Football: No wings and not a prayer

What the papers said had a bearing on Hoddle's fate - as they did when a World Cup hero was sacrificed - Alan Hubbard draws parallels with the disrespectful treatment of Sir Alf
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The Independent Online
WHEN the Football Association last fired an England manager 25 years ago, there wasn't a spin doctor in sight. Just a real one, who seemed more in need of medication than the stone-faced figure in front of him awaiting his formal execution.

Sir Alf Ramsey had been summoned to Lancaster Gate by the then FA chairman, Dr Andrew Stephen, a kindly, retired Sheffield GP, to be told that his services were no longer required. Ramsey subsequently recalled that Dr Stephen's hands were trembling nervously as he offered him a drink - so much so that he was unable to unscrew the top of the bottle of tonic water to mix with the gin. So Sir Alf did it for him, pouring his own farewell drink, with one for the good doctor.

There was no media feeding frenzy, no dispatches from Downing Street, no mollifying minders, and no half-million pound pay-off. Sir Alf's redundancy cheque wouldn't have covered the fee for one of Glenn Hoddle's cereal commercials. Just a brief statement released by the FA secretary, Ted Croker, informing the nation that the only Englishman to have won the World Cup was to be replaced as team manager. Naturally, the FA wished to record their "deep appreciation of all that Sir Alf had accomplished".

Sir Alf retired, hurt, on that spring morning of 1974, tight-lipped as ever but clearly badly shaken by what he considered shabby treatment from those who had paid him a pittance and had never taken kindly to his disrespect for officialdom.

Ramsey's ignominious exit came after England had failed to qualify for the World Cup he had won eight years earlier in 1966. He was sacked just a month before his pounds 7,500-a-year contract was due to expire. His eventual successor, Don Revie, was hired at three times his salary. As with Hoddle, the removal of Ramsey ended a period of some embarrassment for the FA. They had cited his "contempt for the public" because of his refusal to adopt a more media-friendly stance, but what really got up their noses was his steadfast opposition to the selling of the England strip for sponsorship. He believed that the white shirt with the Three Lions motif was something that money should not buy. Such perverseness sealed his sacking and when he went, Admiral soon followed Revie on board.

Although both are Essex men and both played for Tottenham, Ramsey and Hoddle are certainly not two of a kind. Sir Alf, ever the pragmatist, was not a particularly articulate man, yet, unlike Hoddle, you always knew what he meant. One could never have imagined him volunteering to a young Times reporter his philosophies about past or after life. Indeed, no one knew whether he had any religious beliefs. We knew he had little time for Scots, once infamously called the Argentinians "Animals" and was not adverse to telling intrusive hacks - and FA officials - where to go.

Alas, serious illness - he was hospitalised last summer with a heart condition and is believed to be suffering from Alzheimer's - means that we cannot know what Sir Alf, now 78, thinks of Hoddlegate. No doubt he would sympathise with the manner of his departure. But Hoddle, as a player and a manager, was not his cup of tea. "Oddle, Oddle? Would you want him on your side in the trenches," he responded when, in the Eighties, we discussed the then England squad over lunch. "Too inconsistent," he sniffed.

Ramsey had no time for arti-fartiness in football. Hoddle's delicate flair was not to his taste and neither, I suspect, would be his custody of the England team. Mrs Eileen Drewery, Hoddle's spiritual sponge carrier, would not have got nearer the England dressing-room than bringing in the tea in the Ramsey regime.

Yet he did have his idiosyncrasies. His constant companion on the bench, and in the team coach, was for some inexplicable reason the FA's travel agent, a quirky character named Basil who always sat alongside Sir Alf in an England tracksuit. No one ever dared to ask him why.

The probability is that Hoddle will not be unemployed for long, yet it is curious that Sir Alf, with his vast reservoir of international knowledge, was never called upon to contribute as an elder statesman of the game, or even as a television pundit. It was this, more than his sacking, that left him bitter and resentful.

Sir Alf, bless him, won the World Cup without wings, while Hoddle couldn't win it with a prayer. But, in the end, both suffered the same fate and, as a Bible student, Hoddle might suggest they seek consolation in Matthew 25:30. It's that bit about the unprofitable servant being cast into outer darkness amid much weeping and gnashing of teeth.