FA chairman Greg Dyke’s decision to bring Glenn Hoddle into his task force to reshape English football has reopened a debate that’s been raging for almost as long as I’ve been watching. What does Hoddle bring to the game?
Hoddle’s abilities as a creative midfielder are rarely questioned, but it’s the question of his wider contribution that prompts debate. Many Spurs fans don’t care to admit it, but even in his 80s pomp, when his mesmerising midfield displays helped make Spurs one of the most entertaining teams in the league, the grumble that “he doesn’t tackle back enough” could still be heard.
The view that he was a bit of a fancy dan, a luxury, was widely shared. Only this week, a senior national newspaper journalist ventured the opinion that Hoddle was someone who “didn’t like to muck in”. Hoddle played under two England managers, Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson, neither of whom built a team around the player labelled the most gifted of his generation. He won just 53 caps in his nine-year international career. Michel Platini said: “If he had been French would have won 150.”
Keith Burkinshaw, admittedly in different circumstances, did build a team around him, bravely opting to keep the still youthful midfielder in the thick of things as Spurs attempted to fight their way back out of the old Second Division in 1977/78. When, the following year, Burkinshaw scooped the world by signing Argentine World Cup stars Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, Ricky’s first words on seeing Hoddle in training were: “Why have they signed us?”
When Adam Powley and I interviewed Hoddle’s teammates for our book on that great team, The Boys from White Hart Lane, we expected to uncover some tensions within the team about Hoddle. We found none, and we’re convinced that a group of players we found needed little persuasion to speak their minds weren’t just being diplomatic.
Skipper Steve Perryman said: “My job was easy – get the ball and give it to Glenn.” When we asked if there was any resentment over Hoddle’s star status, Perryman looked surprised, asking why a professional would begrudge another professional recognition, or fail to realise quality when they saw it. Other players said much the same – having Hoddle on the team was something to value, something to play for and to as well as with.
After the 1981 FA Cup final replay, Burkinshaw told Perryman that he thought Hoddle had worked harder than in any game he’d seen him play in, covering every area of the pitch. Yet when Hoddle did get widespread praise, as Adam Powley points out in his ebook Glenn Hoddle, it was for withstanding a battering when playing in goal in a cup tie against Manchester United, and for playing on with a head injury in a bloodied bandage in Yugoslavia for England.
The relative values placed on the attributes of skill and grit perhaps tell us all we need to know about the English game’s problems. For the fact is that grit has long been disproportionately valued over skill, witness the praise given to John Terry heading the ball from a prone position, rather than the questions of why he was prone in the first place.
After he finished playing, Hoddle proved himself a highly effective coach. But his ability to relate to players was called into question. Tony Cascarino stuck it to Hoddle, who he played under at Chelsea, accusing him of being aloof and too fond of showing off how good he was. “If he was an ice cream, he’d lick himself,” he said. Add to this Hoddle’s religious beliefs, which included the use of faith healer Eileen Drury, and the questions about man-management increased.
Yet at Swindon, Hoddle brought the club more success than it had had for years, at Chelsea he laid the foundations for the current dynasty, and with England he achieved more and got his team playing a better brand of football than many England managers have ever done. At Spurs too, he began well, but the weight of expectation plus an inability to get on with the dressing room combined to finish him off.
Hoddle is not above criticism. His handling of players at times does leave something to be desired, and his continuing insistence that The Times’s Matt Dickinson stitched him up over the remarks on reincarnation that cost him his last England job do him no good. But, just as that deep-seated English suspicion of flair could be blamed for the failure to value Hoddle the player, so it seems a personal dislike of Hoddle the man could colour contemporary assessments.
Take the press outrage when Hoddle, as England manager, admitted he sometimes lied to the press about injuries or team selection in order to mislead the opposition. Hoddle was lambasted, but Arsene Wenger – a manager who did recognise the qualities Hoddle could bring to a team when managing him at Monaco – famously does not always “see the incident” or give the fullest version of the facts if he thinks it will harm the team. And quite right too.
Hoddle may not have covered every blade of grass in every game. He may not be the easiest of men to get along with – although, again, that’s not what his Tottenham Hotspur teammates say – but the failure to fully appreciate what he has brought and can bring to the game speaks volumes about English football’s problems.
Martin Cloake has been following Spurs since 1970 and is the author of a number of books on the club, including the award-winning 61: The Spurs Double; The Glory Glory Nights and The Boys from White Hart Lane. His latest ebook, Sound of the crowd, has just been released. Adam Powley’s ebook Glenn Hoddle costs £2.68.