Football: Dion defies the Cole merchants

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IN A rare moment of banter during Friday's announcement of the England squad to face the Czech Republic it was put to Glenn Hoddle that he would like to see Aston Villa win the League. "No, I wouldn't say that, but you're English..." he responded to his interrogator. "wouldn't you like to see Villa win the League?"

Hoddle's claret and blue army? Not quite, although the implication was clear enough and the trend is there, with only Manchester United boasting more personnel in the 23-man squad. The England coach takes a particular delight that a virtually all-British team top the Premiership, partly because of his concern that foreign players are restricting the opportunities of home-grown talent and not least because of the fact that John Gregory is an advocate of Hoddle's sacred three centre-backs system.

It is not entirely fanciful to expect all four Villa men selected - Gareth Southgate, Lee Hendrie, Paul Merson and Dion Dublin - to be placed together on Hoddle's examination table at some stage at Wembley on Wednesday night.

However, the coach hinted that those senior players already on the periphery are more likely to receive their invitation to start than the recruits from Peter Taylor's Under-21 squad, Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright, Leicester's Emile Heskey and Hendrie, chosen just ahead of West Ham's Frank Lampard. All the indications are that, with Michael Owen's absence through injury, Dublin will almost certainly start, particularly as there is some doubt over Alan Shearer who picked up a hamstring strain yesterday.

The England coach had been adamant that he would resist any temptation to "rest" Shearer but that decision may now be taken for him. When Hoddle suggested that his captain has "played well with a main striker alongside him, like Les Ferdinand and Teddy Sheringham" and noted that it had been "interesting to see that Newcastle had been after Dion", it appeared a big enough hint of his intent, although we have learnt in the past to be wary of clues which turn out to be false trails.

Similar to Ian Wright, also in the squad at just turned 35, the Leicester- born Dublin is the antithesis of Owen, not merely in stature and style, but having improved with age. Few who witnessed that lanky, slightly awkward figure performing for Cambridge, for whom he signed on a free transfer from Norwich 10 years ago, could envisage him one day turning out for England. Not even when he joined Manchester United for pounds 1m in 1992. Alex Ferguson made his judgement all too evident when he was dispatched to Coventry for pounds 2m, having scored two League goals in 12 appearances in two seasons.

But Gordon Strachan has honed the ground skills and awareness of a man who, unlike Andy Cole, possesses confidence in abundance, and it is to the Scot's testament that Hoddle not only selected him for his first cap in an undistinguished defeat against Chile in February but has kept faith with Villa's pounds 5.75m acquisition. Yesterday's hat-trick at Southampton reinforced the decision.

When Hoddle maintained that "the reason why we want to win the game is not to get everyone off my back", he was not being disingenuous. He could, after all, have arranged vastly inferior opposition than the Czechs, away from home, but he has deliberately created a pressure-cooker for his players - and himself - to come to the boil slowly by staging the game at Wembley where they face Poland in next year's Euro 2000 qualifier. He might have also deflected much hostility in advance of a possible indifferent display by selecting a certain celebrated trio: Gascoigne, Ince and Cole. They are the names that will be hurled at him with venom, most particularly the latter, but though he has made errors during his England tenure, failing to have the courage of his convictions and bowing to media and public clamour are not among them.

Maybe if his Old Trafford counter-balance Dwight Yorke was English, Cole would have had a chance because at the moment they come as a pair. Unless Hoddle suddenly sees the light in St Paul's proportions, the United striker will remain in the international wilderness.

There were none of the typical platitudes that accompany failure to win selection. Prior to the World Cup, Hoddle had said his reasoning to touch Wright's shoulder with his sword rather than the Manchester United man's was poor productivity from chances proffered. As far as his supporters, the Cole merchants, are concerned, that demand has been satisfied. Hoddle is far from convinced. In his view Cole's form is "in a similar vein as before", adding: "I don't see that there has been a massive change, but it's been a very short space of time since the World Cup. Those things don't happen overnight. If we're going to see a drastic change it takes a year to 18 months."

Paul Ince is quite a different matter. Hoddle agreed that he will definitely be restored to the squad to face world champions France in February, if fit, explaining that the Liverpool midfielder "had agreed that he could do with a mental rest". But more intriguing was his estimation that the player, although 31, could still have a long international future before him, though in a different role. "At this level, you cannot buy experience," said Hoddle. "Look at Baresi and how long he has continued. If Paul keeps himself fit and wants it enough he can play to 36. He could play at the back quite easily."

There was never any chance that Gascoigne would be selected. The value of his role as squad comedian is probably not appreciated by Hoddle, given the manner of their France 98 parting. It will require rediscovery of the form and fitness of his mid-twenties for the Middlesbrough man to be seriously considered for the friendly against France.

Despite some evidence to the contrary, Hoddle remains convinced that England possess the in-depth quality to qualify. That claim, he says, has been authenticated by no less than Germany's former coach Bertie Vogts. "He's been telling me what a good bunch of youngsters he's thinks we have in the 19 to 24 age range, from the Manchester United players through to Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand, and how we'll be healthy for the next 10 years," enthused Hoddle. "Bertie says Germany hasn't got those players coming through. There's a massive gap, and Italy have one as well."

For the moment, the England coach will make do with a convincing display and victory in three days' time. Failure would mean three victories in eight games since the start of France 98 and for that reason alone, he is unlikely to thrust too many unproven players into the fray at one opportunity. "Yes, we've had some dodgy results since the World Cup, but all teams, at club level or international, go through that," Hoddle said. "If we show character we can turn that around." He added: "I don't need to rebuild my own self-belief. It's there already. The Czech Republic are a very strong side, they are far more experienced than our squad. If we can beat them, and the world champions, then we have an important reason to go into the Polish game with a lot of confidence."