In Saturday's FA Cup final, Hoddle takes Chelsea to Wembley to play Manchester United, whom they have beaten twice in the League this season. If he leads them out in his best suit, United will be relieved and millions disappointed. One last Wembley performance by the player who, anyone who saw him at his beguiling best at White Hart Lane, would unequivocally declare to be the most talented English footballer of the past 20 years, would be something to tell the kids not to miss.
At 36, he now paces himself when he plays. He always did. Pace was never his secret. He thought quickly and his touch was satin. It still is. Cyrille Regis tried to abridge Hoddle's spread of skills by saying: 'You didn't have to come to within 10 yards of him and say, 'Here I am, I want the ball.' He would find you if you were a million miles away.' Henri Zambelli, who played for Orleans when Hoddle was with Monaco, said: 'It's difficult to play against someone who seems to have hands in place of his feet.'
Michel Platini believes that no player of the present generation can equal Hoddle's ability. 'When I look around today, I ask myself, where are the Number 10s?' But then Hoddle was always appreciated more in France than in England, White Hart Lane apart perhaps, though even there he was sometimes accused of not contributing enough. Ron Greenwood could have made him England's axis but allowed fear of defeat to overrule his principles, as did Bobby Robson.
Danny Blanchflower put the whole debate about managers' mistrust of outstandingly skilful players into perspective when saying that far from being a luxury, Hoddle made it obvious that only bad players were luxuries. A simple incident when Hoddle was managing Swindon Town explained his whole attitude to unthinking hoofers. In a training session he asked one of the full- backs to play centre-forward and played a succession of long passes high into the penalty area and over the head of the makeshift striker. Confused by Hoddle's apparently uncharacteristic use of the aimless long ball, the lad asked what was going on: 'Those are the balls you've been sending up to our
centre-forward all morning'.
His astonishingly accurate passing and his invention in a roaming free position that two England managers failed to offer him were the roots of Tottenham Hotspur's five glorious years between 1980 and 1985. He joined the club as a 14-year-old apprentice and in 1987 left after 479 appearances. He was instrumental in two succcessful FA Cup finals and a Uefa Cup win. By the time he left England to make his fortune with Monaco, England had awarded him 53 caps, which should have been 103. Stylish French football consoled him, as did Platini, who said if Hoddle were French he would be the first player named in the national team. Hoddle himself quietly replied to his English critics who said he never did enough defending by saying he never did more of it than with Monaco - but in the opposition's half.
The son of a printer from Hayes in Middlesex, he was so conspicuously talented as a young player that from the age of 11, when Spurs first watched him, it was obvious that he felt other qualifications were unnecessary. He left school with none. Yet later he took to France, its language and its culture. He greatly enjoyed his lifestyle and he repaid Monaco for their liberal rewards by scoring 18 goals in 32 league appearances in 1988-89.
Having once said he would never become a manager, he watched the Monaco coach, Arsene Wenger, drawing the best out of players and decided that this was something he had done as a player, so why not give coaching a try? He threw himself into the deep end by joining Swindon Town as player-manager in 1991.
After winning two French championship medals, his playing career had more or less come to a halt. A serious injury to his left knee had stopped him appearing on a regular basis and when he returned to England, Chelsea offered him their medical and training facilities with the optimistic request that if he resumed playing, they would have first call. Then came the offer from Swindon to replace his former Spurs team-mate Ossie Ardiles. The word 'player' was not mentioned in the contract. But he trained all through the summer and got himself fit enough to act as sweeper for a Swindon side he felt strongly should not have been demoted from the First Division in 1990 for financial irregularities.
He, like many others, felt the people who had been hit were the innocent fans. A case of a born- again Christian fighting the good fight? Not quite. For a start, he has been in professional football for too long to be unworldly, but over the past few years, he has been aware of a spiritual side to his life that developed more deeply in France. He says that, for him, spirituality does not require a religious or even Christian base. He believes more in a destiny in which you are offered options and have to be prepared to take them at the right moment. He also talks a lot about following your own hunches.
Taking the road to Swindon was a gamble (they were heading for the Third Division at the time) but he said that although he always had a hankering for a return, to Spurs, 'I knew at once that it was the right decision.' He did a nice little deal with Monaco, resulting in a free transfer, and got himself fit to play again. With his 'play to feet' style, Swindon's football was widely praised and proved what could be done with players of apparently less than outstanding ability. His use of the accurate long ball rather than the speculative one was an echo of the game he enjoyed in France and it worked in the First Division, from which Swindon climbed in 1993.
Other young managers had found it difficult to make the transition to management and suffered resentment from the players. His attitude was: 'You don't judge experience by counting the grey hairs.' His own ability to use time and space even in the apparent turmoil of an English League game came, he said, from the broader vision older players begin to enjoy but which, at 20 or 25, is beyond most players' scope. As a manager, he spends a lot of his time trying to explain what he means by that, although admitting that probably only other great survivors like Ray Wilkins, Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle really know what he is talking about.
Taking on the perpetually frustrating Chelsea and their seemingly always abrasive chairman, Ken Bates, seemed like tempting his fate beyond reasonable limits. He left Swindon to their fate, which was to go up to the Premiership and back down in one season. Meanwhile, at Chelsea, his determination to play football the considered way saw them go deep into trouble and everyone except Hoddle expected Bates to react in the usual way. But to his credit (he seems to be getting more of it these days), Bates continued to support Hoddle, who nevertheless found that circumstances sometimes dictate some bending of good intentions. When he was injured, the idea of playing with a less gifted sweeper was not on. By the time Chelsea beat Luton Town in the semi-final, they were safe from relegation and playing good old predictable 4-4-2.
Earlier this year, when it seemed that the FA had decided against appointing Terry Venables as coach, Hoddle's name rose almost to the top of their list. He had successfully pulled together a Barclays League XI for one match against the Italian League, but his managerial experience was still limited. It was noted by the Italian team's manager, Marco Tardelli, that the Barclays side played 'in the English style but with more emphasis on technique'. If that is what Hoddle can do for a representative side with one day's preparation, what limits to his future as an England manager? In four or five years' time, he could possibly succeed Venables.
A third victory this season for Chelsea over Manchester United at Wembley next Saturday and his cv will look even more impressive. On the other hand, being a sensible chap, perhaps he may think that his destiny is to steer well clear of Lancaster Gate and wait for a call from his spiritual home, White Hart Lane.Reuse content