Sport On TV: Better to be a Spanish donkey than an England coach

IT'S BEEN going on for years, it seems. Professional sportsmen slipping away to clandestine assignations with women who are good with their hands, all the while maintaining a conspiracy of silence. But then we always knew footballers were spiritual beings.

"Who's to say? In 10 years' time every team might have a healer," a certain former England coach opined in Hoddle and the Healer (Channel 4, Tuesday), which was not so much a documentary as a party political broadcast on behalf of the New Age Party.

I can only suppose that Glenn Hoddle and his faith-healing guru, Eileen Drewery, enjoyed some measure of editorial control over the film, as there was not a single dissenting voice. Instead there was a clutch of testimonials - all of which, it has to be said, were either outright lies or proof positive that healing works.

When he was manager at Southampton, Lawrie McMenemy sent one of his long- term walking wounded to a Drewery-alike, Olga Stringfellow, sister of Peter, who does a bit of laying-on of hands himself, apparently, in the crystal and pyramid room at his New Age nightclub.

(Pardon my flight of fantasy; I've been a little overwrought lately).

"She had a fag in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other," McMenemy said. "He started to take his top off and she said: `No, no'. She took two fingers and ran them down the back of his neck. She went down two vertebrae and said: `You've got a bad neck'. He said: `How do you know that'?" He hadn't touched his toes in years, but "after half an hour he was sweeping the palms of his hands along the floor."

McMenemy recommended Stringfellow's eccentric services to Steve Coppell, who sent Mark Bright to see her. "She said: `You'll go to bed tonight and when you wake up it'll be OK'," Bright recalled. "I asked: `How do you know?' `Poppa told me'."

Poppa was her spirit guide, in case you were wondering.

Poppa don't preach to Drewery, who relies on the Lord's Prayer to kick- start her sessions. She varies her treatments, too. When Danny Maddix, then with Spurs, was suffering with an intractable foot injury, part of his therapy involved rubbing the affected area with vodka and oil. Maddix didn't specify whether it was snake oil.

Hoddle also had his say in The Lion's Den (BBC1, Wednesday), an examination of the appalling way in which this country's newspapers sometimes conduct themselves. What Spaniards do to their donkeys and Greeks do to their dogs, we do to the coach of our national football team.

The film was put together by Brian Alexander, a man enviably qualified to investigate the unconscionable pressures imposed on the England manager. The current presenter of Sportsweek on Radio 5 Live was, as the programme could hardly avoid mentioning, the sports editor of The Sun when Graham Taylor woke up one day to find himself transformed into a root vegetable.

Alexander now harbours a soupcon of regret about his role in that seminal episode.

"We were angry fans with a medium through which to vent our anger," he says. "But there was no malicious intent. The `turnip' thing was supposed to be a bit of fun but it kind of backfired and now I think we went too far." That'll be a comfort to Taylor and his family every time some drunken bum upbraids them in the street.

Alexander goes on, with breathtaking disingenuousness, to criticise those who have followed his example when dealing with Hoddle.

"I really don't think he deserved all the `Mad Hod Disease' stuff. It became absolutely vicious." Absolutely vicious, and absolutely in the tradition nurtured so zealously by Alexander and his red-top chums. The turnip raised the stakes, lowered the tone and roused the rabble. And it's been like that ever since.

Taylor has his chance in the programme to beard Alexander, who tells him: "I vas only following orders" - sorry - "I was just one small spoke in the wheel."

"You weren't so small because you were the sports editor," Taylor reminds him, a point repeated later on by the journalist Steve Curry.

Bobby Robson put his finger on the real issue: "The problem is, we are expected to win every game and we won't because we are not the best." And, to paraphrase New Labour's theme song, things are not going to get better.

(I wonder if you were as nauseated as me, by the way, at the news this week that a lyric sheet for that vile song, signed by the Cabinet for God's sake, is about to go up for auction.)

The Bosman ruling, in fact, means that the D:ream of winning another World Cup will remain just that. How will it be possible to have a decent national side when the number of elite opportunities for domestic players is so limited? Net importers of players like England are likely to constitute the second tier of footballing nations over the next few decades, and I believe net exporters like the Scandinavians and Africans will come to rule the world. When we've reached that stage - and it's not far away - it won't matter who the England coach is.