Almost as soon as Glenn Hoddle arrived in the Tottenham Hotspur first team he began to play football with a beauty that many in England had never seen before, at least not from an Englishman. The inspirational quality of his elegance extended beyond our shores – Dennis Bergkamp was later to ascribe his own skill on the volley, which contributed to several of his most memorable goals, to study of Hoddle on television throughout an Amsterdam adolescence – but, to the English aesthete, this young man of earnest demeanour but apparently effortless class represented something special: a gangway to the beautiful game. Eureka! Or as Jasper Carrott put it, when told that Hoddle had found God: "What a pass!"
Nor did Hoddle let us down once his playing days reached their autumn and his collection of caps ended at 53: a figure that led Michel Platini and other luminaries of the world game to observe that it might have been doubled in a less philistine country than England tended to be in the 1970s and 1980s. Hoddle became a player-manager at Swindon, where, operating as a creative sweeper, he designed football in his own image to such effect that the club were promoted to the Premier League, and then began the revolution at Chelsea, taking the club to an FA Cup final and the semi-finals of the European Cup-Winners' Cup. The invitation from England that followed had an air of inevitability and, as Hoddle took over from Terry Venables after Euro 96, those describing him as "the perfect man for the job", even though he was not quite 39 years of age, included Harry Redknapp.
He began by introducing David Beckham, who, unlike other members of an outstanding Manchester United generation, had been left out of the summer tournament, and the win in Moldova with which the World Cup qualifying process began was one of nine in 11 matches. The damage done by a home defeat at Italy's hands – in which Gianfranco Zola scored – was restored when England went to Rome and achieved the scoreless draw that secured their place in the finals in France. The previous summer, England had beaten the Italians, along with the hosts, in the customary rehearsal tournament – the Tournoi de France – and Hoddle felt they were serious candidates. Recalling the classic second-round match against Argentina that ended in their failure on penalties after Beckham had been sent off, he declared: "Even to this day, just thinking about it sends a shiver down my spine."
An unusual shiver it was on this day, a glorious spring one in the grounds of a hotel near Hoddle's home in Berkshire, where I had sought his richest memories of an all-too-short tenure. "I was so proud of the lads that day in Lens," he said. "For a start, David should never have been shown the red card – it was a yellow." Hoddle paused. "I had to laugh when I read afterwards that I hadn't even glanced at David as he came off. I can assure you that, when a nation's fate is resting on your shoulders, the priority is what you are going to do next! I'd told Terry Byrne, who was also on the bench, to look after David. The normal decision when you go down to 10 is to take off one of your strikers. But Michael Owen had scored a wonder goal – and the other was Alan Shearer. So, considering that there was nearly half of normal time left, I was bold. I went for two banks of four but sent Alan to left midfield with instructions to rotate with Michael every three or four minutes. Argentina's defenders were having to cope with Alan's strength one minute and Michael's pace the next. Michael took incredible responsibility for a lad of 18 and we had enough chances to win.
"In fact, we were denied what would have been a winning golden goal by Sol Campbell when the ref gave a foul against Alan Shearer that was 50-50. It was one of those sad situations that befall England. I remember thinking that when Sol had a goal disallowed against Portugal in 2004 [for a foul by John Terry]. I don't know about Mario Balotelli saying 'Why always me?' – England should be saying as a nation 'Why always us?' You can go back to 1970, when Gordon Banks got food poisoning and we lost to West Germany. Then there was 1986 and Maradona's hand. And last time Frank Lampard not getting his goal against the Germans. There seems to be something every tournament." Hoddle grinned. "Maybe other nations say the same."
Although England's fall in 1998 ranked among their best received – Beckham alone was blamed – the clouds had begun to gather over Hoddle. He was ridiculed, mildly at first, for using the faith healer Eileen Drewery to work with the squad and there was a story that he had upset Beckham by teasing him at free-kick practice in France. Hoddle regards this as mythical. "The only thing I can think of," he said, "was an incident one day when I did get angry with the substitutes for talking behind the goal while we were practising free-kicks – I told them to pay attention because we might need them during the match. That was something I always insisted on. As for David, all I ever told him was that his free-kicks were our most direct route to goal. I was always positive."
England had played some marvellous football under Hoddle, often in the 3-5-2 formation he employed in order to flood the midfield – it was a key lesson taken from his career as an international, when the amount of running he had to do left him "physically and mentally shattered" – and the ensuing aid to creativity led to memorable performances, one that brought a 2-0 victory in Poland in 1997 being rated by many as at least equal to the 4-1 triumph over the Netherlands under Venables the previous year. Hoddle was excited by the prospect of continuing the development of Beckham and Owen, of utilising the class he savoured in Paul Ince – "some players are a disappointment when you get close to them but Paul was the opposite" – and Paul Scholes and of encouraging Rio Ferdinand to become an attacking libero in the manner of Mattias Sammer, a star of Euro 96 (a more athletic version, you might say, of Hoddle in his latter years). But some in the media – and, perhaps, the FA – did not share his excitement.
The qualifiers for Euro 2000 began poorly with defeat in Sweden and a draw at home to Bulgaria and, although a win in Luxembourg was followed by success in a home friendly with the Czech Republic, Hoddle accepted a suggestion by David Davies, the FA's head of communications, that he do a series of six or seven "friendly interviews" with selected newspapers. The first proved the only one. It cost him his job and left his admirers to reflect on England's infinite resourcefulness in devising ways of parting company with a national team manager. And, according to Hoddle, whose insistence has never wavered in more than 13 years since it happened, it was profoundly unfair. Whatever the truth, he is not alone in still considering it a shameful depiction of our society: as the disabled-rights campaigner Lord Ashley put it at the time, a "witch-hunt" that culminated in a "sad day for British tolerance and freedom of speech".
The interview was given to The Times and conducted by telephone with Matt Dickinson, whom Hoddle remembers opening with 20 innocuous minutes about the imminent visit to Wembley of France, the world champions. "I remember thinking this was a proper football interview," said Hoddle, "just as David Davies had promised. But then the line of questioning changed and it became about my beliefs on reincarnation." Hoddle had discussed these on the radio some months earlier and Dickinson, he said, appeared especially interested in whether he thought disability might be a punishment for sins in an earlier life. "I gave the example of rich and poor but not – never – the disabled. It was, in any case, a conversation requiring hours, days, weeks – not a couple of minutes.
"When I was told that the story had appeared on the front page, I was horrified. Not because of whether I'd lose my job or not – that didn't occur to me – but because I didn't want people to believe I'd said what I was supposed to have said. Especially disabled people. The thought of that hurt a lot." His denials went unheard, along with Ashley's plea that everyone grow up a little, amid a cacophony of demands that the FA dismiss him. "The thing just grew." And verged on farce when the Prime Minister was asked about it by Richard and Judy on morning television. "When Tony Blair said 'Well, if he did say those things...' I realised it was getting out of hand." Within a day or two, Hoddle was sacked, his gifts and experience sacrificed on the altar of an increasingly crass popular culture from which formerly broadsheet organs of journalism no longer even tried to distance themselves.
Yet today he is only 54, wiser and free, apart from his interests in the Glenn Hoddle Academy, a project based in Spain that has earned professional contracts for mainly British footballers, and 20-20 Football, a tournament for ex-star players that goes into its second year at Loftus Road in May. The FA could do worse than to call him in again. David Bernstein and company might be pleasantly surprised by what he has to say, for, if their approach is to let matters drift towards the appointment of a caretaker for the European Championship, he would assure them that they are doing precisely the right thing.
Asked if he had unfinished business with the FA, he candidly confessed: "If I were to die tomorrow, my life would be incomplete." Could he manage England again? "Would I get that opportunity? Probably not. But I don't dwell on the past and, if we fast-forward to the present, I think we have a batch of players capable of going to the Euros and doing well. I find it a very interesting moment. Because Stuart Pearce, Harry Redknapp, Roy Hodgson, myself – anyone – who went to the tournament with the status of a caretaker would have the pressure off him and the players would be liberated too, not least those who have been on the fringes and are accustomed to thinking that the manager doesn't fancy them. Micah Richards, say – I'm not saying he should be in the team or not but he's certainly one who, after maybe not convincing Fabio Capello, could benefit from a fresh start.
"Look at how a caretaker has worked for the England rugby team in the Six Nations – they've done fantastically. Everyone's got an edge. No one's sure of a place and everyone has an incentive. So I'd back the FA if they decided not to go for a full-time manager yet. If Harry goes and does well, fine.
"Knowing the score as I do – having experienced tournament pressure as a player and a manager – I believe, strangely enough, that the situation we are in presents a real opportunity for an England manager. If it goes wrong, as in South Africa, people will say 'What did you expect?' And, if it works, it could be perfect for us to click. And those players will have to click this time, because the next World Cup is in Brazil and history shows we're unlikely to win in South America. Yes, we have to qualify, but if you look at the crop of young players – Hart, Jones, Smalling, Sturridge, Wilshere, Welbeck, Cleverley – most won't be at their peaks until we're back in Europe in France in 2016. Meanwhile, we can have a real go at these Euros."
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