Wise men drive game to distraction

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The Independent Online
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown; especially when someone else's head is in it at the same time. Whatever the merits of the Football Association's appointment of Glenn Hoddle as England coach with effect from 1 June, the timing of the announcement was not only deplorable but carries with it hidden dangers for both Hoddle and Terry Venables, the man he will eventually replace.

Wicked minds will no doubt cast the thought that the FA chose last week to finalise their bid to entice Hoddle from the management of Chelsea FC so that it would upstage the gripping climax of the Premiership season. So it did to a certain extent, diverting our attention from the veins throbbing in the temples of Alex Ferguson and Kevin Keegan. But how dare you suppose that they did this deliberately to remind the clubs that there is but one supreme power in the game. Where do you think you are: rugby union?

My complaint about the timing refers to the more delicate matter of a smooth succession between the incoming and the outgoing coach and ensuring, meanwhile, that Venables and his chosen squad get a clear and uncluttered run at the European Championship which begins in five weeks' time, in case you'd forgotten. The FA have managed to foul up both of these desirable aims.

While Venables was getting accustomed to being a back number before he has had the opportunity of guiding England through a single competitive match, Hoddle was experiencing the wit and wisdom of British football writing.

The fact that he is a Christian was the first personal fact to have their mouths agape in astonishment. Had he been an Islamic fundamentalist or even a born-again Buddhist, a slight measure of deference might have been exercised. But a Christian in England? In football? The Daily Mirror found it so chortle-worthy they even re-wrote the Lord's Prayer for him, a sample of this crudity being:

"Bung me this day, a decent head.

And forgive us our bad passes, as we forgive those who outpass against us."

There were reactions of a less excrutiating and more thoughtful nature. The headline over an article by David Mellor in the Daily Mail asked: "Is This Man Too Nice to Save England?" This is a question we could never ask about Mr Mellor but it does lead to the supplementary enquiry: do you need to be a bastard to manage England? Some may answer that you certainly have to be a daft bastard, knowing what nonsense you must endure.

I am not averse to a little knock-about fun with our sporting leaders myself but I wonder why the FA chose this time to expose their new man to it. I made the observation when Venables first announced his intention of quitting the job when Euro 96 was over that the FA should leave the appointment of a replacement until the incumbent had finished this summer's business. It made sense then and it makes even more sense now.

We didn't know at the time, neither are we more the wiser now, the precise reason for Venables's decision. He is entangled in a Gordian knot of litigation that will require court appearances in the autumn but he should have known that the nation's attitude to him and his problems will be shaped entirely by how England perform in the forthcoming tournament.

If he wasn't inclined to realise that himself, the FA should have realised it for him. Instead, they mounted a highly public and increasingly frenzied search for a successor that has dragged the names of managers like Kevin Keegan, Gerry Francis, Howard Wilkinson, Bryan Robson and others through the public prints. They all had the good sense to distance themselves very smartly from the possibility which was hardly complimentary to the image of the job. It became a long-running bore that was interrupted only by rumours that Venables was about to be persuaded to stay.

In these circumstances the capture of Hoddle is a coup for the FA and a tribute to the young man's patriotic optimism. Already he has been quoted as planning a revolution in English football, wanting to reshape the international and club approach from top to bottom. This is the stuff the fans want to hear.

But what if England win the European Championship under Terry Venables? It is by no means a prospect to be dismissed. He stands today not much less likely to win it than Alf Ramsey did before the 1966 World Cup and if that not indistinct possibility occurred would Hoddle still feel he had a mandate for wholesale changes?

Can you imagine Venables walking away from the final at Wembley on Saturday 30 June with the trophy in his captain's hands; the cheers of the nation ringing in his ears; telegrams on the way from the Queen and John Major, if he's still there; and Hoddle waiting in the wings to rip it all apart and start again?

I argue not against Hoddle as a choice but against the position he had been needlessly put into. Understandably, Venables has not invited him to have anything to do with the England effort over the next two months. Why should he? Every scrap of professional reputation Venables has is invested in these championships. He was entitled not to have this sideshow inflicted on him and his squad. Hoddle will spend Euro 96 wandering around on a well-publicised periphery while his countrymen do battle. It is an uncanny situation that could have easily been avoided.

THE popular wisdom about snooker is that it has lost its appeal. This may well be true if you count the old ladies and the rest of the passing trade at which the BBC aim much of their sporting coverage. But to the genuine sport fans the game has always retained its watchability and the current world championship has been particularly riveting.

Steve Davis, Terry Griffiths and Jimmy White rose above the unstoppable flood of young players long enough to tantalise us over an absorbing fortnight. I'm even grateful for Ronnie O'Sullivan because I'm one of those negative watchers who can get as much satisfaction out of willing a ball to miss than out of urging it to go in.

Sometimes there comes along a player who you want to see lose even more than you want his opponent to win. I fear that this is happening to young Ronnie, despite his undoubted talent. His demeanour makes him hard to admire. There is the consolation that he is still young enough to change. Many people would be delighted to see that.

JUST as pets grow to look like their owners, commentators acquire vocal characteristics from the sports they cover. Hence, the output from the larynx of Murray Walker sounds like a Ferrari with loose tappets while the voice of snooker's Ted Lowe is exactly how you'd expect green baize to talk.

Lowe is leaving us tomorrow. The thunder of the last ball dropping into a pocket at the Crucible will signal the end of his 50 years' involvement with the world championship. His hushed delivery has been synonymous with snooker's success as a television sport and the nation will be less soothed without him.

At the age of 75 he deserves a break. Apparently, he's been announcing his retirement for the last five years but nobody heard him.