Football: Hoddle's gaffe a gift to enemies

Nick Townsend, Football Correspondent, says the England coach stands accused of astonishing naivety
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The Independent Online
IF WE can ignore reservations about his renewed contract, the resignation of Graham Kelly - a veritable St Paul where Glenn Hoddle's FA apostles are concerned - and his divorce, it had been a winter of content for the England coach. During the hiatus in competitive games those baying hounds of would-be John Peels had returned in sullen odour to their kennels. The only scent of blood was that which had been spilt, not at Hoddle's door, but on the carpets of Lancaster Gate.

At least until yesterday morning when he proceeded to destroy the karma - if that is not an inappropriate word in the circumstances - with an untimely and, if the quotes attributed to him about handicapped people are accurate, at the very least insensitive piece of quasi-religious doggerel, which might have come straight out of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Remember that scene where the followers of "Our Lord, Brian" found a shoe, believing it to be "a sign"? Perhaps Darren Anderton, one of those "healed" by his faith-healing accomplice Eileen Drewery, had better watch his boots.

In condemning him, and Hoddle will certainly be pilloried by every rent- a-quote pundit who can be assembled this weekend, it should be remembered that he is essentially a decent man, even if his "Christian" beliefs are so extreme that they suggest he might have been riding out with the witchfinder had he been born three centuries earlier.

Hoddle does stand accused of quite astonishing naivety, even if his observations are nothing new and were first voiced on radio before the World Cup. Why was it necessary to get involved in discussions about the hereafter, when his philosophy about 4-4-2 and the role of Alan Shearer are of principal concern to football followers, who tend to regard a theological debate as being more about wing-backs than prayer?

With his squad for the France friendly on 10 February at Wembley revealed on Thursday, Hoddle needs to become embroiled in this kind of controversy like Peter Mandelson needs to win a dream house in a Labour Party raffle. While it has been unusually quiet, perhaps too damn quiet, of late on the international front, but for a predictable rant or two from Andy Cole over Hoddle's previous rejection of his talents, nobody needs reminding that, after a parlous start to their European Championship qualifying campaign, England are far from certain of reaching next year's finals. There has been criticism of his tactics, his selections and his man-management of players such as Teddy Sheringham, David Beckham, and Paul Gascoigne. The fall-out over his World Cup Diary has still not dispersed, and then there has been Mrs Drewery.

His words are, of course, directly the result of his unfortunate connection with the faith healer whose celebrity has blossomed to his apparent detriment. It is an association that has brought nothing but embarrassment to the England set-up as anybody who witnessed her on Ian Wright's chat show - and this remember is hardly a Paxman of interviewers - will testify. It was a risible departure into a world where she claims to deliver her clients of bad spirits. Even the host, who has brought new meaning to the words "mutual admiration", appeared utterly bemused.

The FA are, to a certain extent, rudderless with the loss of their chairman Keith Wiseman and their chief executive Kelly, but Hoddle's spin doctor and co-author, David Davies, at present standing in as chief executive in all but title, and a strong contender for the job on a permanent basis, will no doubt mount a vigorous defence to repel all boarders and mutineers.

Even if there was a vociferous campaign to oust him, citing his latest opinions as the catalyst, and his previous behaviour and England's results as their foundation, the saving grace would be the fact that there exist so few English possibilities as a replacement who would be prepared to do the job.

Only Roy Hodgson and Terry Venables would have the freedom and desire to do so. However, William Hill, the only bookmaker offering odds on the succession, make Bryan Robson the 6-4 favourite ahead of John Gregory (5-1), Kevin Keegan (5-1), David Platt (7-1), Gerard Houllier (8-1) and Arsene Wenger (10-1).

If Hoddle will ever accept a lesson, it should be that from Venables, the Professor of Media-Response at the University of Life, who even in adversity has always been relied upon to emerge righteous. Despite everything, Terry is still all gold, because he restricted every comment to that which could not be misconstrued or used against him.

In Hoddle's case, the sheer obduracy of the man, a character whose justified arrogance as a player has been transposed into his coaching methods, makes resignation unlikely, not least because Hoddle is not a man to acknowledge his mistakes. As he told me before Christmas, he would only ever consider falling on his sword if adverse circumstances started affecting his family, and that will not happen unless the latest brouhaha begins to impinge on results because of loss of respect from his team.

Thus far, apart from a highly publicised but subsequently refuted allegation that Shearer had uttered the immortal words "Have you ever thought it could be you?" after the Euro 96 qualifier against Luxembourg, his relationship with England players has remained nothing worse than uneasy in some quarters.

However, even Hoddle will be aware this morning that once his men begin to question his management, and indeed his authority, his position would become untenable. No amount of Bible-thumping would save him then. What he sows, he may have to reap.

The Hoddle row, front page

and page 3 of news section

THE VERDICT ON HODDLE

I would have sacked him before he said this. Personally I think he made a hash of the World Cup.

David Mellor (head of Football Task Force)

I'm aware of the good work the England team has done for disabled...I don't think it would be right to criticise.

Ian Todd (National Fed Football Supporters' Clubs)

I take a boy in a wheelchair and a boy with Down's syndrome to matches. What are they going to think?

Freda Murray (Disabled Supporters' Association)

I am a sports minister not the Archbishop of Canterbury but anyone who feels that a disability is being visited on you from another life is coming from another world. But if Hoddle said he had been misinterpreted, then we have to take that as true.

Tony Banks (Minister for Sport)

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