Hoddle the gambler rides; his luck

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The Independent Online

Sheringham, pen 18

Fowler 54


Attendance (at Wembley Stadium) 48,076

There is a school of thought which contends that Glenn Hoddle, like Graham Taylor, is a backer of hunches. Taylor's reign as England manager was characterised by a number of odd selections, some came off, most did not. While accepting that Hoddle has been hampered by injuries and the pressure to produce instant results, his first five teams have not given the impression of a vision, as Terry Venables' came to do. They appear more a series of gut reactions.

When a manager plays his hunches the first requirement, as Napoleon asked of his generals, is for him to be lucky. So far Lady Luck is merely flirting with Hoddle. Against Moldova the decision to cap David Beckham was vindicated, while the involvement of Andy Hinchcliffe had been justified by the time he was injured.

Against Poland at home Alan Shearer's finishing got Hoddle out of the fix created by pairing Shearer and Les Ferdinand up front without a linking player. David Batty was then an inspired choice away to Georgia.

Then came Italy at Wembley and both judgement and luck deserted Hoddle. The team were ill-prepared to deal with Matt Le Tissier's sudden inclusion, Sol Campbell, a success at right-back in Tbilisi, was exposed in the centre and his toe cap created the unfortunate deflection which beat Ian Walker.

So to Mexico on Saturday. A chance to experiment had been diminished by the spate of withdrawals but, a month too late, Hoddle's luck returned as England won 2-0.

All his hunches came off. Few had foreseen Rob Lee at right wing-back yet he proved the game's most influential player. It was a risk playing David James rather than the in-form Nigel Martyn but, despite the goalkeeper twice dropping the ball in the penalty area, Hoddle got away with it. Many wondered at the choice of Ian Wright rather than Stan Collymore when Teddy Sheringham was injured. It seemed the ideal chance to play the Liverpool front three in harness but Wright came on and created Robbie Fowler's goal.

That moment, after 54 minutes, validated Hoddle's decision to fill this blank Easter weekend with a fixture. Fowler was visibly lifted by his goal - an alert and brave poacher's claim - and when he next pulls on an England shirt there will not be a monkey on his back.

Almost as important was the avoidance of injury. Hoddle doth protest (too much, me thinks) that he and the club managers are as one but, had Sheringham, Wright or Lee suffered lasting damage from various foul challenges Gerry Francis, Arsene Wenger and Kenny Dalglish would not have been too happy.

Then there was the luck which had been so absent last month. England's opening goal was as timely as it was mistaken. Paul Ince went down because he fell over the unfortunate Pavel Pardo's back leg, which was bent under him and not moving. One looked, in vain, for Ince to own up. To be fair to him, and the Portuguese referee, it looked a penalty at first sight, especially from where the referee was, and must have felt like one to Ince. Only careful playing of the video established exactly what happened. Incidentally, this took too long to be an argument for introducing video referees.

The goal was not undeserved. After a slow start England had begun to play the patient passing game required at this level. Sheringham, having started alongside Fowler, was drifting deep, losing his marker and becoming involved in the play. A few minutes earlier there had been a move which encapsulated the teaching of Venables and Hoddle over the last three years.

Steve McManaman had won possession on the left and in his own half with a timely toe. The ball was moved back to left-back then wide and forward to the right wing where Lee and McManaman, failing to make headway, played it back to defence to retain possession rather than hoof hopefully forward. It went to David Batty, who found Graeme Le Saux wide on the left. He played the ball inside to Ince and went for the return down the flank. England had been in possession for a full minute - a long time in football - when Ince played the 21st pass of the move out to Le Saux. Had Fowler reached the resultant cross every outfield England player would have been involved - but it went over his head and was safely gathered by the goalkeeper.

All that effort and it came to naught but England were not discouraged. Five minutes later Martin Keown took a throw-in in the right-back position. The ball went all the way to Le Saux advancing down the left touchline before finding its way to Lee on the right wing. Now came the injection of pace and directness as he skipped by two tackles, drove for goal, and picked out Sheringham's astute run. Pardo moved quickly to block only to be penalised as Ince reacted first to the loose ball. Sheringham, despite suffering from a rogue elbow to the head which eventually forced him off, scored the penalty.

For a while the goal deflated the Mexicans' early enthusiasm but England failed to take advantage, only threatening through Lee's volley. They were also disrupted by Sheringham's departure. Wright's arrival could be justified through his greater experience and the fact that Collymore has not integrated that successfully into the Liverpool front-line, but it signalled to the likes of Stuart Pearce and Keown that long balls were okay.

Hoddle said the choice was made as England were ahead and he hoped Mexico, pushing forward, would be vulnerable to a pair of "off the shoulder" forwards rather than someone who comes from deep like Collymore. Maybe, but England began conceding possession, especially as Fowler is not yet skilled enough at retaining the ball.

He did fulfil his main role, ignoring a flying boot to head in from close range after Wright had shown good movement to meet Le Saux's cross with a strong header. The move had begun with one of many good interventions by Lee.

Hoddle now has options for Georgia's visit next month. He will need them, for the list of injuries will again be long. Lee's emergence may enable Hoddle to move David Beckham inside and he may also, for the first time, be able to pair the Euro 96 partnership of Sheringham and Shearer.

A possible line-up, injuries permitting, would be Seaman; G Neville, Adams, Pearce; Lee, Beckham, Ince, Le Saux; McManaman, Sheringham; Shearer. But will Hoddle be able to resist playing three of his chosen, Campbell, Batty and Le Tissier? And what will be next month's hunch?

ENGLAND (3-4-2-1): James (Liverpool); Keown (Arsenal), Southgate (Aston Vila), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Lee (Newcastle United), Ince (Internazionale), Batty (Newcastle United), Le Saux (Blackburn Rovers); Sheringham (Tottenham Hotspur), McManaman (Liverpool); Fowler (Liverpool) Substitutes: Wright (Arsenal) for Sheringham 37; Redknapp (Liverpool) for Batty 53; Butt (Manchester United) for McManaman, 66.

MEXICO (3-4-1-2): Rios (Veracruz); Pardo (Atlas), Suarez (Guadalajara), Davino (UA de Guadalajara); Alfaro (Toluca), Coyote (Guadalajara), Aspe (Necaxa), Ramirez (Guadalajara); Galindo (Santos Laguna); Hermosillo (Cruz Azul), Zague (Atlante). Substitutes: Pelaez (Necaxa) for Hermosillo, h/t; Hernandez (Necaxa) for Zague, h/t; Bernal (Toluca) for Galindo, 56; Pineda (America) for Rios 60; Ramirez (Guadalajara) for Coyote, 66.

Referee: V M Pelo Pereira (Portugal). Bookings: Mexico: Aspe, Coyote.

Man of the match: Lee.