Football: Scratched heads and chocolate hokum

Nick Townsend in Stockholm charts a bizarre week for the England coach
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The Independent Online
NOT for the first time, a faintly incredulous look crumpled the already lugubrious features of Tommy Soderberg, a man who is somewhat redolent of a handsome version of Walter Matthau. He stood in the cramped basement of a Stockholm hotel, hands in pockets, having genuflected towards his audience when introduced, a trifle bemused by the attention, although aware that it had rather more to do with his counterpart's notoriety than his own prestige.

On the eve of England's first Euro 2000 qualifier, their opponents' head coach had been asked to reflect on a whole gamut of contemporary football issues. The usual kind of thing. From the use of a faith-healer - or as the head of the Swedish FA rather dismissively alluded to the ubiquitous Eileen Drewery, "a fortune-teller" - to the former England captain Tony Adams' critique of his national coach's methods, and to the ethics of Glenn Hoddle's own literary outpourings.

Soderberg simply shook his head at the bizarre nature of it all. "When I get time to myself I want to walk up a mountain, and into the forests," he declared gravely. "I have got no time for the writing of books."

Frankly, you could quite imagine him, haversack over shoulder, whistling his way cheerfully round Lake Malaren. In contrast to his England counterpart, he appeared a contented individual, although admittedly three recent "friendly" victories against Denmark, Italy and Russia would hoist any coach's spirits.

It must also be stressed, of course, that Soderberg has not been unnecessarily burdened by confessing to his own duplicity in persuading players to deceive the media, passing critical comment on some of his own men and incurring the ire of others for introducing Mrs Drewery into his regime. He is also not supervising a group of players among whom there are those prepared to bare their dysfunctional souls at the drop of a publisher's cheque.

In a week when squalid tales of Tony Adams' bed-wetting after drunken binges has made larger headlines than Gerry Adams' insistence on an end to Ulster blood-letting, Soderberg could probably scarcely believe the psychological advantage that had been thrust towards him: all of it self-inflicted. As the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter interpreted the situation: "On paper, the English team looks stronger, but an opponent in disarray can't survive setbacks." How prophetic.

Diplomat though he is, it soon became evident that Soderberg regards Hoddle's dabbling in such forces as advocated by Mrs Drewery as hokum. Or as he responded in his broken English: "If you believe in it, that's OK, but I'm more realistic." He added, entering the spirit of the question: "Next year, when we come to Wembley, maybe there will be women in my squad, too."

To say it has been a fraught week for Hoddle is to suggest that Mr Yeltsin has had a little trouble finding a spare rouble for the meter. This has not been so much a learning curve for the England coach, but a plunging graph of public and media goodwill from which his continued survival demands a successful qualifying campaign. Last night's defeat can only increase the burden upon him.

Hoddle, whose own vacations are presumably spent ascending the kind of mount where olives might be found, now understands the scorn suffered by the Prince of Wales during his "I talk to plants" period and is acutely aware that it is cane that will be used to chastise him, should results prove unsatisfactory.

The scoffing over his touchy-feely, quasi-religious attitude to the game could be countered with a little self-deprecation. But that has never been the way for Hodd, constant number 10 in the team of God.

The benign countenance of Sweden's head coach only served to emphasise the petulance and lack of grace of his opposite number a few hours earlier at Stallmastaregarden, Stockholm's oldest restaurant, where the cutlery was decidedly out for Hoddle's critics.

In the Middle Ages, a Danish king named Christian "The Cruel" was ruler of Stockholm and ordered the execution of anyone who opposed his authority. Hoddle, otherwise known as Christian "The Recalcitrant", appeared to have similar inclinations here.

In the same city where, in 1992, Graham Taylor was caricatured with the epithet "turnip" following the European Championship qualifier defeat by the Swedes, so Hoddle is already being portrayed by one tabloid as a chocolate teapot - after the nickname the players have given him "because he thinks he's good enough to eat". The jokes are already unremitting. Sample: What do you call David Davies, the FA's spin-doctor who co-wrote Hoddle's World Cup diary? Answer: The holy ghost, of course.

Having already appeared in a bonding session with his critic Adams in a none-too- convincing portrayal of unity, in this, his last appearance before yesterday's game, the England coach could barely conceal his antipathy towards the media. Every piece of information had to be hewn out of him, like miners seeking precious stones - and extracting precious little. And when it was suggested to him that, given France 98 experience, his revelation that Adams was only 50-50 to play because of an ankle injury might actually just be "a smoke screen" - that is, a lie - there was no humour whatsoever in his response. "I'm not even going to bother to answer that," he retorted sharply.

Little wonder the Swedes have been revelling in their visitors' misfortunes. "It's hard to think of England without marvelling at how literary they've all become," said Dagens Nyheter, adding gleefully: "But these books are important... perhaps it's even our best chance of winning."

In the city of blonds, they've had plenty of fun at Hoddle's and England's expense. Oh, how the laughter continued long into the Stockholm night.

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