I Agree with Butch

Butch Wilkins, eh? Of all the pundits, in all the world.

Ray Wilkins: the man who when he was Sky’s analyst during the 2005 Champions League Final almost started speaking in an Italian accent at half-time (he played for Milan you know, you may have heard him mention it occasionally); with the slowing of his speech and delicate hand gestures, he was only missing a cappuccino and a pair of sun glasses from an on-air transformation, before suddenly morphing into a Ray Winstone type after the game, adopting a broad cockney accent, extolling the virtues of the British Bulldog spirit, and practically clenching his fists.

Yes, Butch has called it wrong before. But this time he may just be the man who has hit the nail on the head.

There may have been no “my word”, “I am tad surprised” or “that young man”, but Wilkins uttered the great unspoken truth this week: Glenn Hoddle should be a serious candidate to be the next England manager.

To be fair to Wilkins, even in the mid-eighties he was speaking up for Hoddle at his own expense; when Bobby Robson was picking him ahead of Hoddle in central midfield, Wilkins was honest enough to say what most of the country thought at the time, that Hoddle should be in the England first XI ahead of him.

These Wooden Ideas

Those were the dire days of the flat 4-4-2 which still continued after Wilkins’ time as an international player, and into Euro ’88, when Neil Webb was then picked ahead of Hoddle to suit the system. These wooden ideas even carried on when Hoddle was unavailable, and into the first match of the World Cup of Italia ’90, when Chris Waddle and John Barnes spent the game chasing Irish full-backs.

As a player Hoddle suffered at the hands of backward thinking and negative team selection, but so did English Football, and England fans. It is not hindsight that leads me to say 4-4-2 didn’t suit our best talents; at school during a Geography a lesson, circa early 1989, I penned an England team that had three at the back and had Waddle and Barnes in free roles, well over a year before Bobby Robson (with the encouragement of Don Howe and several senior players), played that system in the second match of Italia ‘90. Admittedly my team was only seen by friends sitting next to me, and is a reason that if I ever go on the quiz show ‘Pointless’ I will take someone who actually paid attention in Geography lessons; but it was clear to me even then, playing in straight lines didn’t work.

Hoddle, as England Manager the first time round, recognised that. He had already showed first at Swindon, and then at Chelsea, a progressive approach, playing a passing and moving game with a sweeper (often himself) that could dictate the pace of the game and also step up into midfield.

There was heavy irony that part of the reason that he didn’t win as many caps as he should have was for having a reputation of not being able to tackle, when at both Swindon and Chelsea he showed many times he was a fine tackler; of course though, at his peak, there is no way he should have been tracking back. He knew where he was most potent. But whereas our contemporaries gave Maradona, Zico and Platini license to roam and do damage, our own tactics board were being drawn up in a darkened room, where negativity was king.

Bobby Robson’s change in approach came too late for Hoddle as a player, and was his final flourish as an England Manager, having already agreed to manage PSV Eindhoven at the end of Italia ’90. Robson went on to improve as a coach after his eight years with England, with European experience, first in the Netherlands, and then Portugal and Spain. England, meanwhile, went backwards again, appointing Graham Taylor, who ostracised Chris Waddle for being a flair player, and was of the understanding Paul Gascoigne was only in the team for his set-pieces.

After Taylor’s last match, the dead-rubber against San Marino, when we freakishly, but symbolically, went 1-0 down after seven seconds, The Independent newspaper asked readers to suggest who the next man for the job should be. In those days there before Social Networking or emails and mobile phones were commonplace, as a student, I got the word processor out, and wrote a letter which appeared in print the next day. My choice then was, as it is now, Glenn Hoddle.

While England didn’t appoint Hoddle in 1994, they did make perhaps a better choice in hindsight, selecting Terry Venables, while Hoddle got another couple of years experience in club Management. But international football is surely where Hoddle is best suited. Both Venables, and then Hoddle after him, improved the England first team both technically and tactically. And both left the job for non-footballing reasons.

The Man who should be King

In contrast to what followed after him, Hoddle got the tactics right in big games. I was at Wembley for every one of Hoddle’s competitive home games, although it was overseas where he really excelled. Without the injured Alan Shearer, England still became the first ever away team to get a point against Italy in Rome, successfully finishing top of the qualifying group for the 1998 World Cup Finals. In the Finals themselves, Hoddle planned for a seven match campaign, with first-class preparation beforehand and behind the scenes, while during the tournament taking the whole squad to see who he thought would be their opponents would be in the final, Brazil.

He was brave enough to pick Paul Scholes as his main playmaker, and introduced David Beckham and Michael Owen as the tournament progressed, with Beckham influencing the game from a more central position. Even in the final game against Argentina, once down to ten men, Hoddle rotated Shearer and Owen, so they could both take turns as the front man, while England kept their shape.

A year earlier in France, England won Le Tournoi, coming in for me at odds of 5-1, ahead of the hosts themselves, as well as Italy and Brazil. The 2-0 win against a full strength Italian side was one of the best footballing displays by any England side in a friendly in the last thirty years, with beautiful, fluent, attacking passing and movement.

Hoddle was intent on preparing a side with a winning mentality at International football that would succeed at competition level, and would play with the sophistication and intelligence needed on the pitch.

Coupled with his strategic qualities, Hoddle also improves players with his coaching. In ‘Out of Time’, Alex Fynn and Lynton Guest’s mid-nineties book on football, Hoddle explains how he improved the habits of established players at Swindon late in their career with simple 15 minute training sessions, a method endorsed by glowing testimony from his players, who talk about their improved technique and confidence.

For the national side, that improved confidence and technique seemed to be evident not just in Le Tournoi, but also on a cool Wednesday night at Wembley in April 1998, in a cracking England performance against Portugal ahead of the World Cup, when David Batty suddenly turned into a cute playmaker. (At International Level it is arguable that players shouldn’t need much training on technique and confidence – the performances of the England team at the 2010 World Cup, when we struggled to pass the ball, amongst other things, suggests otherwise).

England won 3-0 against Portugal that night with Hoddle giving the 18-year old Michael Owen another run-out as a substitute, with an eye on how he would use him in the World Cup. Hoddle knew though that Sheringham and Shearer was his first choice partnership, a combination that not only took England to the brink of their first major final for thirty years in Euro ’96, but had served him so well in qualification.

It was hard to leave Owen out after the World Cup though, and against his instincts, he picked Owen ahead of Sheringham at home to Bulgaria in qualification for Euro 2000, and predictably England struggled to break the opposition down, without a striker who would play between the lines. That Saturday afternoon at Wembley was frustrating, as much for a rare tactical flaw in a Hoddle team, as for the goalless draw. We missed the suspended Paul Ince that day, and though Sheringham came on, he couldn’t affect the game. The initial team selection was unusual for Hoddle, to almost be swayed by press and public opinion; the fact that he wasn’t a populist was another reason why he was the right man for the job.

Journalists didn’t like the way he organised press conferences, the fact that he had his own self-belief rather than pandering to their own sense of self-importance, or that he didn’t give quotes or interviews at the drop of a hat. And it was for those reasons they went after him.

After the Bulgaria game, England won away at Luxembourg four days later, in what turned out to be Hoddle’s last competitive game as England Manager. There was a further friendly win against the Czech Republic, but Hoddle was to be undone the following year. On Saturday 30th January, as I was travelling up to see Spurs play away at Blackburn, the headline news was a brief comment Hoddle gave contained within in a telephone interview that lasted over an hour to Matt Dickenson which The Times led with that morning. There was nothing new or original, but within days, Tony Blair was on This Morning, giving a soundbite on something he had no knowledge, and the press had got their man. (Again, it wasn’t the time for soundbites).

The Age of the Understatement

Amazingly as Hoddle departed Kevin Keegan was seen as the ideal replacement. Anyone who watched Keegan co-commentating on England during the previous two major tournaments would have realised there was no end in his capacity to call things totally wrong. However, Harry Redknapp, never shy of giving an interview, also joined the press and public chorus, saying on TV at the time that Keegan was the right man to lead England. I always doubted this, and the disappointment of a 0-0 at home to Bulgaria paled into insignificance compared to the night I had at Wembley when we were humiliatingly outplayed by Scotland in the second leg of the play-off for Euro 2000. Keegan admitted afterwards he was no master tactician. Master tactician no, master of the under statement, yes.

The tactics continued to be poor in the finals themselves, and beyond, ending on a very wet and miserable Saturday afternoon, with a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of the Germans in the last game to be played at the Empire Stadium. It was a rotten day all round, until news came through in the pub afterwards the game that Keegan had resigned.

Qualification for three tournaments looked much easier under Sven Goran Ericsson, but we were left wanting in the biggest games in the Finals; we were tactically poor against Brazil in the World Cup Final quarter-final in 2002, despite having an extra man, and against Portugal in 2004, the decision to replace the injured Wayne Rooney, who had been so effective from deep, with Darius Vassell rather than a player who could link play-up, such as Joe Cole, was simply incredible.

There is no doubt the so-called golden-generation were over hyped, with their habits of giving the ball cheaply away, (as they do in the Premier League with no consequence), being punished harshly at the highest level, but Ericsson, McClaren and Capello have all had a much more talented players at their disposal than Hoddle ever did.

The one missing ingredient on the pitch both Venables and Hoddle benefited from, and England have sorely lacked, Paul Ince, may now has a worthy successor, as Capello is finally utilising Scott Parker. He has yet to be as effective in the final third as Ince, but he still could be. It remains a mystery as to why Parker was left of the 2010 World Cup squad, just as to how an experienced manager like Capello could go into the Germany game with a midfield that so readily empties.

But then this tactical naivety seems prevalent in the game covered in England; despite Spain, Germany and Holland all playing great football in 2010 with a 4-2-3-1, most pundits named only one sitting midfielder when naming their team of the tournament. Even on Saturday, the BBC’s expert, Martin Keown, the man the press are touting as the man to solve Arsenal’s defensive problems, named a midfield four with two wingers and Steven Gerrard in central midfield, for his England starting line-up on Football Focus. (Sign him up Arsene).

Nice Dream

There is one rare pundit that does talk sense though. When Sky Sports showed extended highlights of England’s defeat to Croatia at Wembley in 2007 straight after the match, Hoddle was on top form. He spoke with genuine passion and disappointment, but brought real insight into the most minute technical aspects of the game (from goalkeeping positioning to close control), as well as tactics. Richard Keys, who used to refer to Hoddle with disdain when Hoddle was Spurs Manager, almost had his tongue hanging out, before asking, with a purr at the end, the obvious question we were all wondering: why wasn’t he still England Manager?

Hoddle’s critics question his man-management, but even past players he has had fallings out with, such as Tim Sherwood at Tottenham, has admitted culpability in hindsight, saying he should have respected Hoddle’s opinion. And compared to the press and bookies favourite, Harry Redknapp, Hoddle’s man-management doesn’t seem so bad. (And Hoddle is unlikely to ask his most talented player to spend most of his energy going backwards).

The Carlos Tevez affair has shown a new understanding in the press and the public that the tail can’t wag the dog, but that can’t only be applicable because the player is foreign and earns a lot of money. A football manager should be entitled to a fair opportunity as well as respect because they carry the can for their footballing decisions.

Hoddle has the best technical and tactical understanding of all the English candidates, he is a passionate England fan, has managerial experience at the highest level, and he is available. Whether the FA are brave enough to pick someone the gentleman of the press don’t want, and allow him to fully control the football reigns, is another matter. But the fact that there could be an England team that will show passing and movement at the highest level is a nice dream, nonetheless.


Originally published on Moving The Goalposts

9 October 2011

The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to buy for a Kindle from Amazon for £4.27 inc VAT, and for a number of other formats including as a PDF, an online download and for Apple, Palm and Sony hand-held devices from Smashwords. With recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League, documenting football at the highest level in the shadow of a sport where money is now the driver. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.