Football: Hoddle in a fantasy land

The coach is losing touch with reality
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IT WAS at the end of his umpteenth interview beneath the ramshackle Stade Josy Barthel, so late that the ground staff were turning the lights off as a hint that they were anxious to be away to their beds, while somewhere outside the last British hooligan had long been arm-locked off the streets by the Luxembourg police. After a series of cross-examinations fiercer than by any counsel in a John Grisham novel and after every attempt had been made to lance Glenn Hoddle with his own verbosity, the subject turned to Paul Gascoigne.

Hoddle appeared almost relieved that the emphasis was, at last, not on his future, his proposed salary increase or his team's shortcomings. He was variously encouraging, uplifting, almost evangelical in his outpourings. Could there still be an England future for the deified Geordie, turned dipsomaniac? "Hopefully, he'll put it right, please God," said Hoddle. "I've always said the door will be kept open for him. If we can get him back to how he was just over a year ago, he'll be back in contention. But first of all he's got to get himself right, find the path that he needs to go, and then I've got to make a judgement on him as a player."

Debate about Gascoigne returning as anything other than official team jester, with bells on his cap rather than a ball at his feet, is a red herring. Or perhaps that should be a pickled herring. It is about as in touch with reality as the turrets of those magical castles which thrust through the mist in this strange principality in which the Gothic architecture is juxtaposed with the functional symmetry of a banking centre. Yes, Gascoigne can play football for England again... just as somewhere inside one of those castles, there is a beautiful princess awaiting the arrival of her handsome prince.

Yet, as Hoddle took a deep breath for dramatic effect at what contribution a fit, temperate, and in-form Gascoigne would have made to a team that was so singularly devoid of imagination, it at least focused the mind on how bereft we are of midfield, and indeed overall, talent. Maybe, just as the Middlesbrough player, at present drying out in a clinic after too many wet weekends, has been advised by innumerable pseudo-analysts actually to recognise his problem before addressing it, it is time England football did the same.

One is loath to stand in the same back four as the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, but it is invariably the case that England expects too much of its players. The mother of the beautiful game still demands an awful lot of her sons, particularly when, as now, the collective brood is demonstrably far from world class, and also performing well below their optimum levels. Because, for all the protestations that the opposition were merely trying to avoid defeat or, on Wednesday, limiting the scale of it, the displays have been lamentable by any standard.

The Davids, Beckham and Batty, complemented each other intelligently at first - presumably in England drinking circles they call them Becks & Labatts - but the former's indifferent crossing of the ball proved as increasingly exasperating as Darren Anderton's final touch and although Paul Scholes is always willing, he has not rediscovered the verve and movement he showed during France 98.

While Alan Shearer constantly foraged for space off the ball to avoid the congestion on it, as a pair he and Michael Owen appear frequently impotent when their opponents are prepared to sit deep and you have to question whether they actually relish playing in tandem. One thing is for sure. If there is any rationale in Shearer continuing to wear the captain's armband, and that escapes most observers, he is increasingly showing signs that, far from being the saint he was once regarded, he is also certainly no ambassador.

If Shearer is an envoy he is of the type that shows an arrogance that went out with the last banana republic. He became embroiled in an unseemly spat with a journalist about whether Luxembourg were, as he put it, "so- called part-timers", seemingly alluding to this group of mostly bank workers as impostors.

Even his acceptance of the fact that the 3-0 defeat of Luxembourg was far from convincing could be interpreted as churlish, as was his alleged post-match dressing-room remarks to Hoddle - "Have you ever thought it might be you?" - when the coach queried England's performance. Shearer, who strenuously denies the claim, responded brusquely to an enquiry about his own form: "My personal form's irrelevant." Well, perhaps not. Shearer is just one of Hoddle's sacred cows that could be, if not sacrificed, at least not regarded as automatic Best of Breed. Apart from two penalties, Shearer has scored four times in nine games since that 0-0 draw in Rome which secured England's World Cup qualification.

While it is almost sacrilegious to suggest it, that list might also include Tony Adams, whose international career is surely limping to a close, Paul Ince, who is out anyway for another two games, and the goalkeeper David Seaman. Only in defence can there be general approval, and that is particularly the case with Rio Ferdinand, who in the second half on Wednesday, was deployed in a "libero" role once it became obvious that, as intrepid adventurers, Luxembourg weren't in the Livingstone mould.

A defender with a natural instinct to attack and, more pertinently, the ability to do so, is a welcome innovation in an England side, and it should encourage the coach to place on trial other young players such as Aston Villa's Gareth Barry and West Ham's Frank Lampard, who both featured in Tuesday's Under-21 victory. Normally, Hoddle is hardly a Louis Pasteur when it comes to radical experiment, but there has surely been sufficient evidence of late that he needs to refamiliarise himself with his microscope in the friendly against the Czech Republic and a further one, still to be arranged, next month.

All this could well be academic in the long term. It assumes, of course, that Hoddle remains in charge. No doubt, those who are inclined to do so - and at the last count his media supporters had ebbed to one - will assault him liberally with Shearer's disputed criticism. The drip-drip of discontent could eventually enforce his departure, but the FA's own credibility, shaky at the best of times, would suffer grievously if they relented to the pressure now. They also have the same problem as the Government has when it comes to reforming the House of Lords. First you must have a plausible alternative. Clearly, Blackburn's Roy Hodgson is the leading contender, and would certainly be my choice, but it would be foolhardy to appoint anyone when their Premiership team are far from flourishing, thereby providing potential critics with immediate ammunition.

Hoddle's players continue to back him. Well, they would, wouldn't they? Even Gareth Southgate, of whom one had suspected better than the average player's defensive drivel, now says that not only are some sections of the media reactions "disappointing", but also some sections of the England supporters as well. "We're wet and we're all pissed off" was but a mild chastisement in the desperate circumstances. Still, Hoddle denies emphatically that he has lost the support of his squad. "There hasn't been a loss of spirit, but there has been a lack of performances," he insisted. "We had to fight hard to qualify from a tough group in the World Cup. Everybody thought we weren't going to win the group and we showed a lot of character. We've now got to turn it round again. There is something a little bit missing from where we were in the summer and we'll have to put that right."

That's putting it mildly. The truth is things have gone dreadfully awry, as some of us expected from the moment he was appointed. But he is nothing if not a believer. In his own abilities, first and foremost. That could see him through an autumn and winter of discontent.