We can only imagine Glenn Hoddle's destination now if fate, and a bizarre faith, had not taken an unkind hand. What if referee Kim Milton Nielsen, the man who sent off David Beckham, had not been officiating when England faced Argentina in France 98? What if Hoddle had not consented to be interviewed by a particular journalist and ambled away from the safe city- centre of purely football conversation into the kind of dangerous side-streets that, for all his protestations, should have been off-limits?
Who knows? Almost certainly, he would not be managing a Championship club, albeit in Wolverhampton Wanderers one who resonate with the echoes of too many past glories and too few recent ones, and who currently languish in mid-table.
But that was then, when England coaches, whatever their status and their achievements in the game, were granted a wage which made them a far more dispensable breed. Terry Venables, out after failing to agree a new contract after Euro 96; Hoddle, forced to resign following his references to disability being "a payback for sin in previous lives" after France 98. Meanwhile, Sven-Goran Eriksson, on a contract which until a News of the World sting had loosened the handcuffs which were making him a self-imposed prisoner, has remained virtually immovable, regardless of performances.
Paul Ince, who played under Hoddle in France 98 and is now his captain at Molineux, takes a cynical view of recent events. "Terry Venables lost his job because it was said he had too much baggage; Glenn makes a statement and he has to resign. Then look at what Sven's done. It makes a mockery of what happened to them," says the former Manchester United man, who is reacquainted with his old club in today's fourth-round FA Cup tie at Molineux. "Look at that game in 1998 against Argentina; if Beckham hadn't got sent off, England would probably have gone on to win the tournament.
"Glenn's done nothing wrong as far as I'm concerned. We played some nice football. Had some good players. Apart from Wayne Rooney, who'd make any team, we had giants of people, like Alan Shearer and Tony Adams. Maybe we weren't as talented, but in terms of players with 110 per cent desire, we were as good as today's players."
From Ince, the self-styled "guv'nor" at Old Trafford, who plans to become the real thing himself in his future career, that is no oleaginous advocacy on behalf of his manager. He does not need to do that. At 38, his playing career is virtually complete. And, anyway, he has never been one to suppress his opinions, such as when he was asked if Eriksson had denigrated the role of England coach.
"Yeah, he's definitely abused the situation," Ince retorted. "Those alleged affairs, and going to see other clubs [Chelsea], and what he's said about Aston Villa, he's basically taken a liberty. You imagine if Glenn Hoddle had done that, or Terry Venables, or Kevin Keegan..."
He adds: "It doesn't matter whether Sven goes now or after the World Cup. If the England players have got any balls about them, they'll just get on with it. There'll be mistrust if your manager has said something about you [as Eriksson did to the fake sheikh about David Beckham, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney], it'll stick in the throat a bit. But once the games have started you just focus on winning the World Cup."
As a former England player - the Ilford-born midfielder garnered 53 caps - he doesn't concur with today's counterparts who argue that the FA should revert to an English manager. "You've got to have the best manager, haven't you? Just because of the Eriksson situation it doesn't mean we can't look outside again.
"Or why not look back? Terry Venables did a great job." The name of Ferguson is broached. "I don't see any reason why not. We're talking about [Jose] Mourinho or Arsène Wenger, so why not talk about Sir Alex Ferguson?"
These days, Ince speaks about the Scot with something approaching affection. It was not always thus; not by any means. The pair had their differences, right up until the end of the midfielder's six years at Old Trafford. "I remember a game at Norwich. We won 3-0, but five minutes before the end, I decided to take the piss. Go on a little mazy [run]. But I lost the ball, and they nearly scored. He came in and went absolutely mad at me. I wasn't happy. I started shouting back. It was only when I got home that I understood where he was coming from. I realised the standards that the man's got. At the time I was fuming. I was close to going for him." He pauses, and laughs. "And vice versa."
He presumably didn't find the words in Ferguson's autobiography so amusing, though? Observations such as "If footballers think they are above the manager's control, there's only one word for them - goodbye", the Scot's explanation for selling Ince to Internazionale? He shrugs. "I've got broad shoulders. I'm a man. I can take all the shit that comes my way. No, I had a great time under him. I sweated blood for that club. I was part of the team who won a first championship in 26 years."
How do this generation compare? "Not as good," he dismisses the notion unhesitatingly. "I believe ours was the best Man-chester United team. Even that 1999 Treble-winning side wasn't as good as what we had in 1994, when we won the Double."
The absence of an enforcer is all too apparent in United's current squad. "When I arrived [from West Ham] Bryan Robson was there. I learnt a lot from him, he was my hero as a kid. Then I took his place, and then [Roy] Keane came along, and when I left, he took over. Since then it's stood still. The problem is you'll always struggle to find a player like that."
Which is why Hoddle will encourage Ince to continue playing as long as possible. And why, today, United may live to rue the spectacle of their old boy in that familiar combative mood.Reuse content