For Hod's sake, give England a chance

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At Some point during Wednesday's proceedings at Wembley it would have suddenly dawned on the more cynical why England are fighting so desperately hard to host the World Cup finals in the year 2006; it is the only way they can be sure of qualifying to play in them in the foreseeable future.

This may be a cruel assumption, but had the Prime Minister held last week's much-publicised Downing Street jamboree in support of 2006 on the morning after the Italy game instead of the morning before the occasion might have lacked the defiant patriotism supported by such heroes from our footballing past as Sir Stanley Matthews, Sir Bobby Charlton, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse and Geoff Hurst.

It is difficult to bang a drum when the skin has lost its tautness and there was too much slack in England's performance against Italy to prevent the onslaught of doubts even unto their ability to earn a place in the 1998 World Cup finals in France.

The immediate and least avoidable conclusion following Wednesday's 1- 0 defeat is that Italy will take the automatic qualifying place that falls to the winner of the group and that England's hopes now rest on finishing closely enough behind them to qualify as the best runner-up. Even this more modest ambition, however, calls for them to win their last three games, one of them away to Poland, in a flood of goals.

If that task proves beyond them but they still manage to pip Poland for second place, they will feature in a play-off against one of the other seven runners-up. This could turn out to be Scotland but, whoever it is, England are faced with a long road before getting that far.

The message that it could be a dark and nervous journey was carried by odd stirrings in the air well in advance of the kick-off on Wednesday. Glenn Hoddle's attempt to hide the fact that a number of his more experienced players were ruled out by injury was a strange deception. I'm all for confusing the enemy but I fear that England's strength is such that any team they put out would have been unlikely to cause much of a stir in the Italian ranks.

But I don't doubt many Englishmen were confused. Being a God-fearing man, Hoddle might not realise that the support of a significant number of his team's followers manifests itself in the form of betting slips and knowledge of the absentees might have caused them to go steady on the wagering. I can't complain because it worked the other way for me. I had backed Italy to win 1-0 at odds of 6-1 - plus Zola to score the first goal at 11-2. Had I known David Seaman and Tony Adams weren't playing I would have made an upward revision in my estimate of the Italian victory margin. It is an ill-wind...

As for the strange episode about Matthew Le Tissier's selection and the blurting out of it by his brother on a radio programme, I would be surprised if Cesare Maldini attached any more importance to that than he would have to a body being washed up on the Naples shore-line with a copy of Hoddle's game plan in its pocket.

The wisdom of Le Tissier's selection and the sadly familiar pattern of the England performance has been too thoroughly dealt with to need elaboration here. Clearly, Hoddle has a lot to learn on and off the field but I hope he will be given time to do so. From England's point of view the saddest error was made by the members of the FA International Committee who refused to engage Terry Venables until after next year's World Cup.

Allowing him to walk away after taking England to the semi-finals of Euro 96 was a gross dereliction of their duty to stand by their man in defiance of the campaign waged against him. The clouds of litigation above his head seem to have lifted, he is now manager of the Australian team and last week took control of Portsmouth FC. Whose future would you like to bet upon; that of Venables or those he left behind at Lancaster Gate?

It is pessimistic, but not outrageously so, to question England's ability to reach France next year. Neither will it be any easier in four years' time. They will forever find themselves stuck in a group with a team of Italy's calibre and one or two eastern European countries whose standard seems to be improving. For Wales and Northern Ireland the chance of ever qualifying for a World Cup has been looking bleak for some time. Scotland need to improve quickly to escape from sliding into that category and the same shadow is creeping near to England.

More immediately, one home defeat by no means invalidates the FA's claim to be awarded the right to welcome the football world to these shores in nine years time - although I gave reasons last week why they've got a bloody cheek to try - but it did tend to saw quietly away at the struts supporting John Major's campaigning platform.

The presence of Charlton and Hurst at Wednesday's rally was a reminder of England's glorious victory in 1966. But the legendary figures of Matthews, Finney and Lofthouse exhumed memories of England's ill-fated first acquaintance with the world's premier sporting competition in the 1950s when England's finest first began to suffer against better-equipped foreigners.

The signal that Hoddle must interpret hasn't really changed since. It is not a beneficial use of his time to try to find players with the wit and the technique to flourish at this level - it is his job to disguise successfully the infrequency of their existence. It's what Sir Alf Ramsey did, what Bobby Robson almost did and what Venables might have done.

It Was good to welcome back rugby league last weekend. Even in its new souped-up version, union still lags behind it in continuous action and what strikes you after its absence is you can see and appreciate more in league because there are no rucks and mauls to obscure what's really happening.

This applies especially to the naughty moments and when Bobbie Goulding of St Helens came close to dislodging the head of Wigan's Neil Cowie there was little doubt about what his fate should be. The BBC cameras focused away from the ensuing brawl - it is wonderful how they protect us from these awful sights - but I'm told that it was pretty spectacular, too.

Goulding has been suspended for eight matches and the clubs have been fined pounds 15,000 for the punch-up. Appeals and legal threats are flying around in all directions but if this is an example of a game determined to start a new season as strictly as it means to go on, it is difficult to find fault with their judgement.

Lord MacLaurin, Tesco's top man and chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has been making an impression in New Zealand. Players will get single rooms in future, even those who can't face the dark on their own, wives will be welcome on tours and everyone will smarten up and attend courses on how to handle the media. There are, as yet, no plans for media courses on how to handle the players but it sounds impressive.

But England batsmen will fear that all this new-broomery by the supermarket chief carries a snag - like an express check-out for anyone with five runs or fewer.