Football: Hoddle's credibility cracked by fault lines

Nick Townsend says the manner of defeat has raised fundamental worries
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The Independent Online
THE BORN-AGAIN abstainer who once enjoyed merely being a disciple of George Graham now speaks with the evangelical fervour of a Billy Graham. At the launch of his book Addicted last week, Tony Adams liberally embroidered his exchanges with the media with such psycho-phrases as "getting rid of the wreckage of my past" and "a cleansing process".

God forbid that anyone should experience the kind of degradation that the England centre-back has, but after drying out, he's come out with such missionary zeal, you couldn't be blamed for switching off the lights and pretending to be out if he came knocking.

Yet, having emerged from his literary confessional box, the Arsenal captain has been particularly reticent about one subject. Despite every inducement, he refused to dive in and deliver a rash challenge to criticism over his most recent England performance. He was, in every sense, in denial. "I'm not going to be impulsive. I'm still a bit raw and a little bit sad. I've not seen the game again on TV yet," he maintained, before issuing a quiet addendum, "You never know, I might have played well..."

It was presumably said in a self-deprecating way, because self-delusion has never been the Adams way. A player who once heard so many "Eeyores" he must have thought he'd signed for Bray Wanderers, but who has since quelled such derision with more than 50 performances for his country of stature, courage and perception, has always been permitted the occasional lapse.

But before England face Bulgaria at Wembley in 27 days' time - when victory is all the more pressing following the opening defeat in their Euro 2000 qualification campaign - Glenn Hoddle must decide whether to persevere with a 3-5-2 system which leaves Adams so susceptible and which the player concedes he still finds an alien concept. Or does Hoddle revert to 4-4- 2, thereby providing a comfort zone for Adams? Even if Hoddle jettisons his natural instincts, is this the time, anyway, to look towards deploying the more versatile yet inexperienced Rio Ferdinand - an "excellent" successor in Adams' own view - alongside Sol Campbell, one of the few who can be satisfied with his display in Stockholm?

It may be unpalatable to many, but it is pertinent to ask whether the talismanic Adams, 32 on the day of that Bulgaria game, and already discussing retirement in more than vague terms because of a chronic ankle injury, is not due an honourable discharge from international service?

When Adams and his team-mates replayed the tape of events at the Rasunda Stadium, it was to be hoped that the censor's scissors had deleted offending material, because this was as much a cushion-in-front-of-the-eyes job as when Graham Taylor turned turnip there in 1992. Only the reputations of Alan Shearer, Campbell and, initially, the returning Jamie Redknapp were enhanced in a side in which the fissures turned to full-scale fault- lines, from David Seaman onwards, as the game progressed.

The absence of David Beckham and Paul Ince leaves Hoddle hard at work with needle and thread in order to present a patched-up midfield against Bulgaria. He still has the Old Trafford pair, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, together with Liverpool's Steve McManaman and Redknapp, Paul Merson and Robert Lee, but inspect closely and there are areas where the England tapestry begins to look threadbare. Despite his France 98 contretemps with Paul Gascoigne, it may be that the enigma will weave some colourful patterns on his home stage. These are critical times for the national coach.

Hoddle has, in fact, been spared the full scourge of his critics' lashes, not least because Rupert's Adventure at Old Trafford could not have been more timely. However, the FA are liable to give him, if not a grilling, at least a slow roasting when he presents a report of progress to their International Committee on Friday. Defeats against Sweden, Argentina and Romania, the disciplinary lapses of Beckham and Ince, the contents of a certain book, and his failure, thus far, to agree a new two-year contract, will have the proverbial fly-on-the-Lancaster-Gate in a highly excitable state.

Until Tottenham appoint a successor to Christian Gross, uncertainty will court Hoddle's every move, although the FA's David Davies clarified last night: "We'd like to talk to him sooner rather than later but when he wants to talk about it. We understand he has other priorities, not least two important games in five days in October. The ball is in his court. But to say he has been given an ultimatum is just garbage."

While Hoddle may continue to scoff at suggestions that his team has been influenced by outside forces few share his insouciance. Shearer alluded to the effect of "all that crap" in a none-too-oblique reference to Adams' book serialisation, which criticised Hoddle. While the Arsenal man has had much to say about the spirit world, so to speak, he was positively withdrawn about that which existed within the England camp as a result of his own literary offering. While the furore over books is likely to subside temporarily - although there are further tomes by Teddy Sheringham and Paul Merson to follow - it is hard to believe that Hoddle's credibility can emerge intact from the recent fall-outs. It is not merely his obsession with matters spiritual that renders him vulnerable to his critics. He could worship at the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut for all most of them care.

The crucial question is whether he has retained the trust of his players. Events at Wembley on 10 October should be rather illuminating.