"DID HE he say that? Did he really say that? If he did, let's have him. Let's ******* have him."
And have him they very nearly did. Less than 24 hours after those words were uttered in the corner of a Buckinghamshire social club, the red ink on the tabloids' mastheads might as well have been Glenn Hoddle's blood.
So what had he said? Facing a press conference two days before England's match against the Czech Republic, Hoddle had responded to a question about the importance of the event with a carefully modulated reply suggesting that this friendly fixture was not, after all, the World Cup final, that it was an occasion for experiments which formed part of a continuing process of development, and that even if things went badly he would learn something from the evening. More, indeed, than he might be taught by an untroubled victory.
These reasonable words were not what his interrogators wanted to hear. Their questions were designed to lure him into a response that would justify the waving of Union flags on their back pages. They wanted promises that would make nice fat, jingoistic headlines. Promises that, if broken, would produce even bigger, blacker headlines. That would raise the stakes for Hoddle while putting the newspapers, in effect, into a no-lose situation.
Patriotism sells papers, whether generated by the activities of the SAS or the national football team. The other commodity that raises circulations is conflict, and the motto of the tabloids has become: where there is peace, let us make war.
And therefore, in case you hadn't noticed, there were two confrontations going on at Wembley on Wednesday night. The first, a game of football between England and the Czech Republic, arranged to fill the six-month void between qualifying rounds for the European Championship finals, ended in a reasonably convincing and comfortable 2-0 win for the home team. The second, unadvertised match was staged between the England coach and a group of men who would no doubt be ready to produce commercial statistics in support of a claim to represent somewhere around a third of the country's population, and an even higher proportion of its football fans. This match, too, ended in a victory for Glenn Hoddle - but a narrow, temporary and highly conditional one. And the bitterness of its conduct made the 90-minute affair on the pitch look like a ballet class for nine-year-olds.
None of this ought to be very important. It is only a game of football, after all, and these guys, even the journalists, are all paid enough money to induce feelings of, let us say, modified compassion in those watching from the touchlines. Yet the mood surrounding the England football team has been rendered sour and rancid by this running battle, of which this week's exchanges represented merely the latest and most unedifying skirmish.
When Hoddle and his media minder, David Davies, convened the press to announce the England squad before the weekend, the mood was superficially genial. Hoddle spoke of the new faces, young and old, brought in to replace several injured stars, and there was a gentle and apparently conciliatory reminder of earlier problems when he was asked about the absence of Paul Gascoigne. "At this moment in time the game has come just a bit too quick for him," Hoddle observed. "I'm pleased he's addressing his problems, but two games [for Middlesbrough] isn't long enough. In February [when England play France in another friendly] he'll be in much better shape, mentally and physically, hopefully, to be brought back in. If he's performing at his best, he's going to be very much in our thoughts."
At the Bisham Abbey sports centre on Monday, after taking part in an eight-a-side with his players, Hoddle's mood seemed as serene as the late- autumn sunshine as he talked about how successfully Ian Wright had prolonged his career by looking after his physical condition, and how well Dion Dublin had overcome various setbacks, including omission from the squad for the World Cup finals last summer. But towards the end of the question- and-answer session there was a hint of darkness when he was invited to comment on David Beckham's involvement, two days earlier, in the incident which led to a red card for Tim Sherwood, the Blackburn Rovers captain.
A legitimate question, given the pivotal effect of Beckham's temperamental flaws on England's fate in France last July. But there was already a wary note in Hoddle's voice as he tried to soothe the sting out of the matter by indicating that he felt a measure of progress had been made in Beckham's behaviour. "I'll be talking to David about that privately," he said. "I've seen good performances from him since the World Cup, and controlled performances, and there's still an element in him that could be improved, but he's working on it, and that's the most important thing."
It wasn't enough, however, and the tendentious follow-up question came, asking if it was now time to leave Beckham alone to get on with his football, he refused to be drawn into the affirmative reply that would have resulted in a "Hod says hands off Becks" back-page splash.
Still, there was time for one last try. Had Beckham become a marked man? "No. But whether he is or not, it's immaterial. David's got to deal with it."
The journalists left the press conference feeling disappointed. When they listened back to their tapes, however, they decided that Hoddle had, in fact, said more than enough. The next morning those innocuous, emollient remarks had been transmuted into tabloid gold. "Hod takes Beckham to task." "Don't be a brat, Becks." Hoddle's suggestion that he would be "talking to David about that privately" had been hyped by the Daily Star into the assertion that "England's coach confronted the Manchester United superstar last night about the weekend clash with Tim Sherwood", while the Daily Mail suggested that such an encounter was "set to re-ignite the war of words between the England coach and Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson".
Hoddle had read those stories when he faced the press again on Tuesday morning, and his mood had blackened. His manner was terse and suspicious; his words were defensive and unenlightening, sometimes contradictory. The new players, he said, were not to feel that they were on trial; yet in the next breath he was saying that the match offered "a chance for them to stake a claim for the Poland game" - England's next competitive fixture, in March. "They can't do that if they feel they're on trial," he claimed. Yet how can any player put on an England shirt without feeling that he is facing a trial? The ability to cope with such a test is what separates the true international players from the also-rans.
This was when, looking for something to put in their stories, the journalists tried unsuccessfully to get Hoddle to exaggerate the significance of the match. And this was when he made the fateful comment: "I might learn a lot if the game doesn't go our way."
The price for refusing to come up with the goods was apparent in the next morning's papers. Readers of the Sun didn't even need to turn to the back page, where the headlines were scathing enough: "`I'm not too excited by this match tonight" - If that's how you feel, Glenn, how the hell do you expect the players and supporters to react?" But on page one another story attacked the England coach in far more damaging terms. "You're a coward, Hoddle" was the headline above a story outlining the resentment of the Manchester United striker Andy Cole at Hoddle's recently published explanation for leaving him out of the squad.
Elsewhere Hoddle was criticised for leaving Gareth Southgate on the bench, after the Aston Villa player had hurried back from doing duty at the birth of his first child, the suggestion being that Southgate's dash should guarantee him exemption from the coach's wish to use the opportunity to give a chance to players on the fringe of the squad. "Another desperate piece of man-management by Hoddle," said the Sun, whose columnist came to a truly mindbending conclusion: "If Glenn Hoddle's public relations were like his passing used to be then he would be a great England coach."
As if that wasn't enough of a wake-up call on the morning of the match, there was also a minor but nevertheless nagging hangover from the previous evening's game at Portman Road where Hoddle's England Under-21 side, coached by Peter Taylor, had lost to their Czech equivalents in front of 14,000 mostly school-age fans. The visitors' wit and imagination - symbolised by the verve of Milan Pacenda and the drive of the twins Tomas and Lukas Dosek, who combined to create the only goal of the match - had put the young Englishmen to shame. Only Kieron Dyer, playing in front of his home crowd, seemed to belong on the same pitch as the Czechs, an odd phenomenon since the Ipswich midfielder was the only non-Premier League player in England's starting line-up.
So before the kick-off at Wembley on Wednesday night there was the sense of being present at an event which might have turned into a public execution, and that such an outcome would have suited some people very well. On a comparatively trivial level they would have received their payback for Hoddle's refusal to come clean over various team matters during the World Cup, for his admirable silence over the Gascoigne affair followed by the contemptible revelations of his published diary, and for various other slights, real or imaginary.
Much more seriously, the final humiliation of Hoddle would have reconfirmed the power of a section of the media - meaning the vertically integrated, cross-collateralised business interests of a few empires - to regulate the affairs of the nation. The synergy of newspaper and television interests depends for its profits on the endlessly renewable dynamic vitality of its chosen narratives: on constant bickering between members of the royal family, on embarrassing gaffes by politicians, on internecine war between footballers and their managers. If conflict exists, it must be exposed. And where there is none, it must be generated, and expressed in its own special language: the narrow-column lexicography of rage, fury, snub, lash, quit, flop, blast, storm and shame.
In Hoddle, the tabloids found a suitable target - a prickly character unprepared to contemplate the exposure of his own flaws. Not quite a Will Carling, a man apparently willing to live his life on their terms, with the inevitable result. But certainly not a Mike Atherton, one who manages to make himself seem invulnerable - although at what cost to his inner life and to the true expression of his abilities, the rest of us can only guess. On Wednesday night, it did not happen. Hoddle got away. Yesterday morning the papers were waving the flags again in celebration of a victory whose significance they had been responsible for creating. Ian Wright's ageless spirit, David Beckham's mature resolve and Lee Hendrie's youthful promise had bought the coach a peaceful Christmas. But it isn't over yet, not by a long way.
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