Football: Hoddle's unwavering self-belief

In the firing line: England's embattled coach deals with all the situations and the baggage in his way
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The Independent Online
TWO leaders, the same message. "backbone not back down", and "better to be unpopular than wrong". Whether you were present at the Labour Party Conference at Blackpool on Tuesday, or Wembley Conference Centre on Friday, the tidings to disbelievers had a similar defiant resistance to them.

The clarion call from Tony Blair to his disciples could equally have been a proclamation from Glenn Hoddle to an increasingly dissident caucus within the media. The only difference is that while the Prime Minister is enjoying an extended honeymoon with the electorate, the England coach is in the unusual position of undergoing marital disharmony while at the same time attempting to renew his vows.

Meanwhile his apologists and detractors line up on either side, grinding their blades for the blood-letting of their opponents next weekend, once England's fate at the hands of Bulgaria is known. What incongruity there is here; this is a man currently involved in a "review" of his contract, which will give him a pay increase, and blithely determining when he will negotiate a new agreement with the FA which will take him up to the next World Cup, while his most vociferous critics are already describing Saturday's contest at Wembley as "the game he dare not lose".

The reality is that by this time next week Hoddle will either be a man granted a five-month reprieve from the stocks and the rotten tomato and egg chuckers whose laptops have contributed to the downfall of more successful coaches, or a man who will court his advocates all the more persuasively if he is to brazen it out before Poland subject England to their next Euro 2000 qualifying examination at the end of March.

Thus far, he has survived some unpleasant barbs because he has learnt well from his predecessors. First lesson: don't become a victim, as the essentially decent Graham Taylor did. The current England coach remarked last week that he could take any abuse, apart from it being said "you're a loser".

The inference was that he is a successful coach who has sometimes got unlucky. Maybe, but the brutal statistics cast an awful lot of doubt on his stewardship. Even if his team defeat Bulgaria and Luxembourg on Saturday and the following Wednesday - and surely any other results are unthinkable, even with a team shorn of David Beckham for the first game and Paul Ince for both, pending a Uefa verdict on Thursday - England will still have won only seven of their last 14 games.

Three defeats in the last four does not exactly suggest harmony and in Sweden last month there was circumstantial evidence to suggest that fall- outs from the publication of the Gospel According to Glenn and the employment of a woman regarded on the right side of Mother Teresa or from a coven of white witches, depending on your point of view.

Hoddle would not claim to be the most eloquent of coaches. He is an old boy of White Hart Lane, not Drury Lane when it comes to the English language, but he is astute enough to comprehend that the best way to address a problem is to ignore it, or circumvent its existence. Hence, he employs not extravagant, emotive or honest sentiments, which he recognises can be dissected as an A-Level class discusses Shakespeare, but the language of the pseudo-psychologist. Perhaps, a new verb should be introduced into the vocabulary. To Hoffle; a method of using bland expressions to avoid an issue.

It explains his constant use of the word "situation", which can be used to describe anything from walking out on one's wife to genocide; now "baggage" has become a euphemism for hostile media, which has castigated him for his employment of faith healer Eileen Drewery and his defence of the team doctor injecting players "supplements" about which nobody yet knows the long-term effects. A pretty full suitcase it is, too.

"I've said before there's baggage with this job, and when you sign a four-year contract, as England manager you're not always going to get your own way," he admitted, in remarkably sanguine mood, on Friday. "You're going to get bad results, you're going to get difficult situations. Some of the stuff that has come out I've treated as a bit of humour, actually. It's the best way of doing it. But there is a bit of baggage that comes with this job, and you've got to take it on the chin and overcome it. Some people have chosen to pick on the smaller issues and try to blow them up. In a funny sort of way it makes you more determined. It's doing you good in some ways."

Does he actually believe that? It's impossible to say, because, for his verbosity at times, he yields little of his inner self. However, Hoddle's true strength is that there is a total absence of self-doubt. He has no time for self-deprecation. So far, there have been few opportunities for the carpers to lance that particular piece of armour. Until he becomes vulnerable to sustained attack because of the persistent failure of his team, the FA's disciplinary committee will retain their faith, albeit with some concerned voices amid the clamour to extend his tenure. "It's still early doors, and a major factor for me, much more than anything else, is that we've lost our first qualifying game and we've got to get back to our winning ways," Hoddle said. "If we come through this double- header with six points it puts a new reflection on everything. If we qualify, and they come to me and say 'we want a long-term situation', that's the time for me to address it."

Deride him if you will for his unconventional affiliations, damn him for first misjudging and then spurning Michael Owen until it was too late. But never doubt his belief. It could yet be his salvation.