This very weekend back in 1999, Glenn Hoddle was a dead man walking as manager of England, an ironically appropriate condition for him to find himself in, since it was a newspaper interview in which he had amplified his belief in reincarnation which had put him on the front as well as the back pages and brought him, as an international gaffer, to an authentic point of no return.
Speaking to a reporter a few days earlier, Hoddle had declared: “You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and a half-decent brain. Some people have been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow you have to reap. You have to look at things that happened in your life and ask why. It comes around.”
Taxi for Mr Hoddle!
It duly came around on February 3, with the FA bidding him an abrupt adieu and the man himself — having at first lamely played the ‘words taken out of context’ card — finally apologising for remarks which had provoked a firestorm of criticism from disability activists, politicians an sponsors, as well as from within football and across a wider range of sports.
There was no shortage of mockery too, acid-tongued then British Sports Minister Tony Banks remarking: “If his theory is correct, he is in for real problems in the next life — he will probably be doomed to come back as Glenn Hoddle.”
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that Hoddle’s unorthodox spiritual views — unorthodox at least at the level of international football management — had courted ridicule, from the classic gag about his born-again Christianity (“Glenn Hoddle has found God? That was some pass”) to the general mix of bemusement and hilarity which greeted his decision to introduce the faith healer, Eileen Drewery, into the England set-up. The story is told that when she first tried a solemn laying on of hands on Ray Parlour’s head, the Arsenal livewire cracked: “Short back and sides, please.”
(Which reminds me: isn’t it a terrible pity that ‘The Romford Pele’ wasn’t in the running to qualify for Ireland? Because then we could have used the headline: ‘If You’re Parlour, Come Into The Irish’. Thanks, I’ll get my coat.)
If Hoddle had been less self-righteously evangelical about his spiritual beliefs, he would at least have allowed himself the chance to be judged purely on his footballing ones.
Instead, he rather spectacularly gave substance to the words of wisdom of the true master — that’d be Bob Dylan, obviously — when the latter observed: “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”
And so, one of the most immaculately gifted England players of his generation is also destined to be remembered as surely the only gaffer in football history to lose his job for, as a friend rather nicely put it at the time, trenchantly expressing his views on the transmigration of souls.
As one surveys the turbulent managerial scene in the English top-flight 16 years on from Hoddle’s self-made fate, the thought strikes that there are worse things which can befall a manager than losing the dressing room — such as losing the whole bloody plot.
“Living on the volcano” is how Arsene Wenger describes the eternal precariousness of the gaffer’s gig, a phrase Michael Calvin borrowed for the title of his brilliant book on the subject.
Wenger obliged with the foreword, in the course of which he writes: “I have respect for every single manager in football, throughout all levels, as we all suffer. We are all striving for the perfect performance and the perfect season, and we all feel the intense pain after every defeat. That is why it is so important to enjoy those post-match victorious moments as much as we can, before our minds move on to the next match.”
But it’s the intense pain Wenger talks about which lends the book its striking cover image: the Arsenal boss, forlornly squatting on the touchline, one hand supporting his bowed head, as if he’s in the throes of suffering the most agonising migraine.
Or, for similar recent effect, ponder those recurring scenes of Louis van Gaal negotiating the walk of shame through a theatre of screams at Old Trafford and, whatever else you might think of him, imagine how it feels on a human level to have to try and hold your head up in the face of that ferocious tsunami of public bile.
By rare contrast, there’s almost a glow of happiness perpetually emanating from the twinkly-eyed face of Claudio Ranieri whenever he turns up in front of the cameras these days.
And why not?
From the apparently irretrievable career position of seeing his Greek team beaten by the Faroe Islands, the 64-year-old has truly been born again as the manager of a Leicester City side which, thrillingly, remain on course to make Premier League history as rank outsiders turned champions.
Now, one surely unintended consequence of Leicester’s beguiling season is that Ranieri suddenly finds himself being linked with a return to Chelsea, the club where he first took over as manager just a year after Glenn Hoddle’s England tenure went belly-up and, in doing so, became the last manager at Stamford Bridge to be appointed before the onset of the game-changing Abramovich era.
These many years later, I hope he manages to resist any overtures, and not just because, in Leicester, he has found a medium-sized club that looks a perfect fit for his less is more management approach, and a bunch of players who, thus far, seem to be as grounded as he is himself.
There’s also the chastening lesson about the dubious merits of second comings in West London to be learned from the ultimate fate of the man who was his original successor at the Bridge.
Anyway, if you can legitimately dream of being tested by European football’s elite next season, Chelsea is almost the last place you should be thinking of going, right?
No, as a pre-emptive strike, I reckon old Claudio would be better advised to whip off a six-page ‘Dear Roman’ letter, outlining all the reasons why he shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t and won’t be their next manager.
He could just start if off with, “It’s not me, it’s you” and, sure, the rest will write itself.
After all, as Glenn Hoddle learned the hard way, karma — instant or delayed — is almost always going to get you in football management, so why speed up the inevitable by bringing it on yourself?
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