov and Stoichkov, with 140 caps between them, easily outstretched the rest of the side. Green in every sense. Only once in the first half did the Bulgarians forget themselves enough to penetrate an Adamsless England rearguard, Stoichkov wriggling free on the edge of the penalty area before driving a left-foot shot low and straight at Seaman. Otherwise, the Bulgarian hero of the 1994 World Cup ran into the brick wall of Sol Campbell and called it quits after an hour.

Hoddle sat in the stands, occasionally bending forward to gesture futilely into thin air, sometimes grabbing the phone for a one-to-one with John Gorman. One animated conversation ended with the 32nd-minute replacement of Andy Hinchcliffe by Graeme le Saux, due to injury. Le Saux's enthusiasm - a euphemism for his short fuse - was sorely needed, not just down the left flank but all through an England side which hit the doldrums almost as fatally as it had in Sweden.

Early in the second half, Le Saux's urgency produced a flying header from Shearer and a blatant bodycheck from Kishishev, whose gentle afternoon had been rudely disturbed. It was not long before another late challenge brought the Bulgarian a place in the referee's book, alongside Darren Anderton. Not that it mattered. Luxembourg beckons. Surely we can take those three points?