Football: The final spur driving Hoddle: Chelsea's Cup encounter with Luton has particular resonance for their manager. Norman Fox reports

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The Independent Online
IF ALAN SUGAR should soon decide that Tottenham Hotspur's courtship with relegation has been an unacceptable experience, the worthy but unfortunate Ossie Ardiles would surely go. The question of a replacement has already been raised and though Sugar may not favour another mild- mannered manager, the chances are that Glenn Hoddle, who next Saturday takes Chelsea to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final against Luton Town, will be given first refusal.

The suggestion that Hoddle may go back to Spurs and replace the the man he succeeded at Swindon Town is one that for the moment he can shrug off with talk of Chelsea's first chance of reaching a Cup final since 1970. But if Chelsea win, do well in the final and avoid relegation, they are still likely to find themselves struggling to resist an attempt to take him back to what remains his spiritual home, White Hart Lane.

Hoddle is probably in his last season as a player and the chance of making his farewell appearance at Wembley, either on Saturday or in the final, is one he would welcome and David Pleat's thrusting but inexperienced Luton should fear. He insists that his loyalty is with Chelsea, not least because they offered him refuge when he returned from France with a knee injury that threatened his playing career. They let him train with them and in return asked that in the then unlikely event of his regaining full fitness, they should have first call. But then Swindon offered him his first manager's job in succession to Ardiles.

Hoddle says he has often thought of returning to Tottenham. Being the decent sort, though, he will not erode Ardiles's position by saying that Tottenham's troubles make him more or less interested. For the moment he has to worry about another former Tottenham man, Pleat, as well as his tendinitis problem which was aggravated playing against Sheffield Wednesday.

Among those who believe Hoddle's experience and vision on the field would swing Saturday's game in Chelsea's favour is their former centre-forward Peter Osgood who says that at Wembley Hoddle can find space like no other player. 'His passing would put Chelsea in a different class,' he said.

Luton have some well- travelled players, particularly Trevor Peake and Kerry Dixon, but they are basically home- spun. As a tribute to Pleat's work, they have become a formidable cup team. However, Hoddle might make even the confident Scott Oakes consider coming back each day for extra ball-skills training.

If Hoddle did return to Spurs, Pleat might envy him the opportunity, even if the saying 'there used to be a football club there' sticks. He ought to have been the most successful Tottenham manager since Bill Nicholson and England manager to boot, but scandal crossed his path. Hoddle, with his back- to-brotherhood outlook on life and principles of playing thoughtful football the way most successful international teams perform, has the old Spurs ethos in his soul. But he has a long way to go to match Pleat's managerial pragmatism, which is exactly why Luton have a chance next Saturday. Making bricks without straw is Pleat's forte.

A curiosity of the tie is that three of the Chelsea squad, Mal Donaghy, Paul Elliott (still injured after 18 months) and Mark Stein, used to be at Luton and were sold to keep the club alive. It was Stein who inspired Chelsea's run of good results which might have kept them out of the relegation zone had not recent inconsistency belied the quality of their 'double' over Manchester United. However, Stein now has an ankle injury and is unlikely to play. For Kerry Dixon the opportunity to show his former club that he can still knock in the goals is one he relishes. 'For me it's going to be the most emotional day of my career.'

When Luton were without him last Wednesday at Millwall (a diplomatic injury), the inexperience of the younger players was exposed. But a lot of nonsense is talked about Dixon acting like some mother hen by protecting the youngsters and bringing them on. He demolishes that by saying that he never consciously tries to make their progress easier. 'I'm too busy looking after my own game for that.'

Until the Cup run, Pleat knew that at the end of the season his best young players, especially Oakes, would have to be sold to keep the club afloat. 'That's the way it's always been at Kenilworth Road.' Now, even if Luton lose to Chelsea, Pleat has been assured that no player need be sold. If they do reach the final, a proportion of the pounds 1m gathered from the run will be used in the transfer market (Pleat has been in Scotland this week looking for a bargain). If Chelsea win, a proportion of their takings may have to be used to keep Hoddle at Stamford Bridge.

(Photograph omitted)

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