Football: Time to banish sins and needle

The recent spate of red and yellow cards must become a thing of the past
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The Independent Online
WHEN THE England players assemble today for the European Championship "double header" against Bulgaria on Saturday and Luxembourg the following Wednesday, one of Glenn Hoddle's first priorities will be discipline. He will tell his squad to forget any ideas that referees are going to become more lenient on that uncomfortably large proportion of the team who seem incapable of disciplining themselves.

"These days the players have got to look at their own responsibilities," Hoddle said. "The referees are not going to change. The rules have, so the players and the coaches have to change as well." Following last month's defeat by Sweden, the need to focus minds on the dangers of further damaging England's hopes in the championship by creating unnecessary disciplinary problems has been thrust to the forefront of his agenda as a result of the absence through suspension of David Beckham from the crucial first game and Paul Ince probably from both matches. The Uefa disciplinary committee will almost certainly extend Ince's ban from one match to at least two as a result of his saying a few choice words of Italian to the Italian referee in Stockholm, never mind the domestic argument over whether his obscene gesture as he left the field was or was not directed at the England assistant coach, John Gorman.

Seemingly, Hoddle was not the least surprised at Ince's tetchy behaviour. Indeed he said he had seen the player behave in much the same way "time and again" for Liverpool, though more often than not without punishment. That is not to say he has any intention of doing anything more by way of criticism than reminding Ince that he has cost England strength in the one area of the pitch where, against Bulgaria particularly, they are going to be at their weakest - midfield. The Bulgarians claim they are not interested in Euro 2000, only the next World Cup, but, as Hoddle remarked: "Take that with a pinch of salt".

Sadly, Beckham, a player who could calmly destroy a team uncertain of their priorities but was famously sent off during the World Cup, seems not to have gained much maturity from the experience. He was fortunate not to have suffered the same punishment when playing for Manchester United against Bayern Munich on Wednesday and is clearly one of the worries Hoddle says are more important to him than continual gossip about his own future or whether or not England should use the services of a faith healer. He suggested that Beckham has his misconduct scrutinised disproportionately more closely than that of other players, but that he is prepared to face the United player with the problem.

With Michael Owen and Jamie Redknapp also under the threat of suspension if they add another yellow card, Hoddle is well aware that it is essential that none of the players incur the displeasure of the referees in the next two matches. The task of recovering from the Sweden defeat is going to be difficult enough without self-inflicted wounds. "We actually played better when we were reduced to 10 men against Sweden, but I'll be talking to the players about walking away or counting 10 rather than reacting," Hoddle said.

The fact that so many of the latest, virtually unchanged, party also happen to act like loose cannons is clearly a worry for the coach who admitted that, when selecting his squad, he had to take into account the possibility of further suspensions following the first game against Bulgaria. There is not enough English talent available in these days of foreign dominated Premiership clubs for the national coach to be troubled by such matters, and from what he has said, he intends making the point more strongly than he makes most of his bland statements.

With England's European Championship campaign going into hibernation for five months after the game in Luxembourg, and the loss of a friendly match against Yugoslavia, cancelled because of the situation in Kosovo, Hoddle is about to discover whether he is going to have a long, cold winter of further criticism or can go into negotiations over a pay rise with slightly more credibility. Whatever else he may have got wrong, the choice of players to help him through this difficult period cannot be faulted.

Controversy over the "revelation" that some of the England players had been injected with high-vitamin supplements refuses to go away. When it was put to him that the public was right to be suspicious about anything that was given by needle, he said: "I just think if that's the way we think, we've got our heads in the sand." He insisted he would not ask the players to take anything more than he as a player had benefited from, particularly when playing for Monaco under Arsene Wenger. He said: "These are not drugs. Everything is above board. In April we wrote to 40 players asking them if they would have blood tests. Only one club raised a query."

Probably he is right to be more concerned about players who get the needle in that other sense.

l Hoddle's worries increased last night when it was confirmed that Paul Scholes, who missed Manchester United's victory at Southampton with a foot injury, is struggling to be fit for the Bulgaria game, thus limiting the coach's midfield options. West Ham's Rio Ferdinand limped off with an ankle problem at Blackburn.

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