Football: Hoddle has edge on the long knives

Beckham and Ferdinand epitomise England's new-found positive attitude to transform negative mood; The national coach proves he will not take decisions merely to court popularity. By Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online
IN THE last week, Glenn Hoddle must have known how the victim felt before the knives were plunged into his slumbering body in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, the one where his enemies collectively committed the dastardly act. What with Andy flouncing around as though his surname is not Cole, but Pandy; John Gregory exasperated by the treatment of Gareth Southgate; Matthew Le Tissier still bridling at his international exile and Alex Ferguson unhappy with the handling of Cole and David Beckham. Oh yes, and about 90 per cent of the media gleefully awaiting his downfall. With "culprit" tatooed on Hoddle's forehead, the only surprise is that the police hadn't fitted him up for a few unsolved crimes as well.

The trouble was that England, or to be strictly accurate Hod's salvation army reserves, went and ruined it all by eclipsing a team who had been an ominous threat. Those about to strike the fatal blow were caught in mid-flourish, and hastily re-sheathed their weapons and until France visit in February it's peace on earth and goodwill towards all men.

Some hope of that, as Hoddle will know, but at least the jungle drums of disharmony have stopped beating so frenetically for the present.

Was it inspired tactical thinking that brought its reward? Or maybe the Leonid meteor storm. Remember The Day of the Triffids when such a shower caused almost universal blindness? This one on Tuesday night appeared to invest in his squad the desire to see their coach survive winter hibernation like a well-fed squirrel rather than a harried stag in danger of being run to ground. Or to put it another way, Hoddle got to Czech mate because his pawns actually moved around the board rather more purposefully than some of the absent knights had done in Euro 2000 qualifiers.

True, the context must not be overstated. There is "friendly", and there is being best mates and this was the latter, with the Czech Republic, for all their technical refinement and devastating acceleration, frequently throwing caution to the chill night. You cannot imagine Poland or Sweden next year being so thoughtful.

Why, even David Beckham managed to get through the 2-0 victory without throwing the jelly off his plate. The observation may be heretical, but the player who alternates peaks and piques so exasperatingly, has still to convince that he possesses the maturity to influence a game from central midfield as he does for his club with those howitzers from the right flank. His passing displayed occasional mastery of the art, though he is still far from being a Hoddle in his vision or range. In the second half, particularly, the Czechs obligingly offered him more opportunities than a Prague call-girl to enjoy himself and leave a lasting impression on the game, but on too many occasions - five to be precise - impetuosity got the better of him and sorry was the end result rather than glory. Still, better a Pot-shot Boy than a Spite Boy, and he remains the best by far England possess as a playmaker, even though Hoddle, noticeably reluctant to heap distinction prematurely on his dyed golden locks, believes it may be his late twenties before he realises his full potential.

All the evidence is that considerably before then, Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand will be, like legs of a North Sea oil platform, an established part of England's foundation, perhaps along with the remarkable Lee Hendrie, who flourished in his 15 minutes of fame, but will certainly return to the international stage and achieve true celebrity. The communication between Campbell and Ferdinand and Martin Keown, a thoroughly dependable replacement for Gareth Southgate, was exemplary, if one ignores the first 20 minutes when the Czechs were rampant. Even if Tony Adams recovers from his long-standing injury problems, Hoddle appears unlikely to dismantle that tenacious threesome, albeit with Southgate first choice.

There was little doubt Beckham's enterprise was aided by those newly introduced running mates Dion Dublin and Ian Wright, even though the Villa striker's versatility in tackling back and foraging suggested at times that he thought he'd actually been handed a libero role. Unless Alan Shearer is in devastating form when the time comes it is not inconceivable that Hoddle will place Dublin and Owen in tandem for the France friendly in February, or perhaps even a Dublin-Wright pairing, with Paul Merson, another success, penetrating from a deeper position. Whatever their fate, this was a saga of belated adventure for that trio, even though ageist critics might contend that it will soon be time for them to start making bookings through Saga. What will have impressed Hoddle was their joie de vivre and positive attitude, qualities not evident among all personnel against Sweden and Bulgaria. The coach lavished praise on Dublin for his intelligence, awareness and all-round ability, almost in inverse proportion to the encouragement extended to Cole when explaining his non-selection.

His rejection of Cole has emphasised that, just like his discarding of Gascoigne, and his refusal to absolve Chris Sutton of his sins, he will not take decisions merely to court popularity. The Old Trafford striker's absurdly petulant response to the FA - one in which he has surely been poorly advised and which, if it can be believed, was more concerned with his commercial value than dented pride - has served merely to vindicate the coach's stance.

Hoddle, having had numerous opportunities to evaluate him, believes Cole's ratio of goals scored to chances is insufficient. Presumably his judgement is based not just on Premiership games but, more pertinently, Europe. Whatever the merit of that opinion, that should be the end of the matter. Cole is far from being the first player who is convinced he has played, and talked, his way into an England squad, only to be cold- shouldered, and his response brings to mind that advertisement for Reebok which suggested he could have ended up working in a fish and chip shop if not for buying their boots. Somehow a chip has remained on the shoulder.

Whatever happened to dignity in football's vocabulary? The view of some commentators has been to suggest that in today's supposedly compassionate society, Hoddle should have talked it all through like some grief counsellor. Yet the coach, for all his Christian values, could never be considered an arm around the shoulder, touchy-feely character. Not in football terms, anyway.

He possesses a detachment, a single-mindedness, and an arrogance born of a superlative football brain, which are not necessarily likeable traits, but which will either support him on his European Championship mission or become the weapons of his destruction. Hoddle has made errors, in team selection, and his motivation and management - and undoubtedly over that World Cup diary.

But it was a mere seven years ago that he was appointed a rookie manager of Swindon and he still has much to learn, as he would probably privately confess. But his strength is in not acceding to outside pressures and until the fateful day arrives when the post from Lancaster Gate arrives with a "Thanks for everything, Glenn" he will continue to put his trust in God and results. Not in popular approval.