Football: Folly of Hoddle's muddled thinking

England's leadership: The national coach's indecision makes a mockery of optimism possible a few months ago
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LAST autumn, when Manchester United demolished Juventus in the first leg of their Champions' League tie at Old Trafford, it seemed reasonable to believe not only that United could revisit the glory of their European past but that this brashly gifted young team could provide for England the foundation of a serious World Cup challenge.

Juventus were a classy side, experienced, with outstanding players - Del Piero, Zidane, Deschamps, Di Livio. Yet even with the distinct advantage of an early goal, Marcello Lippi's team could not live with United over the 90 minutes. Even a sceptic about the English game, impervious to Sky's Premiership hype, could not fail to be impressed.

It seemed to me that night that a turning point had been reached. For United, and England. United prevailed by virtue of a classic English compound of skill, aggression and willpower, commonly known as guts. And most of the heroes were English.

David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Teddy Sheringham, Andy Cole, Paul Scholes: convinced of their own ability; arrogantly dismissive of their opponents in the end; the ideal blend of youth and experience. This, one imagined, was how the legendary Busby Babes had been at their glorious best. How fortunate for Glenn Hoddle that so many of them were English.

That thought recurred when United travelled to Stamford Bridge in January to play Chelsea in the FA Cup. Like Juventus, Chelsea possessed a galaxy of foreign stars: Zola, Di Matteo, Vialli, Leboeuf, Petrescu. Like Juventus, the foreigners were blown away by a startling exhibition of controlled aggression. After taking a 5-0 lead United took their foot off the pedal. Something definitive had, however, been established about the difference between the new English footballer and his mercenary European counterpart.

When on reflection on those two United performances, the English identity and character of the assassins (Phil Neville, playing in midfield, scored the opening goal at The Bridge) and considered that Glenn Hoddle could supplement to the cause players such as Alan Shearer, David Seaman, Tony Adams, Robbie Fowler, David Batty, Paul Ince and Ian Wright, it did not require a leap of the imagination to see England mounting a real challenge at this summer's festival of football in France.

Against the background outlined above, Paul Gascoigne is an irrelevance. Ageing, injury-prone, a seriously unfit curiosity, managing - just about - to get by in the Scottish Premier League. Gazza would hardly have lasted 20 minutes in either of the aforementioned two games. He was yesterday, Euro '96, and there, in truth, only briefly. Yet, astonishingly, Gazza the talisman has remained an English obsession. England's World Cup fate was dependent, in the eyes of many who should know better, on some metamorphosis that would transform the slob into a World Cup athlete.

The England coach appears to have believed in the Gazza myth as enthusiastically as anybody. Without Gazza England would lack a creative dimension, it was claimed. Hoddle tacitly consented to this nonsense. And nonsense it is. When Manchester United thrashed Juventus, and even more severely Chelsea, was there any discernible absence of creativity? Answer that question correctly...and you begin to understand the folly of so much that passes for critical analysis of the English game; so much of which appears to permeate the thinking also, sadly, of Glenn Hoddle.

Flagellation is universally known as the English vice; in football-related matters this vice is taken to extremes. Understood and harnessed, the natural English virtues deployed by Manchester United against Juventus and Chelsea are priceless. Power, aggression, the wit of Beckham and Scholes allied to the relentless preying of Cole and Butt, Sheringham's elusive precision, the unshakeable composure of the Neville brothers - such qualities are, when blended, unique to the English.

Discovering its true identity and celebrating it is a task that has proved beyond English football men. Significantly, it was Sir Alf Ramsey who last accomplished the relatively simple task of casting the English footballer in his proper role. With apologies to none, especially his domestic critics, Ramsey won the World Cup.

Ramsey was a practical football man, to whom Alex Ferguson, the United manager, bears more than passing resemblance, who would have loved, and nurtured, the attitude of United's brash young men. Ramsey would have spotted what Hoddle appears to have missed: the virtue of Englishness...and the pointlessness of persisting with Gazza.

But then Ramsey was a man. Hoddle is merely a prefect: tolerant, reasonable, presentable, ruling nothing in - or out - not even the possibility that a faith healer can make a difference. Which is, basically, a load of bollocks.

Hoddle the player was an enigma. Hoddle the coach is similarly obtuse, never more so than in recent weeks when his indecision has made a mockery of the optimism about England's chances that was possible a few months ago.

Hoddle clearly believed in Gazza; in that he may not be alone. But surely only he can believe that England can travel to France with one left-sided player, two full-backs, without Nicky Butt and Phil Neville, and hope to survive international football's ultimate test. Asked at the Gazza press conference who might cover at left-back should Graeme Le Saux be injured (or more likely suspended), Hoddle mumbled something about Darren Anderton filling in at left-wing back. That was truly sensational news. Phil Neville was back in Manchester by then...and England's World Cup destiny clearly outlined.

England have played two really serious matches since Hoddle took charge: Italy home and away in World Cup qualifiers. The loss at Wembley was redeemed by the draw in Rome, achieved, it must be said, against a nervously impotent Italian side. What awaits in France is a challenge of a different order. For Glenn Hoddle, the moment of truth has arrived. It is his convictions, whatever they are, that are about to be put to the test. Defeat, especially if it is abject, will doubtless raise a tabloid storm directed mainly, one suspects, at the players. Folly compounded by folly. For this buck should properly stop with Hoddle, The Tinkerer.

Hankering after players he does not possess in order to execute a system - 3-5-2 - that is wrong for the men at his disposal. Preferring Anderton to Phil Neville or Nigel Winterburn, opting for shadow in place of substance.

So recently experimenting with Steve McManaman at right-wing back and, more bizarrely, Jamie Redknapp as sweeper, Hoddle the coach reminds one of nothing so much as Hoddle the player: a man convinced of his own virtue but sadly vulnerable to robust reality. In France, as once at Anfield, there will be no protection for the prefect. In football, hard men rule.