Football: Life after Hoddle - The devil incarnate of a job

Dear England candidate, is there anything in your past that could come back to haunt you or embarrass your employers? Do you possess eccentric ideas which may undermine your position?
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The Independent Online
Another head hurtles into the guillotine basket, and is followed by a muted, but gratified cheer from those watching in the stands of football's Bastille. The search begins for another who can be convinced to place his pride and ambition before all rationale. Some poor fellow who arrives at his first press conference issuing brave declarations about honour and what it is to culminate his career in this way, while inwardly pleading with his god to allow him to emerge from the experience relatively sane, with family intact, and reputation no more than slightly damaged.

It is surely the ultimate paradox that the job which - according to the present incumbent, the most celebrated and best-paid temp in the country, Howard Wilkinson - "should be the best job in football" has this and other countries' most able coaches falling over themselves, like children at a birthday party, in the rush to avoid being caught holding the parcel when the music stops. One thing is for sure. They will not have to bus in potential successors to Glenn Hoddle. A motorcycle pillion or two pulling up outside Lancaster Gate would probably suffice.

On every such occasion, when we are confronted with those mug-shots of contenders, with precis of pros and cons, complete with bookmakers' prices, it is all rather reminiscent of a Grand National, one that goes on for weeks. Except that it only requires some oats and a jockey equipped with a whip to exhort racehorses to go down to the start. Football managers aren't quite so compliant when it comes to enticing them to the England Managership "Handicapped Before You Even Start" Stakes.

Unlike draft-dodgers, there isn't even a stigma attached to it, either. What would Lord Kitchener have made of it? Your country might well need you, but as for putting yourself in the firing line of scorn and vitriol if your team happens to achieve only a draw at home to the Czech Republic, well, thanks, but no thanks. Only recently, Peter Reid, who would make a fervently patriotic and inspirational leader, and with English candidates about as thin on the ground as referees are members of the Paolo Di Canio Fan Club, has an outside chance himself, rolled his eyes to the heavens as he told me: "There's so much baggage that comes with it, it's virtually impossible."

Such responses are not uncommon and may, of course, be "politicians' denials". As the FA's acting chief executive David Davies has contended all week, the answer might be significantly different if those were formally asked, rather than merely mentioned in media dispatches. There is a world of difference between a discreet sounding out and the gold-lettered invitation from the chairman of the FA, stating RSVP. Who, when push comes to emotional shove, could refuse to lead their country's football team?

Ego, unsated ambition, patriotism, the challenge of achieving that elusive trophy, all manner of driving forces except possibly remuneration, come into play and the most sober individual will begin to contemplate conquests today and in the next four years, of emulating Sir Alf Ramsey, blithely ignoring the fact that they may come to be observed by history as somewhere between incompetent and traitor.

When the first England manager, Walter Winterbottom, who had his team selected by a committee of anonymous FA councillors, assumed power, nobody could have foreseen quite how personalised the job would become, although even he relinquished his position back in 1963 after a press campaign against him. Mind you, 17 years wasn't a bad stint.

No longer is it possible for the incumbent to toil away quietly and diligently, as Winterbottom did, just part of a coaching team, and providing all his answers in the form of results; today, a figurehead who cannot make a speech rivalling Henry V at Agincourt to their players and the media is regarded as lacking presence and authority. The cult of the personality has become all-consuming. And with personality comes the process of denuding the man of all privacy and having his background rifled through like a dustbin.

That, in itself, has made the job undesirable. Most men are excused the peccadillos and exuberance of youth. But not the England football coach, a fellow who merely picks and motivates a teams or who, according to some politicians and editors, is "a public figure", thought worthy of the examination which usually befits a senior statesman.

For many of those brought up in the dressing-room culture, familiar with adulation, albeit often from hangers-on, and with alcohol and women on tap, suddenly to have to become imbued with gravitas, with a sense of social responsibility, and to lead by example, is not an easy transition. Others, like Alan Shearer, should he aspire to such heights, have prepared themselves well, even though it means he receives such accusations of being bland and suffering from a charisma by-pass.

One thing is certain; the FA will take no chances of a repetition of the last few days and such is the positive vetting he will come under the next England coach may believe he is joining MI6. As one FA source put it: "You can be assured that all the right questions will be asked."

Maybe this should be the question asked every England coach before the contract is agreed: Is there anything in your private or working life, or in your past, or to your knowledge in that of any member of your family or close friends, which, if it became generally known, might bring you or the England football team into disrepute, or call into question your integrity, authority or standing as coach?

With appropriate alterations, that is actually one of the crucial question that any candidate must answer "no" to, before his application to become a Justice of the Peace is considered. It says much about the highly scrutinised role of England coach that a similar test might well have to be applied.

Of course, if Glenn Hoddle had been presented with such a query in 1996, he would have declared "no" anyway. And there would not have been a questioning voice. Little did we know what Born-again Christian might imply, and that it might develop into quasi-Buddhism. Or that close friends might include the faith-healer Mrs Eileen Drewery.

Certainly, when Jimmy Armfield went on his king-making mission, there was no suggestion that Hoddle was anything but the handsome prince who, if he had a fault, lacked experience. Little did we know then that, according to his beliefs, he had probably metamorphosed from a frog. But it was that inexperience in handling players and selecting them that still remains the factor which caused his indictment well before the shameful persecution which brought his downfall. It has been an episode that, frankly, has cast many in poor light. Only one of them was Hoddle.

That he should have had his tenure curtailed prematurely may have been correct for purely performance reasons after a dismal start to the Euro 2000 campaign, and with his reputation as a diarist significantly lower in the public esteem than Dickens's. Historians, maybe only a few months hence, will deem that his dismissal was at the behest of the more hysterical of the media, in a grotesque alliance with at least one politician, the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, who has made more gaffes than Bruce Grobbelaar spilt crosses. As for the Prime Minister, it is one thing to ally himself with the "Save Deirdre" campaign as a popular cause to espouse, but it did him no credit to intervene on the Richard and Judy Show - shouldn't that be the Judge and Jury Show? - in a matter which might have been best left to the wisdom of the FA.

The caretaker coach Wilko, clearly perturbed by the manner of his predecessor's passing, responded to government ministers' roles in the affair, describing it as "a very dangerous road". He added: "It's almost an agenda that's put in place and people then think `I must respond to that. What do the majority want me to approve of?'" He also had harsh words for the tabloid media campaign. "It's the extremism," he said. "It's the hypocrisy. It's the careful and almost artistic fanning of the flames to a point where it's impossible to survive the fire."

Ironically, it may achieve the opposite of what the politicians actually desired, which is credibility with an increasingly vocal sport- loving electorate. As Margaret Thatcher found over the membership card proposal, football folk don't appreciate governments playing political games on their pitch.

So, if Hoddle isn't the man, who is? Is there an Identikit of the perfect England manager? Probably a former international who has enjoyed significant achievements in the British game. A man with a stable family life, but who can split sides with his wit and anecdotes at a sportsman's dinner. He can have interests, golf preferably, but not be wacky. Confident and assured, a touch of self-deprecation would help. Admired and accepted by the media. There must be no hint of a vice, although the odd glass of wine would be acceptable, as would be the occasional visit to the races.

He doesn't exist, of course. The closest approximation exists in the shape of David O'Leary, but a dearth of managerial experience rules against him for the moment. The FA's role is to determine the character with the least imperfections and, ideally, make it a job which is less about the individual.

As Wilkinson insists: "He should be protected from those preventable pitfalls, to which everyone in some time in their life succumbs, but which for someone in this position is fatal, it seems. You can't make anyone fire-proof, but you've got to make him as fire-resistant as possible." Sadly, until that time arrives, we will continue to get exactly the England coach we deserve.