Hoddle just the job

Hoddle v Robson: England old boys pit their wits at Stamford Bridge today. Ian Ridley maintains that the Chelsea manager is the more attractive choice to lead his country
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The Independent Online
IT LOOKS as if the footballing shout of "who wants it?" is not just confined to the field. After their meeting last week, the FA's five- man committee charged with finding the next England coach dispatched their consultant, Jimmy Armfield, to determine if the public aversion to the job expressed by several of the leading candidates is genuine.

This time Armfield should not need to wear out another set of tyres, as he did in canvassing opinion before Terry Venables was appointed. Indeed, if not exactly on the FA's Lancaster Gate doorstep, the right man is probably only a tube ride away today, at Stamford Bridge, where Middlesbrough visit Chelsea.

It is not necessarily Bryan Robson, though the case for him stepping up from being Venables's assistant is tempting - if he can be prevailed upon to consider the position. A more willing and equally attractive candidate will be found in the neighbouring dug-out.

Glenn Hoddle and Bryan Robson have always been rivals, it seems, from the moment Ron Greenwood dropped Robson to give Hoddle his England debut in 1979, the Tottenham player responding with a beautifully curled goal in a 2-0 win over Bulgaria. Thereafter, Robson's muscular drive was seen as more reliable, even if his body did not always prove so, by Greenwood, and then by Bobby Robson. Although Hoddle won 53 caps, only twice did he start more than two matches in succession.

One was gritty Northerner, indispensable when fit. The other stereotype had Hoddle a sophisticated but soft-centred Southerner. It was a fallacy, as his face, contorted with commitment, often showed. "I'm very strong- willed. People don't understand that about me," he once said. "They think that with all this touch and flair, I'd have to be a bit soft. They forget I've played almost all my career in Britain where other players from the continent might say 'sod it, it's too hard to play my type of football in England'."

Though it is always unwise to choose the flavour of the month when it comes to results - Chelsea's run of one defeat in 14 matches may be just as deceptive as Middlesbrough's five consecutive defeats - Hoddle's brand of football is beginning to reap rewards.

With three at the back - Michael Duberry, suspended today, is emerging as an outstanding prospect - and John Spencer relishing the role of attacking from deep, Chelsea are becoming a progressive team, more accomplished than the limited one of recent seasons, though Hoddle coached them to an FA Cup final and European Cup-winners' Cup semi-final. The wing-backs Dan Petrescu and Terry Phelan bring a potent blend of precision and pace.

"Things have fallen into place," the Chelsea midfield player Nigel Spackman said. "A solid back line has allowed the team to flourish. I think Glenn would like David Lee to move forward more from sweeper but he is happy enough while we are not conceding goals. Before, Ruud Gullit wanted to come out so much it maybe disrupted it a bit. Now with Ruud in midfield the system is starting to take shape."

There is in Spackman's words an example of the pragmatism necessary: build from the back in more than one sense. Hoddle is clearly no dreaming purist, even if he might give Matthew Le Tissier a run of games. Hoddle was once asked about playing the beautiful game. "The most beautiful game is winning matches," he replied. If continuity really is the FA's concept, then in Hoddle's approach there is more than a hint of Venables. And Robson's: Middlesbrough's system is similar to Chelsea's.

The approach has at times been parasitic, containing and counter-attacking, effective but dull. Gradually, though, Chelsea's self-belief grows and they are building the confidence to seek a match-sealing goal rather than cling on to a slender lead. "The bottom line," said Hoddle, contemplating that point in a cold, empty Stamford Bridge on Friday, "is you don't get any extra points for winning 4-0." That pragmatism again.

Hoddle has, too, become a better selector of players - the signings of Gullit and Petrescu offsetting those of Mark Stein and David Rocastle - and his credentials as a coach, his fires first stoked by the urbane Arsene Wenger at Monaco, begin to look impeccable. "His technical knowledge is second to none," said John Gorman, long-time friend, No 2 to Hoddle at Swindon and now assistant manager at Bristol City. "If England ever offered him the job, there should be no worries because he would do the job brilliantly. If he has the respect of a player like Gullit, that should show he can handle the top talent."

But would Hoddle want the job? "I would think anybody would want it," Gorman said. "The opportunity may never come again. But the problem is that it ruins the rest of your life, with all the media attention on other things than your ability to do the job."

But for Hoddle's cursory regard for the media, which he probably caught from Chelsea, he might already have found himself more widely supported. Spackman said: "He would obviously love the job one day but whether this is the time I'm not sure." It may well be, however. Hoddle has yet to resolve a new contract with Chelsea - "I have always said I'll start talking about it in March," he said on Friday - and he is probably waiting for the fall-out from the dispute for control of the club between Ken Bates and Matthew Harding.

Should he sign a new contract, he is also likely to insist on a clause releasing him to England. That strong will may already be telling him he can cope with the demands.

He is perhaps destined for therole. At 17, he was manager of his father's Sunday team; a successful one, too. He was named by his dad after Glenn Miller, the band leader. The only worry for Hoddle will probably be that, as a young man of 38, should the job go wrong he might no longer be in the mood. Talent, however, should still out.