Football: Hoddle bothered and bewildering

European Championship: How long can England's coach resist the intravenous drip of league football?
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The Independent Online
GLENN HODDLE returned to his day job last week, picking his squad for the European Championship qualifier in Sweden on Saturday. He could have written the names down on a jotter between signing copies of his World Cup Diary so straight-forward was the task, but the England coach would be forgiven for looking at the week ahead with a hint of trepidation not entirely linked to the impressive recent record of his opponents in Gothenburg.

No sooner has the furore of his own ill-judged revelations of the World Cup disappeared from the headlines than others emerge to haunt him. The serialisation of the autobiography of Tony Adams began in a tabloid yesterday and it is an open secret that Hoddle's style of management and tactical expertise are subject to some hefty criticism from his former captain. In the good old days, the Football Association censor would be sharpening his pen, but no one at Lancaster Gate would dare to slap down a disrepute charge in the wake of Hoddle's own book, which was ghosted by David Davies, head of media relations at the FA, and included the unabridged version of Paul Gascoigne's tantrums. Presumably, if Adams betrays confidences in the same way he will receive the same castigation from the press as his coach, given that he will be playing a vital part in the European Championship campaign for as long as his injured ankle holds out.

Announcing the squad last week, Hoddle wisely played down the potential clash with his number one defender, particularly over defensive formations. Adams, a student of the George Graham School of Line Dancing, is a confirmed 4-4-2 man; Hoddle prefers the attacking flexibility of the three-man defence, a system he has used consistently since the start of his coaching career at Swindon and throughout the World Cup. It is a game of opinions, he said, and Adams is entitled to his. "He said exactly the opposite when Arsene Wenger came to Arsenal," Hoddle added. "He had played in a back three for two seasons and found it hard to adapt to a back four again." Leaving no one in the room in any doubt which opinion really counted.

One of the least satisfactory aspects of the World Cup campaign was that it shed only pale shafts of light on the private world of Glenn Hoddle. Surely, the theory went, the real Hod would emerge from the summer conflict, one way or another. England would win or lose, Hoddle would be praised or pilloried, crowned with halo or turnip, anointed genius or crank. Instead, a softer target was found for defeat and Hoddle escaped into the shadows once more, leaving Michael Owen to the glory and David Beckham to the hangman's noose.

The press corps remain divided, frustrated at being denied access to the inner sanctum - which is why, presumably, Hoddle entrusted the writing of his diary to a trusted press aide not a journalist - yet aware that Hoddle's record does not warrant a full-scale attack. Even the decision to discard Gascoigne, widely condemned at the time, proved to be correct. England's brief emergence as a young team of attacking flair coincided with the departure of their ageing talisman and Hoddle has not been accorded enough credit for his part in the downfall.

Nor could any critic pinpoint with a degree of accuracy the exact nature of Hoddle's tactical deficiencies in France. Perhaps Adams will mark our card this week. But to suggest that Owen might have made the difference against Romania had he been picked from the start is arrant nonsense. No one could legislate for the sort of defensive incompetence which gifted Romania two goals or the petulant moment which cost England the chance of victory, no more than that, over Argentina.

Hoddle proved himself a more astute judge of contemporary football than Berti Vogts, Cesare Maldini and Javier Clemente, to name but three wise old international heads found wanting in France. Those who find Hoddle's arrogance irritating forget that, Sir Matt Busby apart, humility has rarely been a shining quality in the characters of successful football managers. A gift for putting people's backs up, Alex Ferguson's not least, is a more worrying fault.

For Hoddle, the case for the defence starts now. And it needs to be eloquent. Though he brushed off the expectations foisted on an England side boasting one of the most formidable striking partnerships in world football, one of the most gifted young players in Owen and in Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Sol Campbell and the Neville brothers an enviable scaffolding for scaling future heights, Hoddle will know that forgiveness for the World Cup will be complete only if the progress shown in the summer is continued through to the European Championships in Holland and Belgium two years on. It is an enticing prospect for him. One of the perks of his job, Hoddle says, is that he works with the best.

The question left unanswered last week was whether Hoddle would still be in charge by the turn of the Millennium. He refused to answer queries about his future; talks are continuing over an extension to his two-year contract, but the thought of rescuing Tottenham, his old club, from Gross excess would appeal to the man's vanity as much as his loyalty. Matching tactical master plans with Ruud Gullit, his old ally at Chelsea, might prove too much of a temptation. Hoddle would not be the first international coach to feel the need for the intravenous drip of league football once again, particularly as a glance down the road reveals visions of an extravagant European Super League and a crop of home-produced talent stifled by cheap foreign imports.

In the meantime, Hoddle has to face the most difficult tie in his qualifying group against a team who, just four years ago, were semi- finalists in the World Cup. His appearance in front of the press last week did not suggest any mid- summer makeover as far as his deadpan image was concerned. Like Conservative policy on Europe, nothing was ruled in and nothing was ruled out. If this is the side of Hoddle the players get - and there is not much evidence to the contrary - it is no wonder a sense of bewilderment still tinges their lingering respect. No less than the scribes, the players find their coach enigmatic, a tough task master, hard to fathom. If they were allowed to be honest about it, most would regard the excessive reliance on the healing hands of Eileen Drewery as a source of hilarity. But Hoddle, as in most areas of his life, is deadly serious.

Only the occasional glimpse of a different Hoddle penetrates the public front. I happened to take my nine-year-old son to the press conference on Thursday. Naturally, he wanted an autograph. What he got was not the usual quick signature and away, but a personalised inscription, a handshake and a chat. The charm was instant and unforced, revealing a character at odds with the strained figure twisting his papers and picking his words so cautiously under interrogation a few minutes before. The England coach now has one more confirmed fan. If England win, we will all become believers; if we lose, Hoddle will need all the friends he can get.

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