Football: Wright's world ends in despair

IAN WRIGHT flies back to England today with his international career, and his dreams of a starring role in next month's World Cup, over. After missing out on Arsenal's Double triumph through injury, this second blow in a month left even the effervescent striker deep in gloom.

Wright suffered a hamstring injury in Wednesday's victory over Morocco which will take at least two weeks to heal. As he was already struggling to regain full match fitness after six months of injury problems, Glenn Hoddle was forced to rule him out for France.

Wright's absence offers the likes of Les Ferdinand, who will probably start today's match against Belgium in Casablanca, a fresh chance but it robs England of a good squad man, capable of playing a part on and off the pitch.

At 34, Wright is unlikely to play for England again despite Hoddle's professed admiration for him. "I'm so disappointed, above all because I think England can go a very long way in this World Cup and I wanted so much to be part of that with the boys," said Wright, as he prepared to leave England's training camp in La Manga. "No manager has shown greater faith in me than Glenn Hoddle. I can promise the boys that they won't have a bigger supporter in France or at home than me."

Wright's words were echoed by Hoddle. "I am very disappointed for Ian because he has worked so hard and made so much effort to get into the squad," the England coach said.

Wright played 31 times for England, scoring nine goals. Even though four of those came in one game against San Marino his record was respectable given that he only started 16 games and rarely played the full 90 minutes - he did so three times in 11 appearances under Hoddle.

His finest match was probably the selfless one in Rome when England achieved qualification with a goalless draw. Yet, had Christian Vieri converted Italy's last-minute chance, Wright might have forever been remembered for hitting the post a minute earlier at the other end.

With the emergence of Michael Owen, Wright's importance to England has declined in recent months and he is not among that core of players whose absence would seriously weaken England's chances. Even so, there was much sadness in the squad yesterday especially as Wright, having been left out of the 1992 European Championship squad when in prime form, never played in a major tournament and never gave up trying to be ready for this one.

With injury previously claiming Jamie Redknapp, Hoddle now has to cut just five more names by Monday. Six players - Ian Walker, Nigel Martyn, Rio Ferdinand, Rob Lee, Nicky Butt and Paul Merson - will await the unveiling of the team to play Belgium with special trepidation. None have so far played in this week's final trio of matches and the prospects look bleak for any left out today.

Paul Gascoigne will play some part but not the whole match. He urgently needs a better performance than he put in against Morocco. Hoddle, who exempted Darren Anderton and Dion Dublin from criticism over the poor first-half passing in that game, picked out Steve McManaman's aggressive running, positional discipline and work-rate as one of the better aspects of the second.

McManaman added that something extra to an England side that has a tendency to appear pedestrian in midfield. Ironically, since he prefers a free role, his best work came after he was moved to the left flank in a 4-4- 2 formation. Hoddle, having come to the job pledging to copy the German 3-5-2 method - with a sweeper, markers and wing-backs - has reluctantly begun to embrace four at the back.

Belgium, who lost a tepid match 1-0 to France on Wednesday, will be useful opposition. Like England their strengths are solid defending and potent forwards, notably Luc Nilis and Luis Oliveira, a naturalised Brazilian playing for Fiorentina.

They are an aging team, which could give Michael Owen another chance to show his prowess as a substitute. "He can give you a different dimension when he comes on," said Hoddle. "He has two great assets, pace and the movement that comes from an understanding of the game. Very few players have both."

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