Football: Hoddle's desperate situation

England 0 Bulgaria 0 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 72,974
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The Independent Online
GLENN HODDLE, who has spoken much of late about the "baggage" surrounding his role, may have to give serious consideration to packing his own following an abject performance before an all-ticket packed house which arrived anticipating substantially more and departed deserving far better.

All counsel could say in England's defence is that they never actually looked like losing, but that is such scant consolation, having already lost the first of their European Championship qualifying games in Stockholm. It also means that they have not won since the World Cup qualifying group match against Colombia four games ago.

On this occasion, there was no blaming the referee, no red cards or controversy serving to provide camouflage and obscure the nation's football followers from the reality.

The red crosses of St George, brandished so enthusiastically before the game, were already beginning to droop by half-time. By the end, it was the Red Cross itself that Hoddle's men were desperately in need of, after repeatedly banging their heads against the brick wall that was the Bulgarian defence. England's finest, including two world-class strikers, tested the visitors' goalkeeper Zdravko Zdravkov just once over 90 minutes and there was a dearth, not only of inventiveness and cohesion, but also of apparent desire.

While the absence of the suspended David Beckham and Paul Ince and the injured Tony Adams may well have contributed to the lack of all those qualities, was it really beyond the wit of Hoddle and his team to account for a Bulgarian side said to be going through a "transitional period", which in effect means they are regarded as a standard similar to that which Gerald Ratner ascribed to his jewellery?

As Hoddle walked off defiantly towards the tunnel, his ears were filled with the sound that all national coaches inwardly fear, the contempt of his country's own supporters. The chorus of disapproval from fans whose allegiance is normally unwavering said it all.

During the build-up to the game, the England coach had talked blithely about "being in credit" over the 12 months since the zenith of his two- year international coaching career, the 0-0 draw in Rome which secured World Cup qualification. Now even his acolytes are surely beginning to realise that his balance of credibility has sunk well into the red.

While the Football Association have rarely been in step with public opinion or the wider media, their chairman Keith Wiseman and his supposed troop of wise men, who have displayed such blind faith in their coach, must have begun to see the light. All the glib talk of renewing their man's contract, thereby awarding him a salary increase, and their desire to extend it for another four years appears hollow now.

In mitigation, the beleaguered coach did not attempt to hide behind excuses afterwards, if we ignore that old faithful, that the opponents "came to frustrate us. They came here to defend and get a point and that's what they succeeded in doing". That could hardly have come as any great surprise. But he added, with unusual candour: "Today's performance was not good enough. It was the worst display by an England team at Wembley since I took over. Of course, I feel under pressure in terms of the group. We've got to get it out of our systems by Wednesday."

That is when they face Luxembourg away in the second match of this double- header. No doubt victory will lift the spirits somewhat, but it is hardly likely to defuse the antagonism expressed by England's supporters. It is not until the New Year that they play their next qualifier at home, to Poland on 27 March, rather too long from Hoddle's point of view given the conjecture over his future that is bound to ensue. The coach admitted he fully understood the crowd's frustration. "The crowd expected us to win and obviously they're disappointed. All I can say is that we are as disappointed as they are."

On the approach into Wembley, security announcements had warned supporters against bringing in either fireworks or bottles. For the first 10 minutes it appeared Hoddle's men had breached the cordon and smuggled in vast quantities of both. Urged on by the soprano voices which invariably accompany England matches these days - regrettably the same ones which had whistled through the Bulgarian national anthem - the home side caused a few creaks in the joints of the supposedly ageing visitors.

Michael Owen flung himself at a vicious in-swinging corner from Andy Hinchcliffe, but failed to connect, and then a thrilling run and shot on the volley by the Liverpool striker only cleared the bar by inches. Sol Campbell, impressive on the left side of England's rearguard, marauded forward regularly and his fury with himself was justified when his header from Darren Anderton's cross failed to trouble a goalkeeper who cannot have imagined how carefree his afternoon would be. Paul Scholes also teed up another opportunity for Owen which went begging.

All those chances came in the first 20 minutes, a period Hoddle had admitted would be "crucial" with the implication that a first goal would destroy Bulgarian composure. He at least got that right, for, apart from an Alan Shearer header a drive from Campbell - both too high, there was very little to commend England's performance in the second half.

That attempt by Shearer from the substitute Graeme Le Saux's cross was his only strike on goal and, given that his contribution is normally an accurate litmus test of the positiveness of any England performance, that evidence was as damning as anything.

Maybe the Bulgarians had been underestimated. Even Hoddle scarcely required his spiritual assistant manager Mrs Eileen Drewery to predict that the visitors, who had not scored against England for 30 years, had suffered a wretched World Cup and been beaten 3-0 at home by Poland in their first Euro 2000 qualifier, might just be the source of an easy three points. But with a new coach, the 39-year-old Dimitar Dimitrov, following that Poland defeat, it would have been foolish to take such suggestions for granted. Then there was that great enigma Hristo Stoichkov, now 32, but always liable to mete out something special from a free-kick or tight angle. In the event, he contributed little, apart from his customary lectures to the referee, and was substituted on the hour.

Hoddle had made three changes to the side defeated 2-1 in Stockholm in the opening qualifying game, two enforced, through the injury to Tony Adams and the suspension of Paul Ince, and he had also decided to relegate Le Saux to the substitutes' bench and replacing him with Sheffield Wednesday's Hinchcliffe. But after 33 minutes, he swapped them over again and the Chelsea man brought some much needed urgency to proceedings.

Gary Neville and Rob Lee filled the other vacancies well enough, but overall there was an impression that this was a team lacking in substance and creativity. Jamie Redknapp, for all his elegant touches and the occasional penetrating pass, was a disappointment, failing to exert authority, and his late caution means he misses the Luxembourg game. That may not trouble him unduly, nor Hoddle. After all, everyone beats Luxembourg, don't they? The trouble is, with England in this sort of mood, you wouldn't put your mortgage on that.

Andrew Longmore, page 3


P W D L F A Pts

Poland 2 2 0 0 6 0 6

Sweden 1 1 0 0 2 1 3

England 2 0 1 1 1 2 1

Bulgaria 2 0 1 1 0 3 1

Luxembourg 1 0 0 1 0 3 0