Football: Hoddle's land of limitations

Ian Ridley finds the England manager in radical mood for Moldova
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The Independent Online
When Glenn Hoddle sat down last week to select the England squad for the World Cup qualifying match against Moldova a week on Wednesday, his task was, curiously, at once easier and more difficult than any of his predecessors as the national team's coach. There were, quite simply, fewer players from which to choose.

Last weekend, 264 players appeared in the Premiership. Hoddle could immediately discount 111 of them, some 42 per cent, because they were non-England qualified. In fact, 28 other countries were represented. Of the 153 who were eligible, at least 40 are well past their peak or still too raw. It leaves, roughly, only 10 candidates for each position, the very number, for example, of English goalkeepers playing at the top level.

While that may seem untold riches to such as Wales or Northern Ireland, it marks a severe cutback for England. "It is getting very limited, yes," said Hoddle. "It has been a problem that was around the corner with the Bosman ruling, and now it's happening.

"It's not too alarming yet because I have a good crop of youngsters like those from Manchester United and like Rio Ferdinand, and I believe the best English talent will always come to the top. The problem is when players are brought in from other countries who are no better than some of our young players because they are more experienced and do not cost so much. The Zolas and the Bergkamps bring a great deal to our game but it is the average foreigners who are the concern."

His fears are borne out by an examination of the players appearing in the Premiership. The top four footballing nations are Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina. No Brazilian or Argentinian appeared last weekend, while the one German, Karlheinz Riedle, and the majority of the eight Italians, with one or two notable exceptions, are deemed surplus to requirements back home even if capable of still standing out in the Premiership, and of little resale value.

Hoddle is an advocate of the proposed change of next summer when players will be permitted to move to another English club at the end of their contracts without a fee, as happens now post-Bosman with transfers from one country to another, so that domestic talent is able to compete equally. "If we don't, in five years' time it will be 10 times worse," he said. The problem, he agreed, will be for the World Cup of 2002 if not for 1998.

One knock-on effect, Hoddle believes, is that the Nationwide League First Division will increase in strength with talented young players filtering down, unable to unseat overseas players in Premiership teams. Few are going abroad, he added, because more money is in the English game.

Hoddle would like to see a restructuring of the present 24-team First Division - from where 10 of the Under-21 squad are drawn - with 12 clubs added to form two equal conferences of 18 teams, so that young players do not overplay and have more time to be coached properly. It is radical but practical, though another suggestion that eight are promoted to and eight relegated from the Premiership is unlikely to find much support from those in power.

Hoddle's 22 for Moldova reflects his present thinking with the radical selections of the teenaged Rio Ferdinand and Emile Heskey for their first inclusions. Neither is likely to start but the build-up to a match that England should have some difficulty in failing to win offers a good opportunity to assess their temperaments. Ferdinand is the sort of composed player comfortable on the ball that England need to nurture carefully. He can, though, improve as a defender, said Hoddle, which may be why he wants the injured Tony Adams to visit the training camp next week.

Heskey, meanwhile, is developing into a handful of a striker, as the Liverpool crowd sportingly recognised in applauding him from the field after Leicester's recent 2-1 win at Anfield. Being in the presence of Ian Wright over the next week can only help improve his finishing.

Less understandable is the omission of Steve McManaman. Hoddle spoke of the unsettling effect of Barcelona's fleeting interest in him and of a need to improve his finishing and handle man-marking but he has responded well against Blackburn, despite a glaring miss, and Leeds.

McManaman may be a less confident character than painted and such a creative player might have benefited from some reassurance. With Paul Ince suspended, though like Adams also being summoned for training, the squad contains no Liverpool player for the first time this correspondent can remember.

Stuart Ripley wins a place on form yet Stan Collymore, forever talented but perennially promising it seems, can scarcely cite that amid Aston Villa's travails as a reason for his inclusion. It owes more to injuries to Alan Shearer, most notably, and Robbie Fowler. And perhaps even the gradual erosion of England's strength in depth.

England's dwindling options

Number of players appearing in Premiership last weekend: 264.

Non-England qualified: 111 (42 per cent).

England qualified: 153 (58 per cent).

Countries represented: 28 (Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, France, Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Costa Rica, USA, Switzerland, Croatia, Israel, Portugal, South Africa, Italy, Belgium, Georgia, Trinidad and Tobago, Romania, Estonia, Uruguay, Macedonia).

Countries most represented: Scotland 15 players, Ireland 10, Norway 9, Holland 9, Northern Ireland 8, Wales 8, Italy 8, Denmark 5, Denmark 4, Sweden 4, Portugal 4.