Football: For Hodd's sake, give it to the Invisible Man

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The Independent Online
IT IS five years ago, almost to the day, since I discussed the feasibility of the England football team being managed from a cell in Wormwood Scrubs and reached the conclusion that not only could it be done but that it would be a very good idea. Now I'm ready to advance the further theory that for the sake of English football's sanity the next coach of the national team should not only operate from behind closed doors but should be completely anonymous.

The Wormwood Scrubs idea came in January 1995 when the combined brain- power of the Football Association was pondering over a replacement for Graham Taylor. After much confused dithering they decided on Terry Venables but hurriedly cancelled the announcement when fresh allegations about Venables' business affairs were aired on television.

Ever helpful, I suggested that, even if an England manager was convicted of being a serial murderer, incarceration in the Scrubs need not be detrimental to the proper execution of his duties. There are cells in that particular west London prison that overlook football pitches and with a good megaphone he could conduct training sessions from his window and save a fortune on Bisham Abbey.

When England played he could watch the game on television and relay instructions to his assistants on the bench by mobile phone. In the unlikely event that the prison governor banned the use of a mobile, it wouldn't take a minute to tap out a message such as "Get Gazza off" on the pipes in his cell.

Outweighing these slight inconveniences would be the considerable advantage that the Press wouldn't be able to get to him and, more importantly, neither would the FA's International Committee. He could concentrate his mind totally without any of the pressures that had doomed his predecessors.

None of this fanciful brilliance was intended to belittle the overwhelming claims of Venables, among whose admirers I am happy to be numbered, but to poke a little gentle fun at the clanking machinery that can be heard through the land whenever the FA are thinking about an important decision.

In the end, they subdued their fears about his suitability and thus began a period under Venables' confident control when England's prospects looked promisingly bright. Unfortunately, there lingered a reluctance among one or two FA committee men to embrace him warmly and their fears about his complicated business affairs caused them to hesitate over offering a new contract that would have taken him to last year's World Cup. He took umbrage and upped and went.

A lot of karma has gone under the bridge since then but he remains the best equipped to do the job. The calamities he was supposed to be facing have not materialised and we have clear evidence from his previous stint that he possesses the mental strength and ability required to ride the pressures of producing an England team capable of reaching their full potential. This still may leave them short of the very top but at least the nation deserves a trip to the terminus every now and then.

For Venables to be appointed, some members of the FA would have to swallow their pride. Considering the amount of pride likely to be left in Lancaster Gate after the recent follies, it wouldn't require a big gulp, but their pomposity is usually final. It would be a comfort if they could be persuaded to approach their task realistically but they still give the impression that they are judging a beauty contest instead of picking someone tough enough to tackle the game's most merciless mission.

They may be regretting the absence of the departed chief executive, Graham Kelly, who would have brought a touch of stability to the moment. As it is, there's so much jockeying for position at the FA it resembles the start of the Grand National and their ability to make a wise decision is to be doubted. Although inevitable, the manner of Glenn Hoddle's going hasn't helped. Usually only half the nation is transfixed by the ritual changing of the England coach. Now, every man, woman and child from the Prime Minister down is agog with rampant curiosity.

Whoever it is faces unbearable scrutiny and, if they spurn the indestructible Venables, there is no other way to protect their choice than to keep him a secret. We did it with the head of MI5 and he was far more important. And the Cabinet seem not to suffer from the fact that half of them are faceless. There's strength in being incognito; in not having to face the penetrative glares of the Press and the public. The players, being simple souls, would respond to the mystery of wondering who was controlling them. And if they didn't know if he was in the stand watching them play for their clubs they'd have to try in every game just in case.

The team would be picked just the same and the players would get their instructions via the assistant coaches. Half-time bollockings could be relayed by Tannoy into the dressing-rooms and the coach could appear at the post-match Press conference as a blanked out silhouette on the screen with an electronically altered voice and a deaf ear for daft questions.

What about the inevitable slump? Who would we throw our turnip jibes at? George Orwell thought of that in 1984. Every day we could all have a two-minute hate session but instead of the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, flashing on to the screen, we'd get the shadowy form of the England coach upon whom to pile our anger. We'd feel better, he could take the missus out to dinner as if nothing had happened and, slowly, the nation could learn to live with our inadequacies.

THERE was little comfort for Juan Antonio Samaranch in Lausanne last week. The International Olympic Committee president had his drugs policy smashed and he failed to persuade his own members to accept his suggestion that the venues for future Games should be chosen by a 15- man selection committee instead of the full quota of 115.

Even those IOC members who don't wallow in the gravy were dismayed at the prospect of losing their influential status and a chance to see the world at someone else's expenses. There remains only one way for the IOC to purge its sins and ensure that the flag of the five rings flies over the purest of intentions and that is to settle on a permanent site where the Olympic ideal can be truly fostered. When I reiterated my long-time support for this idea two weeks ago I received a number of calls from Greece which is no surprise since I plumped for the Games to be housed forever at Ancient Olympia which is three hours drive from Athens.

The birthplace of the Games already has an international Olympic academy and has all the potential to become the living hub of the sporting world. A former Greek Minister of Sport, Fanny Palli-Petralia, telephoned to say that the idea was put forward by the Prime Minister of Greece, the late Constantinos Karamanlis, following the Munich massacre in 1972 and revived by her in 1991 when she submitted to the European Union a detailed plan to instal a European Capital of Sports at Olympia.

Both suggestions were rejected but, now that the 2004 Games are returning to Athens for the first time since the modern Olympics began there 100 years ago, the IOC should seriously consider allowing the event to remain home for ever. Nowhere else can it recover its true meaning.

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