Glenn Hoddle stood on the fringe of the crowd, nodding pleasantly to those who caught his eye. The occasion was a football function in London, and Glenn had been invited as a famous ‘face’.
As ever, he seemed a touch embarrassed by his fame. I asked him if he was still enjoying his role as television pundit. ‘It’s lovely,’ he said. ‘People are friendly, the work’s interesting. All I could ask, really.’
It was the ‘really’ that gave him away. ‘You have regrets, don’t you?’ I suggested. ‘About England and all that stuff.’ And he smiled.
26 Jun 1998: England coach Glenn Hoddle punches the air after seeing his team through to the knockout phase of the World Cup Finals in the group G game against Colombia at the Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens, France.
‘My face didn’t fit, did it?’ he said. ‘In many ways, I was a bit too honest. Yeah, that’s it. Too honest.’
I wanted to suggest he had also been too naive, but Glenn was a nice man and he really didn’t need reminding.
‘All that stuff’ had been his genuine belief that the sick were paying a price for sins committed in an earlier existence. He expressed these ideas when he managed England, and after a national outcry – joined by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair – it cost him his job.
He had filed it away in his head as an excess of candour, yet it carried the whiff of eccentricity. And while the English may love their eccentrics, they do not like to see them managing the national team.
But for decades after his ethical disaster, Glenn lived with his folly.
He was strange, weird, some said. A laughing stock for those who remembered the details of the debacle, even if many others see him in a different light. Indeed, as the sporting nation struggles with the news of his suspected heart attack and prays for his recovery, it is his services to the sport as a great player and a fine manager that come to the fore.
In 1990 Glenn Hoddle played for Tottenham Hotspur
When youngsters wanted to know just what made Glenn Hoddle so very special, their fathers would search out a 20-second film clip. Tottenham versus Watford, on a sandy bog of a pitch at Vicarage Road.
A tall, long-legged young man receives a short pass at the angle of the penalty area. An indolent turn embarrasses a defender, then a glance assesses the possibilities. The right foot swings lazily, and suddenly, all is revealed. The effect is as if Tiger Woods had wafted a pitching wedge. The ball rises in a gentle arc, barely evading the keeper’s finger-tips as he scrambles uselessly. And it comes to rest in a corner of the net, as we knew it would. Only a blissfully blessed handful of footballers could have imagined such a goal. And, among Englishmen, perhaps only one could have scored it.
Glenn Hoddle achieved many things in his glorious career, but it was that stunning moment, which ensured that he will never be forgotten. Hard-headed judges will tell us that Hoddle never quite became the player he should have been, but that misses the point. For Hoddle had a talent to entrance. It is that mesmeric quality which will remain in the memory long after what Eric Cantona called ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ are forgotten.
Hoddle enjoyed a successful international career, playing in the final stages of two World Cups in the 1980s. He scored a few – a precious few – England goals, and he might have played longer and with still greater success had romance been valued beyond stern pragmatism. But he never lit up the national stage as he did when he ran out at the old White Hart Lane. He followed Spurs from the age of eight, made his first team debut at 17 and made magic with his beloved club until Arsene Wenger came along to take him to AS Monaco in 1987.
Nothing was ever the same for Hoddle the player, and a savage knee injury suffered in 1990 ensured that the rest of his career would prove an agonising struggle. But he had a vision, he believed the game could be beautiful, even when his idealism was widely derided. And it was as a manager that he started to put those ideals into practice.
He became Swindon manager in 1991, took them to the Premier League two years later, then moved to Chelsea, where his job was difficult and his successes were occasional.
It was as England manager, from May 1996, that his methods received rigorous scrutiny. He qualified for the World Cup finals with a draw with Italy, but he left Paul Gascoigne out of his squad, to public disapproval, then gave an indiscreet interview in which he spoke of his belief in faith healing and defended his extraordinary appointment of the faith healer Eileen Drewery to his coaching staff.
It brought Hoddle nothing but grief, and when he compounded his error by declaring that the disabled were being punished for sins committed in an earlier life, the derision was deafening. Blair was among his fiercest critics following that revelation and Hoddle was eventually dismissed by the FA in January 1999.
His career never quite recovered from the debacle, although he managed Southampton, his own, dear Spurs, and Wolves, all with moderate success. He finished at Wolves in 2006, and became a pundit, with ITV and later BT Sport, bringing a studious, sane appraisal to a craft which is too often shrill and glib.
An affable, engaging man, he was always prepared to speak at length about the game he revered, and his views were invariably considered. Yet whenever spoke about the theory of football, our mind always drifted back to the old days, to the time when he worked his wonders in the white shirts of Spurs and England. For he truly was a player for the ages, a craftsman whose skills were such that the great Johan Cruyff, after one match for Feyenoord against Tottenham, went into the Spurs dressing room to beg Hoddle for that shirt.
But the finest, most enduring memorial to Hoddle will perhaps be found on muddied pitches where kids scamper and toil at the game they will grow to love.
And, from time to time, one of those children will try something deft and inventive, some small trick designed to baffle defenders and lift the spirits of the watchers.
And if it should come off, his father on the touchline will shake his head and suppress a smile, and bawl at the child: ‘Who d’you think you are? Glenn Hoddle?’