Football: Ferdinand sweeps to the fore

International football: England coach Hoddle set to take ultimate gamble on the young defender he rates so highly
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SOMEHOW GLENN HODDLE'S future as England coach seems to be irrevocably linked to the development of Rio Ferdinand. Ever since he succeeded Terry Venables it has been his profound wish that the national team play with the sweeper, just as he did at Swindon and Chelsea, and in the young West Ham defender he sees a player with just the right capability to perform that special role. Indeed, he probably sees a lot of himself in this elegant young footballer.

The time for Hoddle to take a chance with the inexperienced Ferdinand in just such a position is at hand. At the risk of another indifferent performance on the back of a disappointing start to England's European Championship campaign, I suspect that Hoddle will make this fundamental tactical change and gamble on Ferdinand as sweeper in the friendly against the Czech Republic at Wembley tonight.

Instead of just watching Tony Adams' heir apparent gain further valuable experience on the right flank of defence alongside Gareth Southgate and Sol Campbell, the 20-year-old Ferdinand, on his fifth appearance, will be deployed in the pivotal position in which Hoddle had always forecast he would eventually play. His excellent performance against Luxembourg last time out has persuaded the England coach that the time is right.

Like Hoddle, when he converted to sweeper late in his career, defending has been the weakness in Ferdinand's game - until this season. "He's still got to improve as a defender and he is improving, in the last 12 months he has come on leaps and bounds," Hoddle said.

"Not until he has played 15 games at this level will we know what his defensive deficiencies and strengths really are. What I like about him is that he's comfortable on the ball, which long term, I think, will be of a major benefit. He's got ability like a midfield player and, sometimes, in the last third like a striker. His defending was always a concern but he's got time ahead of him and that's the beauty of Rio."

It is also the beauty of a young player, who sounds as if he was schooled on the beaches of Copacabana instead of the back streets of Peckham, that he is a sweeper with conviction, unlike Adams, who, as his coach is only too aware, is a committed 4-4-2 man. It is essential that whoever plays in the role believes in it, as Hoddle discovered when he asked the reluctant Jamie Redknapp to fulfil the function in a B international against Austria last season and as a result England were duly taken apart.

Ferdinand was not always a believer. In fact, at first, he did not even see himself as a defender. "It was the last game of my school season, against Charlton, I think, and we didn't have enough defenders, so they put me in there," he said. "The next year in a pre-season reserve game for West Ham I was in defence against St Albans and I have played there ever since. It was put on me and I didn't enjoy it at first, but it grew on me and now I love it."

Probably not since the days of Alan Hansen have we seen an English league player stride out of defence with such composure and assurance. There are a few defenders around capable of making these upfield excursions, but precious few know what to do with the ball when they get there. Performed properly it is one of the finest sights in football, as anyone whoever saw Franz Beckenbauer sally forth would agree.

"When you create an extra body in midfield the opposition look around as if to say, 'where's he come from' and if other players are being marked there's not usually a spare person to mark you, so it creates problems for other teams," Ferdinand said. "But you've got to choose the right time to go, someone has got to sit in for you."

If Ferdinand has a weakness other than his improving defensive one, it is that this fairly introverted individual is not a good talker on the field. But though quiet and unassuming, he is a determined young man and he is confident that he can improve that aspect of his game.

"Talking an organisation are things I need to improve," he said. "If you're playing in the centre, you've got to be a good talker or lead by example. I'd like to be able to do both. Tony Adams is a fine example and Alvin Martin, when I first went to West Ham, was brilliant at it."

But he knows he can learn most from his mentor, Hoddle. "He understands the game, every part of it, from the strikers to the goalkeepers," Ferdinand said, "and having played sweeper he can give me pointers on that. I'm not at that stage where I can pick and choose where I play, but if selected, I know I've got a chance to stake a claim to be in the first XI on a regular basis."