Press to play

Cris Freddi looks at how Glenn Hoddle's predecessors have coped with the press

The rough ride Glenn Hoddle’s been getting from the fourth estate isn’t unusual (every other England manager had it) but the timing of it is. Most of the others were granted the luxury of a honeymoon period.

Bobby Robson’s was the longest of the lot. The press were tolerant of his early flirtations with 4-2-4, using two young wingers (Mark Chamberlain and John Barnes), probably because one of them scored that famous goal in the Maracanã. Even after Robson’s timid selection against Denmark at Wembley cost England a place in the European finals (that appalling midfield of Wilkins-Gregory-Sammy Lee) the pens remained unsharpened for another five years.

A generation earlier, Don Revie had been given the benefit of the doubt, though that’s the wrong expression really. There weren’t many doubts at the start: here was the man who’d put together one of the most successful and attractive teams in League history, who’d just completed their Indian summer by running away with the title. And the Don couldn’t have had a more promising start to his England career, giving Gerry Francis his first cap in a 3-0 win over Czechoslovakia in a European qualifier. All downhill from there, as we all know.

Ron Greenwood started just as brightly, picking two new young wingers, Coppell and Peter Barnes, to help beat Italy in a World Cup qualifier, then reaching the 1980 European finals with an attractive attacking  team (Brooking, Keegan, Trevor Francis). The press didn’t turn on him until the group matches in the  1982 World Cup.

Even Graham Taylor had an easy ride early on. In fact he was a press favourite, forceful and quotable – and a record start helped: no defeats in his first 12 games in charge. Then the competitive matches began and the journalistic mood changed.

Walter Winterbottom suffered his share of press hostility in 16 years in charge, but he wasn’t the sole selector and the English system was crap, so he doesn’t count. Joe Mercer and El Tel weren’t around long enough for the papers to turn on them.

That leaves only one – and Hoddle might take some satisfaction from knowing that only one of his predecessors had a poor relationship with the press from the start. Like Hoddle, Sir Alf seemed to enjoy the aggro – though it was easier once he’d set up 1966 and all that. Like Tarantino’s award at Cannes, the knighthood was a shield against accusations of winning ugly.

The bottom line in all this (apologies for stating the bleedin’ obvious) is that the only way to keep the pack off your back is results and more results. Winning the World Cup kept Ramsey in credit till England’s gutsy defence in Mexico – but after West Germany came back from 2-0 down there were rumblings about Alf’s reluctance to use substitutes in the heat and altitude. Subsequent defeats in important competitive matches allowed the press to criticize him for leaving out Mick Channon against Poland in 1973 and before that for not picking a ball-winner (for once) to stop Netzer at Wembley. That midfield of Ball, Bell and Peters was the one the press had been clamouring for themselves, so you just can’t win. Exit Sir Alf, perhaps a couple of years too late.

After him, Revie’s successful first match was followed by a very poor second, a 0-0 draw at home with Portugal from which he never really recovered. England lost in Czechoslovakia (who went on to win the European title despite that big defeat at Wembley) and in a World Cup match in Rome – and above all Revie began to hand out caps to all and sundry (Viljoen, Towers, Doyle, Talbot, Ian Gillard) while giving Alan Hudson only two, Charlie George just 65 minutes, and Tony Currie a “last chance”. If England had been more successful, Revie’s files on the opposition would have been seen regarded as examples of thorough planning. As it was, the press were only too happy to take the piss out of them and the squad’s bingo evenings – and to deride the Don’s escape to the desert before his time was up. A grubby business all round.

Even that didn’t match the Sun’s dirty tricks campaign against Bobby Robson – but again it was prompted by a string of bad results. It was probably set to start a couple of years earlier, after the 1986 World Cup, but had to be postponed by the England players themselves, who re-organized the team, and then by an unbeaten European qualifying campaign which culminated in four quick goals in Yugoslavia. But three dismal defeats in Euro 88 finally unleashed the Sun, which reached into the bottom of its barrel for badges (Robson Out, Clough In) and headlines (For The Love Of Allah, Go). Robson had the last laugh in Italia 90 (the Sun’s headlines did an unashamed about-turn) but even that owed something to player power.

Graham Taylor suffered a similar fate – but again the turnip headlines were caused by defeats and dreadful performances: the three games in Euro 92, the “pig’s arse of a team” that lost in Norway. And some of the players Taylor picked almost deserved the volley of rotten veg: Tony Daley, Andy Gray, Geoff Thomas. The usual tabloid garbage, but hard not to agree with it at the time. San Marino scoring in nine seconds, for christsake.

Greenwood’s image in print was probably changed by the Achilles tendon injury which kept Trevor Francis out of the 1980 European finals, where England didn’t look the part. The following year was England’s worst ever (played nine, won two, lost five), and the World Cup campaign included defeats in Romania, Switzerland and the helluva beating in Norway. As he usually did in these situations, Greenwood talked of resigning, getting the players to voice their support – then survived thanks to Brooking’s famous goal in Budapest. But the press, again, had almost got their man.

Whether they get Glenn depends almost entirely on the European qualifying matches; the hardest game, in Sweden, has provided a few clues. England’s bad luck in France 98 muddied the waters a bit, muting the criticism of Hoddle’s stubborn adherence to a sweeper system and reluctance to use Michael Owen, and before that an unbalanced team selection for the Italy match at Wembley. And of course Eileen Drewery’s been a godsend, the equivalent of Revie’s putting sessions at the team hotel.

A bad run now and he can expect some For The Love of Hod, Go headlines, and the FA will stop talking about that extension to the contract. A good one and he can carry on sticking up the metaphorical fingers – but only a good long one will let him do it as often as Alf did. Bearing in mind that Glennda’s loss might be Brian Woolnough’s gain, you can’t help hoping he makes it.

From WSC 140 October 1998. What was happening this month