Hoddle's damaging distraction

Before naming his side for the match against France, the England coach must again cope with controversy
JUST WHEN you thought it was safe to start salivating about the French haute cuisine on offer at Wembley in 10 days' time and England's attempts to bring their own distinctive flavour to the table, Glenn Hoddle comes bashing at the nation's door like a Jehovah's Witness at a loose end.

It appears almost incongruous to remind ourselves that a mere 74 days have elapsed since a goal apiece from Darren Anderton and Paul Merson against the Czech Republic left England supporters in good heart at the culmination of an international year when the Posh boy's play-pen petulance tended to obscure the rarefied heights explored against Argentina, and the gloomy lowlands to which his side descended, in Sweden and at home to Bulgaria in Euro 2000 qualifiers.

This Thursday, when Hoddle reveals his squad to face the world champions, should have been a relatively tranquil period in which to contemplate merging "possibles", including Emile Heskey and Julian Joachim, with the "certainties, if available" such as Sol Campbell, David Beckham and Alan Shearer.

While the latest controversy surrounding the coach cannot affect decisions already made on the make-up of his squad, it cannot be anything but a huge distraction to his preparations, when there are already enough vexed questions to be resolved, particularly that of Alan Shearer. Although he enjoyed a splendid afternoon yesterday with a goal and man-of-the-match award it was hardly a typical one this season for the England captain whose halcyon days appeared to have passed.

The player principally charged with the breaking and entering of the opposition's back door had had the misfortune, albeit temporarily, of mislaying his jemmy. Even while recognising the maxim that form is transitory while class is permanent, the fact is that Shearer's goal against Villa was only his fourth for Newcastle since September and that, at present, Ruud Gullit's chill St James' Park billet, where icy stares are apparently more commonplace than warm humour, is not the place to receive a pre- England boost of confidence. In the circumstances Hoddle may be tempted to deploy that Anfield alliance of the Cheshire cherub, Michael Owen, and the Toxteth terrier, Robbie Fowler, even though they still have to convince that they have a true affinity.

There is a certain irony in the fact, of course, that it was Hoddle who brought Gullit to England and Stamford Bridge, an act which instigated a chain of events which has resulted in the Dutch genius preaching a wisdom at St James' Park which has not fallen well on all ears. That the Newcastle striker and captain Robert Lee are seriously out of Toon with Gullit, is in little doubt. Lee could be on his way to West Ham or Southampton, and Shearer, understood to be unhappy about the treatment of Paul Dalglish, the son of Gullit's predecessor, together with his own lack of influence and disagreement of strategy under the present regime, is likely to follow.

Shearer, with that obduracy he invariably displays when challenged, would no doubt submit that, even in an indifferent season, with the below-the-surface intrigue more torrid than the BBC's Sunday night bonkathon, The Lakes, he has still amassed 11 goals in 24 games, and that while lacking a skilled breech-loader for his formidable array of weaponry. Indeed, last Saturday, his one goal against Bradford in the FA Cup tie was the execution of his only chance. More pertinently, he would insist that club form is no guarantor, or indeed, the reverse, of competence when on international duty.

Shearer is obsessively single-minded, and while you cannot imagine him demanding a stress counsellor, he would not accept being omitted from the starting line-up with approbation. His last performance at Wembley, against Bulgaria, was by his standards uninspired, but Hoddle, who was at Coventry yesterday observing the Liverpool duo, will be comforted to discover that on a day he would probably rather forget a man who used to be his first name on the team-sheet has declared his intent to lead England out, whatever advocates of Owen and Fowler might say.

As Hoddle will be only too aware, France will be as difficult to prise open under their new coach Roger Lemerre as they were under his predecessor Aime Jacquet. As coach to the French military squad for the last 12 years, the 57-year-old has already exhorted the virtues of "hard work, discipline and organisation". It will require subtlety and fleetness of foot to infiltrate a defence which could contain Chelsea's Franck Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly. Both Fowler and Owen possess that in abundance. As their manager Gerard Houllier insisted in this newspaper last week they are very different players, but it doesn't mean, ipso facto, that they are necessarily compatible at international level.

Certainly, they can be devastating as a pair when Liverpool are on the offensive and the passes are being threaded through from Redknapp, Berger and Ince but, as yet, neither hold the ball up particularly well when their team are under pressure, which partly explains why Manchester United were able to exert such relentless pressure on the Liverpool rearguard in last Sunday's FA Cup tie. Whatever Hoddle's decision on Shearer, there will be those who trumpet Andy Cole as a partner for Owen, in the absence of the injured Dion Dublin.

Presumably, Hoddle is big enough to ignore the Manchester United striker's castigation of his selection policy if he considered him worthy of enhancing the England cause. However, the player's attitude, in itself, must concern the coach, along with the fact that King Cole is not so merry without his "soul brother", Dwight Yorke, alongside him.

It will be intriguing to discover whether several young players who have advertised their claims in those 74 days are called, as well as those who have been absent through injury, such as Tony Adams. If they are, it will be purely to give them experience of the senior set-up. With Poland at Wembley the following month and European qualifying points crucial, the starting eleven against France will surely be replete with experienced performers Hoddle knows he can depend upon, not the result of radical experimentation.