Football: Hoddle limited by lack of world-class players

IN THEIR eagerness to spell out, appraise and amplify the performances of England's national football team many critics reach the erroneous conclusion that responsibility rests entirely with the manager.

Glenn Hoddle has brought much upon himself. But anyone of a sympathetic turn is bound to feel that the biliousness with which he is now regarded in popular prints indicates not only ignorance of history but the difficulties imposed by a dearth of talent in English football.

Sometimes you get the impression that people choose to forget, or suppress, the failures that preceded England's victory in the 1966 World Cup final (achieved in their homeland and with the advantage of playing every match at Wembley) and the fact that they have made only one other appearance in the semi-finals (1990).

Since England also have nothing but one semi-final place to show for endeavours in the European Championship, their record hardly justifies the status of a great and powerful football nation, the quite ludicrous expectation that has burdened every England manager.

One of the calmer opinions put forward in the rush of comment that resulted from England's tepid draw against Bulgaria last week at Wembley was that international performance in sport is best considered in a cyclical context. It has merit but does not account for arrogant falsification of England's standing in world football.

Another, less acceptable point of view, is that Hoddle has presided over a decline from potential winners of the recent World Cup to laughing stocks as the outcome of losing one match and drawing another.

Of course, the spectacle of vultures circling over an England manager is nothing new, but now there is the absurdity of referendum. It is too early in Hoddle's stewardship to know whether public opinion will bring him down, but to suppose that one of the Sun newspaper's hasty surveys should influence his employers is ridiculous.

To my mind, it would make a lot more sense if some attention was given to technical shortcomings that leave Hoddle with less scope for selection than any of his predecessors.

Towards the end of Alf Ramsey's momentous reign, Brian Clough argued that no sympathy could be held out for the England manager if he was incapable of producing a consistently successful team from a pool of more than 2,000 players at work in the Football League.

It was a typically glib and probably mischievous assertion which ignored, among other issues, the presence of player from the other home countries, the Republic of Ireland and others from outside these islands who had begun to infiltrate the game in England. By my reckoning, 35 genuine contenders survived. "Three more than I make it," I remember Ramsey saying.

The morning after England were eliminated from the 1988 European Championship finals, Bobby Robson was asked if there were any players he regretted leaving behind. "Not one," he said.

Assessments of the talent available to England are all too often motivated by wild assumptions and television propaganda. If the implication in Robson's statement 10 years ago was that fewer than 22 English players came up to international standard he was better off than Hoddle.

The truth, and a hard truth for people to accept, is that nobody in Hoddle's squad fully meets the requirements of world class.

Ludicrous hyperbole makes a superstar of Michael Owen before he has properly learned the game. Alan Shearer's power needs to be set against his technical shortcomings. David Beckham has ability to burn but lacks the incisiveness that a healthy Paul Gascoigne brought to England's midfield.

Despite advances in preparation nothing much changes in football. It is fashionable these days to dwell on formations, tactics and powers of motivation. But it still comes down to the effort players are prepared to put in, their ability and imagination.

Sports pages and supporters, as a rule, give England football managers too much credit and therefore too much blame. The point it seems here, is that more attention should be given to the available personnel.