Words from the unwise, guilt by Association

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The Independent Online
Cast in the role of football's first supergrass, the England coach Glenn Hoddle ought to be thinking very seriously this weekend about how he is going to escape unscathed from a controversy that is still gathering relentless momentum despite the strong counter- attractions of the start of the Premiership season.

At the very least, when the England football squad gather at Bisham Abbey tonight for their first get- together since the World Cup, Hoddle ought to be on the door to welcome them with the words: "Anything you say may be taken down and used in my next book." Alas, I fear that not enough contrition has entered the soul of the England leader for him to warn his men that he doesn't regard divulgation as a deadly sin.

Perhaps, he isn't planning to produce a Compendium of England Gets-Together - if that's the right plural - as a sequel to his latest work, Glenn Hoddle: The 1998 World Cup Story (Drop, Clanger, Bollock and Goolie, pounds 17.99), to be published on 20 August and which was serialised amid great controversy in the Sun last week.

Various sums, ranging from the plain silly to the bloody mad, were said to have been paid by the newspaper for the privilege of carrying Hoddle's words but, whatever the amount, they probably got their money's worth. Six days of roustabout extracts from the book and the tumultuous publicity that greeted them is not a bad return, and for him to blame their headlines for the controversy is pathetic. Who did he think he was dealing with, the Beano?

Many famous names had a walk-on part in the drama, especially Paul Gascoigne, although his was more of a storm-off role, and its revelation caught the imagination and, in most cases, the indignation of a vast number of people. Not that Hoddle's description of Gascoigne's violent reaction to being dropped from the World Cup squad would have been a massive surprise to those familiar with the player's turbulent nature, but the source and the timing of it certainly carried a high shock factor.

It is hardly surprising that the most wrathful and immediate response came from Bryan Robson, Gascoigne's manager at Middlesbrough who paid pounds 3.5m for him when he was transferred from Rangers towards the end of last season. The club must have watched his World Cup torments in dismay and only now would be daring to hope that their large investment might pay a dividend after all.

But any stability Gascoigne had been re-structuring in readiness for the challenge of a new season would have been severely tested by Hoddle's Tuesday headline "Drunk Gazza Trashed My Room". As we saw yesterday, Gascoigne is quite capable of causing his own headlines but neither he nor the club and their fans deserved that on the eve of a new season - and certainly not from the England coach who, one day, may need the forbearance of all three.

Robson's reaction was matched in its anger by a blast of critical opinion from elsewhere. There were the trained bombardments of columnists happy to be handed a large target on a slow day - although I'm happy to report that the lads all chimed in with one voice - but it was the spontaneous condemnation of Hoddle's indiscretions from within the game that inflicted most damage.

He did have the consolation of a lone voice of support in Football Association chief executive, Graham Kelly, but by that stage the FA had to say something. If they didn't back him they had to scold him because, as Gordon Taylor, of the Professional Footballers' Association, pointed out, disrepute charges have been issued over far less lurid material.

Normally, in an organisation like the FA an official who is clued up on these matters would have cast an eye over the book for potential pitfalls. Unfortunately, David Davies, the FA's PR man who advises Hoddle on what is right and proper media-wise is the one who helped him write it. Apart from any other peril in such an arrangement, it is difficult to spot the morality in a situation where the man employed to lead England through the World Cup and the man primed to keep the nation informed about it are keeping all the best bits so that they can flog them later.

As for the book itself, Gascoigne is not the only person entitled to feel aggrieved. Chris Sutton, the Blackburn striker, upset the coach by refusing to play for the England B team and as a result will never play for England as long as Hoddle's in charge.

Here again, we can sense a lack of wisdom. If Sutton scores 20 goals for Blackburn in the next two months, and plays like a dream in the process, is his country expected to tolerate his non-appearance in the England team because he has offended the coach?

However, when the fuss about the personalities involved has died down the part of the book that might prove the biggest embarrassment is his devotion to the faith healer Eileen Drewery. England were not blessed with the best of luck in France, but Hoddle was rather fortunate to see his team exit so early from the fray and come home to the nation's sympathy rather than its scorn.

There's nothing wrong with being lucky but for him to write that the only mistake he made over there was not to involve Mrs Drewery more stretches his credibility to the limit. This publication is already a millstone around his neck and why he felt it necessary to write it in this fashion is a mystery that might not be solved until Eileen's book comes out.

Before cricket arms itself at great expense with ranks of special cameras, electronic tracking devices or even lbw-sniffing dogs it might be an idea to approach the umpiring problem from a slightly different angle than that provided by a television lens.

The bulk of the controversial leg-before decisions made during England's series-winning victory at Headingley last weekend concerned the umpires' failure to spot that the ball had clipped the bat first. Few would condemn them for this because it was only slow-motion blow-ups that revealed their errors.

Not being a student of cricket's laws, I have been asking experts of my acquaintance why we don't deprive batsmen of this loophole and make the umpire's life much easier. I have yet to have a satisfactory answer.

You are out if you play the ball on to the wicket, and you can be caught bat and pad, but if your pad gets in the way of the ball hitting the wicket you're not out. I know it is bound up with the rule that you can kick the ball away after playing it but it still doesn't make sense that, broadly speaking, the merest touch on the outside edge of the bat can get you out but the same touch on the inside edge keeps you in. It is a technicality the game could surely do without.

There's no getting away from the stuff. I was being pleasantly badgered by a PR lady from Cardiff's new Sports Cafe inviting me to meet one of the many sports personalities they have visiting the place this week.

"On Tuesday," she said, "we've got Viagra Tuigamala." I thanked her politely but said it wasn't the sort of rousing interview I was looking for.