Hoddle, England and the moral maze

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The Independent Online
Outside, the Hallowe'en wind howled but not loud enough to drown the shrill voices that shrieked at Glenn Hoddle's conscience as he stared at the list of names before him; a list that had one gap to be filled. Harpies leered through the window, tapping out messages on the glass with sharp red fingernails, and a ghostly politician with a pumpkin head mouthed the words: "Remember the moral crusade." But, with a calm and independent resolution that may well become his trademark, the England manager reached for his pen and wrote with a steady hand the name . . . Paul Gascoigne.

Quite right, too. Why should the devil have all the best players?

One day, when he is old and grey - a state to which he will drive many others before he reaches it himself - Gascoigne might care to look back with profound gratitude to his inclusion in the squad to play in the World Cup qualifying match against Georgia in Tbilisi on Saturday.

I suspect he will never realise how serious have been the pressures on Hoddle and the top officials of the Football Association to add him to the bonfire pile of gun-owners, knife-buyers, rebel schoolchildren and assorted miscreants whose curtailed activity is thought to be the very least necessary to build the foundation of a mission to restore the nation to a higher standard of moral and responsible behaviour.

Allegations of wife-beating elevated him from the lowly rank of problem footballer to that of public enemy and a tempting target for the amazing number of avenging angels we seem to have acquired. I venture not a word of disfavour in their direction but first sight of them is frightening and one couldn't help but pity Hoddle as he waded knee-deep through their wrath before making his decision. Hell hath no fury like a women's group scorned and Gascoigne is hardly likely to win them over with a hat-trick against Georgia as he might do with many of us.

Not that strong disapproval of the incident, which led to front-page pictures of his wife Sheryl in all her gory aftermath of his drunken rage, is confined to female activists. Everybody shuddered and even the readers of the Sun, not previously noted for their sympathy for political correctness, voted 5-1 against his inclusion in the England squad.

No one could condone what Gascoigne is alleged to have done. The only person who did was Sheryl, whose lack of prosecution left matters in the air. Many rumours about what could have motivated any such attack have been circulating and Hoddle himself said on Friday that he was moved to retain faith in the player by the depth of his remorse, his willingness to accept counselling - football will one day be run by FA counsellors - and what he has gleaned from his long conversations with Gascoigne.

"Much of what I have learnt has to remain private. I am aware of much that is not - and should not - be public knowledge," he said, casting a large mitigatory cloud over the whole affair.

In his deliberations over selecting Gascoigne, Hoddle would not have been unaware of the quantity of mercy extended to others in the England squad. The fiery Paul Ince, for instance, has been sent off twice in Italy in the past two weeks. Paul Merson, whose drink, drugs, gambling and marital fall-out problems have been become a legend, has had his international career re-established and while all the attention was on the presence of Gascoigne's name on Friday, few spared a thought for Tony Adams. England's former captain was happily recalled following his confessions of a drink problem that were accompanied recently by stories that his marriage is also under threat.

There was a time when we were not aware that our international heroes were subject to any problems off the pitch. They would have been, of course, but it was never made our business. This is the age of stark reality and now we can hardly watch without thinking of the burdens they carry.

It would be no surprise to me if the FA announce tomorrow that they are changing the name of the England team to Repentance United and that their new sponsors are the Salvation Army. Furthermore, if God really does rejoice in every sinner saved, Georgia have no chance whatsoever.

There is a much broader issue here than the players England decide to choose on what I fear will be a long, tedious and disruptive road to the World Cup finals in France in 1998. Those who follow sport closely will be alarmed that a patch they regarded as a private world is suddenly open to interference from outside forces. The belief that sportsmen and women should be selected on their ability and nothing else is being challenged by a determined lobby.

I have complained previously that sport is being required to shoulder some behavioural baggage that other areas, such as the entertainment world or politics, manage to avoid. Sport is constantly put down as just another part of the entertainment industry. Fine; can our participants have the same latitude as pop stars, please.

Perhaps, we have been negligent in not anticipating this development. The century is ending on a note that would be unrecognisable to those who witnessed its beginning. Why should sport be different? This male- dominated world of ours has long been regarded by its inhabitants in the same context as the various wars and minor conflicts in which we have been involved.

It is a ridiculous notion, of course. Fifty years or so ago, Gascoigne would had no trouble being welcomed into the squad for trips to El Alamein, Arnhem, or Normandy whatever the quirks of his personality. Sport is the last bastion of that manly imperative. The days when sportsmen get the same tolerance once reserved for gladiators and warriors are coming to the end.

And while the fag end of it is burning out, they can't begin to understand us or our pre-occupation with the sports we were brought up to love. It will be sad if the battle is lost because we have been betrayed by one of our own.

I wish Gascoigne could understand what he is doing to bring this hail of harridans upon our unprotected heads. He won't be forgiven that in a hurry.

APART from the batting exploits of Owais Shah, the 18-year-old Middlesex schoolboy, on tour in Australia with England A, there was only one reason to think of cricket last week and that was the extraordinary statement from Sussex when they announced that their captain Alan Wells had been sacked.

County cricket captains get sacked frequently but few have been returned to the ranks for a reason stranger than that "it would revive the team's spirits".

I know nothing of Wells apart from the fact that he has played one Test match for England and captained England A in India two years ago. He is regarded as one of our best batsmen and has captained Sussex for the past five years. He has two years to go on his contract and would be snapped up if he was to be released.

Wells says he would have resigned had they asked him. Instead, he has has to undergo what amounts to a personality assassination. If the team's morale is going to be so cheered by his sacking, why didn't they push him under a bus? They could have had a party.