Football: Hoddle clears smokescreen

After the faith healing, the Gazza cloud and the Shearer storm, England's coach gets down to real business; Ian Ridley contends there are still places up for grabs as France 98 beckons
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ENGLAND'S preparations for the World Cup move into their finals phase tomorrow when the provisional squad of 30 assemble for a two-week trial of talent, temperament and tactics that will determine the form and fitness of the nation's potential challenge at France 98.

Following matches against Saudi Arabia at Wembley on Saturday, then Tunisia and Belgium in Casablanca the following week, Glenn Hoddle must decide on his 22 by 2 June. After all the ballyhoo in recent weeks surrounding such footballing fripperies as faith healers and fags, as well as a furore over flying boots, it will doubtless be a relief for the England coach finally to focus on the real business now that they become "his" players.

So far there are two ways of viewing Hoddle's stewardship of England. The generous is that he has been open-minded, innovative, forgiving to players when needs be, as with Paul Gascoigne's wife-beating episode. At other times, his detractors say, he has been tough and small-minded, not to say inconsistent, in the cases of Rio Ferdinand, dropped after a drink-driving ban, and the banished Chris Sutton, who did not want to play for an England B team.

Then there is the inconsistency of selection. Andy Cole does not make it into the 30 announced last week but Les Ferdinand, back playing only lately, does. Similarly, Darren Anderton has re-emerged but Matthew Le Tissier, who outshone him in scoring a hat-trick against Russia B last month, is omitted. "What B good was that then?" Sutton might also be musing. The fact is that Ferdinand and Anderton are proven quality at the highest level.

The fact is, too, that like most coaches, Hoddle is a pragmatic operator who treats people differently because, well, they differ - not only in personality but in value to him and his plans. So, too, seemingly similar situations. Gascoigne is always a remorseful character; Sutton has shown none. Gazza may learn his lessons best inside the fold; the young Ferdinand perhaps needed a short, sharp shock outside it.

Privately, one suspects, Hoddle disapproves of Gascoigne's smoking habit, not on moral grounds, but because it undermines the fitness work the coach is trying to do with the squad. And Gascoigne, unlike Paul Ince who is also a smoker, is one in the party who can least afford to concede any fitness advantage.

Publicly, however, he is probably unwilling to damage further Gascoigne's fragile psyche, and the public argument also holds good in the Shearer incident, where fragility is not an issue. Hoddle's public backing of his captain is probably good for squad morale. It is not to say it is good for the game, however.

The indecent haste with which Hoddle's employers at the FA last week initially arrived at the creative verdict of "not proven" against Shearer following the kicking incident with Neil Lennon mirrors an apparently expedient approach around Lancaster Gate. Though, politically, the FA may believe this to be an incorrect time to criticise them or Hoddle, the governing body and he cannot expect or deserve such indulgence indefinitely. Sooner or later, the issue will be about honesty and fair play and hang the jingoism, or accusations of lack of patriotism.

The coming week will be more important to Hoddle as he sets about improving the fitness levels of the players by the "15 to 20 per cent" the team doctors tell him is possible through diet and training methods. Another huge issue for him, one that will be a theme of his week, is the outlawing of the tackle from behind which threatens to change the course and outcome of many games in France. The FA Cup final referee Paul Durkin, also England's representative at the finals, will work with the squad at Bisham Abbey to point out what is and is not legal. Then, when England return from Morocco, Dermot Gallagher will take over Durkin's role.

"We have already done some work to make us more patient in our defending but Martin Keown, Tony Adams, people like this, will try and nick the ball. It's human nature," says Hoddle. "I think the Germans will also have some trouble because they play with a deeper sweeper as insurance and they like to try to nick balls in front. You have only got to mistime that and you can have a red card.

"It's asking a lot for people to reshape their game. You also have to look at which area of the pitch you make that tackle." What will help, Hoddle believes, is being able to watch the early games to take the disciplinary temperature of the tournament, since England do not kick off against Tunisia until 17 June, five days after the opening match.

"We should see a benefit for attacking players but there could be some injustices. It depends on some referees," Hoddle says. "The experienced ones might be a bit lenient or the younger ones might stick to the letter of the law. What we don't want is a game like basketball with no contact or games that are nine v nine or eight v ten."

At the other end, Hoddle has no concerns that Shearer's muscular approach might be negated. "Alan's a clever player," says Hoddle. "He knows what he can get away with in the Premiership and in Europe. He's less physical in internationals because he knows the game. Players like Gascoigne, Ince, Adams, Shearer and Sheringham have enough experience to know the game will be refereed differently."

Such considerations of experience and intelligence will clearly be influences when it comes to Hoddle cutting eight from the present squad. Initially, though, fitness will decide, with Jamie Redknapp in particular a doubt. In addition, Tim Flowers, Gascoigne, Anderton, Ferdinand and Ian Wright will come under scrutiny having only lately begun playing again. All can expect to appear against Saudi Arabia, a match Hoddle describes as "a balancing act".

Hoddle wants to retain as much of the basis of the team - David Seaman, Adams, Ince and Shearer - as possible and mix and match with players in need of playing time. "I want some experience and I want the spine in there if I can, then possibly give some players that extra 90 minutes they need if they are going to make it into the 22."

Experiments are over, however, for a game he insists he was happy to take though the Saudis do not immediately resemble any of England's group opponents in Tunisia, Romania and Colombia. "Normally we focus on the opponents but this one will be totally on how we perform," he says. "We will look at the shape of our team. They are a pretty open side and have got good pace. They don't have the team awareness and don't quite understand how to win the ball back, though. They are similar perhaps to Tunisia."

Hoddle is unsure yet whether to field the 11 who will play in Marseilles over the next two weeks. "I've got an idea of how I want to start against Tunisia but there are certain things I need to know to cover ourselves further. That's what we will be doing over the next three games."

He is clearly certain about the nucleus of his team but otherwise, the old horses-for-courses rule will dictate. "I'm not going into the tournament with an 11 in my mind," he says. "I think we have got a strong enough squad to do that." Thus it is likely that all the players in this 30 on the cusp of finals selection will appear in the next fortnight as Hoddle sifts all the permutations.

This is a squad with flexibility: David Beckham able to move infield if Gascoigne is unfit, for example; Anderton able to play in a variety of positions. So, too, Gary Neville as full-back or central defender. Dion Dublin's value as both striker and defender may be viewed, too.

The main area of doubt for Hoddle will be in midfield with so many candidates vying for so few positions. Anderton, Paul Merson or Steve McManaman? Two or all of them? David Batty, Robert Lee and/or Nicky Butt? In the end, Hoddle is likely to go with the versatile.

The hunch here is that there are still more places up for selection than might be thought; perhaps as many as seven. That will be the real business of the next three weeks but then, this being a build-up to a World Cup, we may not be finished with fripperies, furores and incidentals just yet.