Football: World Cup: Hoddle's mind games reveal only madness

England in flux: `Mental and emotional torture inflicted on squad saps players' confidence and energy'
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The Independent Online
IN A month's time Glenn Hoddle may be saluted as a tactical genius. He may in fact have done for football what Tony Blair has done for politics: New Labour; New Britain; New way of winning matches.

Hoddle, we are constantly told, likes to keep his cards close to his chest. Hoddle, the coach, sells dummies to his players and rival coaches as Hoddle the player once did to Spurs' opponents. As a player at the highest level there was little more to Hoddle than dummies. He was a hero only in his own head.

For a few of the more impressionable Fleet Street judges Hoddle became a cause celebre: he was special; English football did not understand - and therefore could not appreciate - his genius.

A Garbo-esque mystique enveloped Hoddle. He was an enigma, possessing, his advocates insisted, special powers. A chap can become fond of such an aura. Alas, Hoddle the footballer won damn all where it matters, on the pitch. Graeme Souness, who was relatively easy to decode, kept winning all those cups and medals. James Cagney meets Greta Garbo: only one winner.

Hoddle has kept the hand he must play this afternoon against Tunisia so close to his chest that, as I write, the England team is unknown. Southgate or Neville, Anderton or Beckham. Beckham or Scholes... or Batty. Owen or Sheringham. For weeks now Hoddle has been playing mind games with, well, everybody.

This will bother his players, eroding their confidence, chipping away at, say, Teddy Sheringham's self-respect, an inevitable consequence of the endless speculation about his fitness to wear the England shirt.

On the eve of the most important series of games in their lives, England players such as Sheringham, Beckham, Owen and Anderton could do without the debilitating business of playing mind games. Subjected to the kind of mental and emotional torture Hoddle has inflicted on his squad, players' energy and confidence are sapped. Worse, before any game, never mind a World Cup tournament, players need to concentrate, focus on their role, play the game endlessly in their mind. That is how you get into the character you must be on the day of the game. In that context I wonder how Sheringham and David Beckham feel. Correction, I know how they feel. Somewhat demoralised and somewhat drained.

Hoddle's calculation appears to be that men who are insecure will perform with more commitment. A more sensible deduction might allow that men professional enough to achieve the distinction of earning a place in the England squad have proved themselves worthy of trust.

This morning, as he and his players prepare for their greatest challenge, we can be certain of only one thing: that at least two of those players selected to start - possibly more - will go into battle believing they are on probation, out there on sufferance, subject to their manager's whimsy. Hoddle has manoeuvred himself into an unenviable position. In the circumstances his claim last Thursday that his England side is the "best prepared ever" is ridiculous.

He evidently also believes that the cloak and dagger stuff creates problems for rival coaches. The assumption here is that men like Mario Zagallo, Daniel Passarella, Aime Jacquet and Cesare Maldini go to sleep at night pondering the composition of the England team.

Are we really to believe that? Rival coaches may fear Alan Shearer and the Englishness he embodies but watching Glenn Hoddle's machinations they will sleep more easily in their beds.

The flux besetting England will indeed also comfort Henryk Kasperczak, the former Polish international who coaches Tunisia. If England must be taken on, there is no better time than when they are coached by a man who clearly cannot make up his mind about his best eleven. A man who one day muses about playing Darren Anderton at left-wing back, the next selects to play him at right-wing back. A man who has been committed to playing Sheringham alongside Shearer for the past two years yet omits him from the final "closed doors" practice match because he had a few drinks in a night-club 13 days before the opening World Cup match.

That the lurid depiction of Sheringham's night out with his mates should impose on England's plans defies belief. Footballers, some of the greatest, have always enjoyed a few bevies. Frequently, it was the men who liked a good night out who would be most likely to do the business on the football field. One recalls, fondly, Bryan Robson, Billy Bremner, Kevin Moran, Dave Mackay (with whose nocturnal legend Hoddle, as a former Spurs player, must have been acquainted) and several of Matt Busby's great pre-Munich side, Tommy Taylor, Dennis Viollet, and Mark Jones, all of whom loved to let their hair down between games.

Is Hoddle seriously suggesting that Dave Mackay's place would have been jeopardised for being pissed 13 days before a big game? Apparently.

Instead we see Sheringham thrust before the television cameras, canvassing for a place in England's starting line-up. Moreover promising goals, yes plural. Not one goal, boss, I'll give you two. This is the stuff of the lunatic asylum.

Coached by a man of more substance in less melodramatic circumstances, you could fancy England to go a long way in France. Maybe not potential winners but a serious team, they possess in Alan Shearer the great player so many of the other putative challengers are without.

What France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany would not give for a striker with Shearer's quality. Most of those nations will probably travel further than England. The teams that endure in this tournament will be built on solid foundations. The simple football virtues of passing, movement and good defending are always in vogue. Such things matter more than mind games and systems that demand of good players that they play out of position. Darren Anderton is no more a wing-back, right or left, than David Beckham is, at this stage in his international career, a midfield general.

Sol Campbell will be exposed playing in that left-sided position in the no-man's land between centre-half and full-back. It is the position, incidentally, in which Gianfranco Zola turned Campbell to score the winning goal for Italy at Wembley.

For Campbell, Tony Adams and Gareth Southgate (or Gary Neville) to be protected in the 3-5-2 system Hoddle prefers, England must press hard and tight in midfield.

Unfortunately a core value of this system as deployed by Englishmen - a hard tackling, ball-winning midfield - is going to be virtually impossible under Fifa's new tackling law. Almost one week into the tournament we know that gifted players are being protected, allowed by law to turn and spray the ball around. It is going to be a steep learning curve for Paul Ince and David Batty. The rash indulgences of the Premiership will not be permitted in France. David Beckham and Graeme Le Saux are also destined for early baths should old habits die hard.

England stand on the brink of the abyss. The team that takes the field this afternoon will not have played a competitive match together before. Not a single game. That is truly unbelievable.

Glenn Hoddle may well have discovered a divine muse that eluded all the football men who went before him. But the smart money bets that a debacle awaits, contrived by him. Contrivance in place of conviction?

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