Football: Interview: Glenn Hoddle - Hoddle defends the way he defends

The England coach is standing up to his critics and standing up for his principles. By Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online
Oh, to be surrounded by stars, and held in legendary esteem by his country. There must be times when England coach Glenn wished he enjoyed the approval rating of American senator Glenn instead of being forced to acknowledge that his role is becoming, as he puts it, "the impossible job".

It was perhaps inevitable, as he looks towards the year 2000 and the odyssey which stretches out with uncertainty before him, that Glenn Hoddle should turn to the question of his more vociferous detractors. "There's a certain small number and whatever I do - even if we win the next six games on the trot - I know that if we lose the seventh the knives will come out for me," he says resignedly.

They could be unsheathed sooner than that. Even armed with a renegotiated, improved contract from the FA and its implicit demonstration of support, the current incumbent is aware that England's failure resoundingly to bounce the Czechs out of Wembley on Wednesday week will be accompanied by a renewed clamour for the entire Hoddle mission to be aborted forthwith, even though he is adamant that this friendly, followed by another against France in February, is more a voyage of discovery before the return to Euro 2000 qualification in March.

However, he is ready to thrust out that square chin defiantly against an onslaught from pundits, columnists and the public, should the result or performance provide grounds for further censure. "The only interest I have in beating the Czech Republic is that it builds up confidence for the Poland and Sweden games," he explains. "We could have two magnificent performances from the players because the pressure's not on, but then we freeze against Poland. I don't really want that scenario, to be honest. I want to find out if the players are ready for it in March. You might come unstuck about the result, but you've found something out about the players."

Absences through injury and the suspension of Paul Ince will give Hoddle ample opportunity to examine the capabilities of graduates from the Under- 21 team. "There's a good possibility of that," he agrees. "Although we're not going to throw in six or seven new players just for the sake of it." The names of West Ham's Frank Lampard, scorer from midfield in England's last three Under-21 games, the impressive Lee Hendrie of Aston Villa and the Leicester striker Emile Heskey, who has added improved technique to his phenomenal power, come immediately to mind.

Whether a suitable depth of talent will be available to Hoddle, or his successors, in years to come, is quite another matter. It was as Chelsea player-manager that he first declared his antipathy to "teams fielding eight or nine foreigners". His fears have been realised, ironically enough at Stamford Bridge, although he stresses: "The arrival of the Zolas and the Bergkamps and other great players has helped our football and brought our players on. The problem we might be having in the next two or three years is too many average foreigners coming in because they're cheaper rather than they're better and stopping young English players coming through. I'm scared that a lot of our young talent is going to be completely swallowed up. It's a shame that there isn't a ceiling of, say, a maximum of four foreigners."

Since the beginning of the qualifying campaign and with it the furore over his World Cup diary, Hoddle appears to have subtly transformed his demeanour. Hitherto, he has seemed somewhat distant, a man perceived as impervious to adverse comment and who failed to accept personal responsibility for England's ills. Now the indications are that Hoddle intends to "come out" over his beliefs.

Hence, his response to those who chant the mantra "flat back four" is unequivocal. "Say it loud, I'm a back-three man and I'm proud." Well, actually he doesn't. Not in so many words. That would be a mite too evangelistic, so for the moment he restricts himself to a simple message of intent. "If people feel 4-4-2 is the way forward in international football, they'll have to wait until I'm out of a job," he says sharply. "I haven't gone out and said too much about it, but perhaps now's the time to come out and explain - if people want to listen."

Space may or may not be the final frontier, but utilising it on the flanks is crucial to Hoddle's strategy, and that is why he will not relent on his view that the way forward must remain through wing-backs and not along "the straight lines", as he describes it, of 4-4-2. "I played in that system as an international and I would have loved to have performed in the formation we use now."

All very well but what, you ask, about today's personnel - Tony Adams among them - who find the system alien to their own and their club's style? "You say that, but you tell me what team's on top of the Premiership at the moment, and what system do they play?"

Fine, Aston Villa do, but shouldn't a better litmus test be Arsenal and Manchester United? "I agree with you to a certain degree in the Premiership. But I would say that it hasn't worked in Europe for many years." Hoddle continues: "Nobody criticised me when we qualified for the World Cup when I decided that the best shape for us going forward was three men at the back and stretching the pitch width-wise, which gives you options. What we've done is defended in a 4-4-2, but we've changed our shape when we've got the ball. They tell me that we got more crosses in than any other team in France 98."

Further self-justification comes from what he achieved at Stamford Bridge three years ago. "I had a team at Chelsea, when I didn't have millions being thrown my way and we also had the three-foreigner rule. It meant we had youngsters like Anthony Barness, Darren Barnard and Neil Shipperley in European games, together with an old fella, the player-manager, who had to play as well. We had a very difficult task but we played that shape and we went to the semi-final of the Cup-Winners' Cup and very nearly got to the final. I don't mean that to the detriment of those players - but there's my answer. That convinced me it was right for Europe."

He adds: "I just feel that certain teams that play what we call a 4-4-2, the French and others which have all been thrown at me, they haven't really played it, or not as rigid as the English way."

Being able to field such versatile defenders as Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Gareth Southgate could suggest that the 4-4-2 traditionalists are misguided. But at least, unlike some coaches, there is nothing to indicate that Hoddle will deviate from his faith. Even the doubts over qualification following the failure to defeat Sweden and Bulgaria. Reports have intimated that he would be sacked in that eventuality. But surely he would walk first?

"It would depend on all the circumstances," he insists. "It was the same with the World Cup. If we'd got hammered 5-0 by Argentina then I'd have had to look at the situation. In fact, a lot of people abroad in football that I respect have said 'you could have got to the final' and that puts a different complexion on it. Similarly, if we didn't qualify for the European Championships you'd have to look at why. It might have been because of one vital game with several of our most influential players out."

Ultimately, self-belief and more than a degree of arrogance, integral to his character since a player, will be his stave - or prove his downfall. Hoddle claims, and the evidence supports it, that he has not been chastened by those who vilify him. "No manager in the world gets good results all the time and you know there's people always ready to have a snipe. In fact I'm my own biggest critic, I really am. Because my own standards are so high, I criticise myself behind the scenes more than perhaps I should, according to people who know me well."

But he adds: "It's going to be no different for anybody else whether I come out of this job in two years, three years, four years, whatever. We've seen it before with my predecessors and it's getting worse. It's going to be an impossible job. No-one's going to want to take it. But as long it does not affect people close to me I'll continue to give 100 per cent. That's all you can do in life. Once I felt the criticism was stopping me doing that and really got ridiculous, I'd give up anyway."