Football: Hoddle's rearguard action

Football: England coach threatens to sue over damaging interview as senior FA officials hold talks about his future
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The Independent Online
APPROPRIATELY ENOUGH, Glenn Hoddle's future as coach to the England team came down last night to a matter of belief. Did the Football Association believe him or a journalist? If they had faith in him they would back him, if not they would sack him.

There ought not to have been a choice. While the journalist involved, Matt Dickinson of The Times, is an honourable reporter it would be a bold step for the FA to back his word against that of their national coach.

However, the situation was not so clear cut. Hoddle's history of dissembling, and the way he has tackled the accusation that he said people with disabilities were being punished for misdemeanours in a past life, gave cause for thought to the five senior FA figures who were to determine his fate.

The five men concerned were Geoff Thompson (the acting chairman), David Davies (the acting chief executive), Noel White (Liverpool director and chairman of the FA's international committee), David Richards (chairman of Sheffield Wednesday) and David Sheepshanks (chairman of Ipswich). Davies said last night that their decision was expected by lunchtime today.

The need for urgency was underlined when Davies and Hoddle pulled out of a visit to Barcelona last night for the Fifa World Player of the Year ceremony. This would have been an excellent opportunity to continue building bridges in the wake of the cash-for-votes scandal and to spread the word about the 2006 World Cup bid. In the event the FA was not represented.

Back in London Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director and former manager of Leeds, is in line to fill any breach temporarily. If he is called upon, he would then name the England squad for next week's Wembley friendly against France. The squad is due to be announced on Thursday.

The FA would then have to find a long-term replacement - and quickly. The crucial European Championship qualifier against Poland is on 27 March.

The FA know that if they support Hoddle they will have to withstand a storm of protest from disabled groups, politicians and people within the game. The affair had developed such momentum that yesterday even the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had become involved, saying Hoddle should go if he had been correctly quoted in The Times.

This is the crux of the matter and in a series of television interviews yesterday Hoddle's defence to the charge that he had gratuitously offended people with disabilities hardened to one of denial. Having earlier claimed his words were "miscontrued" and "misinterpreted", this time he insisted: "It is absolute nonsense that I said these people are being punished for their sins in other lifetimes. That is just not what I said."

He added that he had "never, ever believed" it and that it "could not be further from the truth". Dennis Roach, his agent, later announced that Hoddle was considering issuing a writ. The Times, meanwhile, stood by their story.

Hoddle was talking to Sky News in an interview which was given a bizarre twist when it was released in segments while still being conducted - because Hoddle had refused to speak "live". He also said he was, in turns, saddened, disappointed, frustrated, seething but not angry, and devastated. He was "sorry", but only because people had been upset by the media reaction. Interestingly the interview had been arranged through his advisers, not the FA.

Hoddle has been less than totally honest on occasions in the past. Misleading people about injuries and team selection is standard practice among some managers and he cannot be condemned for that, but there have been more relevant examples of his being economical with the truth.

He has previously denied making comments about Michael Owen's "off-the- field" activities, only for the journalist involved to produce a tape recording including them. He also revealed incidents in his published World Cup diary which he had categorically denied taking place at the time.

Although Hoddle denied making some of the comments that appeared in The Times, he did say similar things in an interview with Radio Five Live last year. It was also pointed out last night that it had taken him two days to deny saying what The Times had reported. He also said his "mistake" had been to "let my guard down" in the interview, which suggests he felt he had been drawn into saying something unintended. He is not especially articulate and in the past his clumsiness has led to his saying things he did not mean. For example, his claim that Owen was "not a natural goalscorer" was supposed to be a compliment.

All this adds to the dilemma facing the FA. The key figures were involved in telephone conferences throughout yesterday. In the back of their minds was the knowledge that Hoddle, for all his faults, would not be easy to replace. This is the job that drove Don Revie to the desert, turned Bobby Robson grey and caused Graham Taylor to wake up in the middle of the night with his pyjamas soaked in sweat.

Long-term possibilities included Bryan Robson, Kevin Keegan, Arsene Wenger, Roy Hodgson, Alex Ferguson and Venables. With the Poland match eight weeks away the FA would have to identify the right man, convince him to take the job, then, in most cases, persuade his employers to release him.

It is a tall order and, in the interim, Wilkinson was being lined up. However, Peter Taylor, who has done a decent job with the England Under- 21 team, could step up if Wilkinson refuses.

As far as Hoddle was concerned this was academic speculation. "I've not considered resigning," he said, adding that he had received telephone messages of support from England players. "People are going to do this, it is the nature sometimes of this job. It is not a pleasant experience, but it is one I will learn from. You ask: `Is it worth the hassle?' My attitude has always been it is a privilege to be manager of England.

"At this moment in time I still feel very strongly I want to lead the team out against France. Some of them have been through this themselves and this might even pull us together even stronger."

This optimism, like so much of Hoddle's character, comes from his faith. As with many men, his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness.

It always ends in tears, page 22

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