Football: Life after Hoddle - The wounded lions and a witch-hunt

Andrew Longmore, chief sports writer, says the FA kingmaker has raised his political standing
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THE wider implications of Glenn Hoddle's dismissal have yet to dawn fully on what is left of the Football Association. To misquote Oscar Wilde: to lose two senior executives looks like bad luck, to lose three looks like carelessness and, within Fifa, the world governing body, even the most ardent supporter of England's World Cup bid in 2006 must be wondering exactly who is running the asylum these days. Geoff Thompson, acting FA chairman, has a higher profile within Fifa than many presume, but he will need all his persuasive powers to minimise the credibility gap.

Once Hoddle's unfortunate way with words had thrown him on to the mercy of the FA's executive committee, his days were numbered. There are more acting heads at Lancaster Gate than at the Royal Shakespeare Company and none of them was prepared to put theirs on the line for a football coach fingered by the Prime Minister. In the absence of any leaders, firm leadership generally results in pursuing the line of least resistance. Hoddle's one chance of survival, a swift retraction and apology on BBC's Football Focus on Saturday morning, was lost in the midst of his own arrogance and inarticulacy. Here was a footballer in dire need of some media maintenance and poor Glenn never mastered the art. No one put themselves out to help him much either. But Steve Rider's parting shot after the Hoddle interview, "That should be the end of that then", might go down as one of the less fortunate remarks in the whole affair.

Apart from the catch-all phrase "his position has become untenable", trotted out with religious fervour by all manner of pundits, no one has been able to say with any precision exactly why Hoddle had to go. The lawyers argued about cause and effect most of Tuesday afternoon, forcing a press conference due initially at lunchtime to be rescheduled twice, for tea, and then an early supper. It was why Hoddle himself emerged with a half-million pound pay-off. Conscience money, some would call it. A claim for unfair dismissal might not have played too well either in the courts or Downing Street at a time when England's 2006 World Cup is desperate for proper sponsorship in the true corridors of power. Hoddle had more supporters than the media merry-go-round cared to admit, but in the atmosphere of political correctness none was prepared to put their head above the parapet.

Plenty of disabled people have found the whole furore over his comments deeply patronising, a far bigger insult than the quasi-Buddhist ramblings of a football coach. Tolerant people have been appalled at society's intolerance, true followers of eastern mysticism have rejected the common perception that their beliefs are "rubbish" and football followers as a whole, even the anti-Hoddlists, had to admit that the people's game had been reborn as Godzilla in the age of Sky and 24-hour rolling news programmes.

Or Hodzilla perhaps. When the England manager is cited as the second most important figure in the land, after the PM, when a football press conference degenerates into an embarrassing feeding frenzy, then it is time to reverse the telescope and miniaturise the place of football in the public conscience. Nothing spoke more eloquently of prevailing confusion than the seamless transition of Hoddle's views on reincarnation and the disabled with his failure as a football manager. Mix the two and, hey presto, watch his position become untenable.

Hoddle had many faults, but his chief mistake was his inability to turn post-World Cup promise, the one quality which excused defeat, into reality. Once England had lost in Sweden and only forced a lacklustre draw with Bulgaria at Wembley, Hoddle's last vestige of coherent defence had gone. The witch-hunt was on. Football was not a resignation issue as yet, so some other more potent cause had to be summoned.

The aftermath of the Hoddle saga felt a little like the morning after a particularly raucous party. Empty beer cans, fag ends and a prevailing stench of discarded moral outrage. It was almost as if the whole sorry episode had been a dream. But there were Howard Wilkinson and David Davies, widely perceived as the kingmaker, to remind us of the previous night's folly. Davies said that the lessons would be learnt, but his own appointment was the result of lessons learned from Graham Taylor's tabloid baiting. Davies was brought in to revamp the image of the FA in general, and of its highest profile representative in particular. Now, he has presided over the loss of a chairman, a chief executive and a coach, all inside six weeks. The whole board of England Football PLC dismissed at a stroke. Not even the New Labour spin doctors have managed that sort of makeover.

The one consolation for the acting chief executive is that, to borrow a New Labour slogan, things can only get better. Davies has emerged with his position strengthened simply because he is the man on the spot. If the FA emerge from the next few months with their image enhanced - winning on Wednesday and qualifying for the European Championships would be a start - then Davies will bask in some reflected glory. His acute political antennae have certainly been working overtime in the last few days.

At present, English football is in that state of anticipation fostered by the most skilled writers of soap opera. A taught phrase, a meaningful look and... cut. Next episode next week. The scene now moves to Wembley on Wednesday night when, in the wacky world of football, a squad selected by Hoddle will be used in judgement on the worthiness of Wilko. Beat the world champions and his chances of permanent appointment increase; lose and he is a caretaker. Realistically, the FA are constrained by the practicalities of their own predicament. It would be daft to appoint a permanent new coach - Ferguson, Keegan or Hodgson, say - before a new chairman and chief executive are installed in June when England have two critical Euro 2000 qualifying matches in quick succession.

Wilkinson is highly regarded within FA circles, having shown acute political nous in guiding his radical Charter for Quality virtually unopposed through the full FA Council, and has strong support from Premier League managers, an equally significant asset. Whatever happens on Wednesday, he will surely be handed the job until the summer, by which time England's fate will be better known, a new dream ticket will be in place at the head of the FA and some clarity might have emerged from the present confusion over what sort of man the FA and the game needs.

Wilkinson, Bryan Robson and David Platt would be a neat and futuristic triumvirate. The Sheffield connection, Geoff Thompson and David Richards, chairman of Sheffield Wednesday and a highly influential member of the executive committee, might already be working in the Sheffield-based Wilkinson's favour. If he does get the job, Wilko's views on reincarnation would really be worth hearing.