Football: History not on Hoddle's side

European Championship: Pressure increases on England coach but he can earn breathing space in Luxembourg
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The Independent Online
IT IS always a good time to play Luxembourg, historically one of Europe's most hopeless footballing nations, but, for Glenn Hoddle, Wednesday's match could not be more heaven-sent.

Saturday's dismal performance against Bulgaria at Wembley left England's prospects of reaching the European Championship finals significantly reduced and put Hoddle's position as coach even more in doubt. Had the international game subsequently rested for a month, the pressure on him would have intensified to the point where few men, or publicity-conscious football associations, could have withstood it.

Instead he has the chance to enter the qualifying programme's winter hibernation with a handsome win behind him. It may mean nothing in the great scheme of things, because every team in Group Five is likely to take maximum points from the not-so-Grand Duchy, but it will provide a veneer of achievement to a team worryingly short of confidence.

Even so, after taking one point from six England are now up against it.

In qualifying for the 1998 World Cup - the only campaign conducted on the same basis as this one - not one of the 18 teams which finished first or second in their groups, the minimum requirement for qualifying, dropped more than three points in their opening two games.

Even Hoddle has now starting talking of coming second, and attempting to qualify through a play-off, as a viable option. He also declined the invitation to repeat the assertion he made after the home defeat to Italy in the World Cup campaign that he still believed England would qualify. Instead he settled for saying England were "still capable" of qualifying.

With 18 points still to play for that is obvious but they can afford no more slip-ups, as Hoddle remarked, "we probably cannot afford another defeat".

At least that should not be likely on Wednesday. England, for all their problems over the years, are not in the habit of undergoing the traumatic experiences suffered by Scotland against the likes of Iran and Costa Rica, and Luxembourg, who have just two full-time professionals, remain one of the weakest European nations. From 1980 to 1994 they did not even win one game, losing 73 of 78 matches in that period. They then beat Malta and the Czech Republic but that hardly signalled a renaissance as they lost all eight World Cup qualifying ties.

All of which suggests Tony Adams, whose ankle problem has deteriorated to the extent that he will not travel, should not be missed. Jamie Redknapp, having foolishly joined Paul Ince on the suspended list, is unlikely to be on this morning's flight from Luton either but Andy Hinchcliffe (groin), Paul Merson (back), Paul Scholes (bruising) and Darren Anderton (groin and exhaustion) are likely to travel. David Beckham will come in for Redknapp, Graeme Le Saux is likely to keep his place and David Batty may return, either for Lee or Anderton.

After the Luxembourg match England's qualifying campaign has a five-month break until Poland visit on 27 March. The original plan was for the FA to renegotiate Hoddle's contract during that period but, given that any reassessment would involve a pay cut if it was performance-related, there is bound to be a wave of criticism if that intention is followed through.

Officially there is no reduction in Football Association support for Hoddle but those on the International Committee who have doubts will have had them hardened while those against him will have further ammunition. It is one thing to involve the FA in various brouhahas about books and faith healers but losing matches is another matter entirely.

As well as lowering the FA's international standing it hits them in the pocket. This is not just the possible loss of ticket and merchandising sales. The FA has still to find a replacement for Green Flag as sponsors of the England team and the prospect of failing to qualify for Euro 2000 is hardly going to improve the commercial department's chances of concluding a deal.

One thing in Hoddle's favour is the lack of suitable alternatives, especially English ones. As it is inconceivable that Terry Venables would be reappointed, Roy Hodgson is regarded as the leading candidate but his record is patchy and his transfer dealings at Blackburn raise doubts about his judgement of a player.

The most likely situation is that Hoddle, assuming Luxembourg are beaten, and that he can withstand the increasingly personal media criticism, will survive the winter though the FA will be anxious to reduce the public impact of a new pay deal. The best way would be to make it dependent on qualifying.

England's chances of doing that are likely to be clarified by the summer double-header against Sweden at Wembley and Bulgaria away. That is when, unless already brought down by a March defeat to Poland, Hoddle's fate will probably be determined. Two June victories and it could be that this period will come to be viewed in the same light as Bobby Robson's difficulties a decade ago when a hapless 1988 European Championship was followed by a slow start to a heroic World Cup campaign.

However, following the dispiriting and dispirited performance on Saturday it is hard to envisage such a scenario with any confidence.