Football: Remote control rattles Hoddle

but the national side would prefer a cotton-wool countdown for their inspirational playmaker; Ian Ridley says the England coach is feeling frustrated by unwanted distraction s
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The Independent Online
WE ALL recall China and Hong Kong because of the Jump Club and Cathay Pacific but hands up who remembers England's last six games before Euro 96? Exactly. That is why, no matter how mournful the 1-1 draw in Switzerland, it is somewhat premature to wonder whether it is starting to go wrong for Glenn Hoddle or whether the potential pressure of the World Cup finals is getting to the England coach.

There may be flaws and concerns but as yet it is still phony-war material. At the moment, Hoddle is the Tony Blair of football. Rome last October and the goalless draw against Italy which took England to France was his huge majority, Chile and a 2-0 defeat last month his single- parent-benefit issue. People can ask whether the delivery will match the promise but now is too soon to say. Besides, the debate may go on and on but ultimately the vote is likely to go the way the leader wants it.

Hoddle received criticism from several sources as the indulgence he had earned after Rome began to dissipate with the defeat by Chile and almost to dry up with the dross against Switzerland. The players do not warm to his "spiritual" ideas, it was suggested; it was Alan Shearer and Paul Ince who changed the tactics that secured the draw against the Swiss. He doesn't know his best team; the strain is taking its toll, as his walking away from a television interview illustrated.

He would not be human if some of it did not hurt but publicly he says he cares not a jot; "I couldn't give two monkeys," in Hoddle-speak. The impression in this quarter is that Hoddle does not seek warmth, only respect. It is probably only wise to listen to senior players. And the TV interview was a "flash" one of the type that coaches will have to endure during the World Cup on their way to the dressing room.

What probably did get to him last week, apart from a heavy cold, was frustration. For two months now he has been unable to work on ideas in training with the players he wants for France. Next month he will insist that everyone selected for a squad, and possibly a few more on the fringe, attends a get-together so that physical testing - such as weight and vitamin levels - can be conducted, along with talk-ins and video sessions.

It probably pains Hoddle, too, that while his every waking hour is concerned with the World Cup finals, for others - players and club managers - other matters preoccupy. It must leave a man who enjoys being in control feeling powerless. Then, when the squad do get together, Hoddle is unable to do all the work he would like because of the tiredness of many. Last weekend, for example, he had to cancel one training session on a day scheduled for two.

In addition, Hoddle has to go over old ground for new replacements in the squad, some of whom may be short of the quality he would like, and about whose shortcomings he has, apparently, been frank on the training pitch, which has taken some of them aback. It is a problem for all great players who go into coaching but Hoddle should know that the art is in making players feel good and the best of the available material.

Hoddle, you suspect, does know his best team, the basis of which is the old David Seaman-Tony Adams-Ince-Shearer spine - and with Paul Gascoigne among the key figures. Anything else between now and 15 June when England kick off their tournament in Marseille against Tunisia is just window dressing.

It is curious how Gascoigne disproves the old Gary Player saying that the harder he practised the luckier he got. The less Gascoigne plays, the better he seems to become. He should not start for Middlesbrough against Chelsea in the Coca-Cola Cup final today. In fact, he should stay injured for the rest of the season. That way he could well become Footballer of the Year.

With every match he misses and England play, the pining for his talents - those on view in the video replays of the mind's eye, that is - becomes more wistful. But England proved last week that they need him to give and get passes, to keep and protect the ball, to invent some service for starved strikers. Above all, any whimsy about his absence apart, they need him fit.

It is why there is such a Boro' ballyhoo and why Gascoigne is usually the most talked-of England player whether he is with the squad or not; why Hoddle almost adopts different selection standards with him. He knows, too, how sensitive is the self- destruct button on Gascoigne's chest and probably wishes he could tie his hands behind his back. Hoddle will be happy if Gascoigne can play six games for Middlesbrough this season along with a few of England's last four warm-up games before the World Cup finals, against Portugal next month, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Belgium in May.

Hoddle has no worries if Gascoigne is fit, it seems. He remains concerned though that the timebomb called Gazza could still be ticking. "He has come a long, long way," said Hoddle. "You can see a maturity in his play but I don't feel you are ever out of the woods. He can easily slip back into his ways again if given the opportunity."

Form is not necessarily a criterion with Gascoigne, Hoddle added. "It won't bother me too much if the ones who have proved at this highest level that they can perform go through a dip in form. I think Paul is one of those, like Alan Shearer and Paul Ince." Hoddle also points out Gascoigne's value as being the only member of the likely 22 for France with experience of a World Cup finals.

Gascoigne's sure selection, if fit, forms part of a picture that is developing from England's preparations; that no matter what happens, no matter the route taken, the team will eventually return to the same place. Hoddle may talk of England being motorways behind Brazil but for him all autostrada lead to Rome. He will experiment with personnel and formations but it looks more and more that the 11 he fielded in Rome, with the then injured Shearer replacing Ian Wright, will be his standard side. And only three of those started in Switzerland.

There may be adjustments. One issue, which the friendly against Portugal may begin to resolve, will be whether to move David Beckham inside, possibly in place of David Batty, to see if he can become a centrally creative force, and wearer of the Gascoigne mantle should injury or self-destruction again dictate. England may also need at times to be more attacking than they were in Rome.

Then again, if Gary Neville is used as the right wing-back in Hoddle's preferred 3-5-2, would the loss of Beckham's crossing for Shearer be too great an omission to bear? In addition, every way of integrating the talented Steve McManaman must be considered, though for the opening game - a match it is crucial not to lose - Batty is likely to start alongside Ince in midfield.

The rest of the build-up is simply to discover the composition of England's second XI, important enough given that suspensions and injuries are going to play a key part, and that few of the creative players - and probably not Gascoigne - will be effective for 90 minutes, thus necessitating options.

Berne may have confirmed all this - Batty's late composure and Teddy Sheringham as the best link between Shearer and the midfield - but Michael Owen should remain a viable contender. One senses still that Hoddle would like to take a fit Ian Wright but Owen's pace, seen only patchily, could be a potent weapon from the bench.

Hoddle received more criticism last week for questioning whether Owen was a natural goalscorer and it was probably his clumsy way of trying to keep the 18-year-old's feet on the ground. He did, after all, remark that the boy had taken his breath away at times this season.

It is in such moments as these, in his treatment of some players, that the flaws and concerns have emerged but after the last couple of games, things can only get better. Can't they?

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