Lack of ingenuity

England's abysmal opening displays in the World Cup were surely attributable in substantial part to the lack, call him what you please, of a playmaker, a midfield general.

No, I never thought Fabio Capello, though I have known, liked and admired him as player and coach since 1973 — being able to speak to him in Italian, rather than endure his broken English, is certainly a help — yet he never claimed to be Professor Frankenstein. Let me explain myself. England's abysmal opening displays in the World Cup were surely attributable in substantial part to the lack, call him what you please, of a playmaker, a schemer, a midfield general. There has alas been nobody since Paul Gascoigne and before that Glenn Hoddle who as the England World Cup manager of 1998, summarily dropped him to his violent despair after he had been drunk on the golf course in training camp.

Both the players could, in an old Italian phrase, “invent the game”, do the unexpected, produce the sudden, devastating pass, whether it be a through ball, a cross-field ball, or a pass inside the opposing full back, which will suddenly ignite a dangerous attack.

Yet the odd historical fact is that when such players, such comparative rarities, do emerge, they all too often find themselves mistrusted and excluded by selectors — as in England's past — or team managers. Both Hoddle and Gazza were absurd examples of this negative trend. And the much lauded Bobby Robson, when manager of the England team, initially mistrusted both of them.

When it came to the long legged Hoddle, with his superb right foot, his long and searching passes, there was already as you might say, form. Hoddle's predecessor as manager was Ron Greenwood, dug out of disillusioned retirement, having been for years in charge of what became known as the West Ham United academy of football; which produced three crucial members of England's World Cup winning 1966 team, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff ‘Hattrick' Hurst.

Yet when Hoddle made a splendid debut against Bulgaria at Wembley, crowning it with a spectacular long range goal, Greenwood promptly dropped him from the next game with the ludicrous words, “Disappointment is part of football”.

Robson initially didn't fancy Hoddle at all. He reportedly found him insufficiently combative. When at Hampden Park in 1985, with a pre World Cup tournament in Mexico City imminent, he picked Hoddle against Scotland, he stuck him fatuously out on the right wing. Fortunately the other players knew a trick worth two of those. When it came to the Mexican mini-tournament, they conspired to allow Hoddle to move into the middle.

As for Gascoigne, Robson had some right to call him “daft as a brush”. Off the field, his personal life has been a drunken disaster. On it, however, he was a shining talent, technically assured, wonderfully inventive, the possessor of a fierce right foot. Yet for much of the season preceding the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Robson would stick him out on the left flank in the England B team.

Shortly before the World Cup squad was to be announced, Robson picked him for a friendly against the Czechs at Wembley, with the tactless and minatory warning that this would be his last chance to “make” the squad. Surely the worst way to treat so fragile a character. Indeed when the teams lined up in the tunnel prior to taking the field, an agitated Gazza was compulsively kicking a football against the tunnel wall. In the event, however, he went out and played the Czechs off the park and went on to have a wonderful World Cup. Even if, for him, it literally ended in tears, when in the semifinal against Germany in Turin he was booked, meaning that he would miss the final; which England didn't reach.

Robson's hero and role model was in fact Johnny Haynes, for several seasons his team-mate at Fulham, a star turn since at 15 years old he excelled in the schoolboys' international which, a rarity at the time, was televised. Master left-footer of the through pass and the rest. Coming round at long last to Hoddle and his talent, Robson, shortly before the 1986 tournament, declared in England's American training camp that though he had never believed he would see an English playmaker the equal of Haynes, Glenn Hoddle was that man. Which induced me to write at the time that it was interesting to see the Road to Damascus pass through Colorado Springs.

That Haynes himself gave long and sturdy service to Fulham and had some fine games and sometimes goals for England was beyond dispute. But arguably he failed in both his World Cups. In 1958, in Sweden, he was said to be suffering from blistered feet. Certainly he made scant impact on England's games and they failed on a playoff against the Soviets to get out of the group stage.

Forty years later in Chile he was a somewhat morose England captain, once telling the journalists, myself included, “You want us to lose.” Of course we didn't but he himself did little to enable us to win. A foreign team's coach said to me, of Haynes, “With England, everything goes through number 10. So what do we do? We put a man on number 10.”

Perhaps the most scandalously excluded player was Len Shackleton. First picked for England in a so called Victory International in Glasgow in May 1946, he would win a mere and miserable five caps. Yet as late as 1954, at Wembley, he was part of an England team, for once full of ball players which swept West Germany aside and Shack himself lobbed a sensational goal.

Of course it didn't help that he was an eternal rebel, publishing an autobiography, Clown Prince of Soccer, which notoriously included a chapter, The Average Director's Knowledge of Football, which consisted of a blank page. Nor could it have helped when, training with the England team at Roehampton, Walter Winterbottom, the over academic England manager, told the five forwards to run down the field, inter-passing, then put the ball into the empty goal. Shack looked up wearily. “Which side of the goal, Mr. Winterbottom?” he asked.

One of the cleverest English inside forwards I ever saw including his amazing August 1951 debut for Spurs against a beefy Bolton Wanderers defence at White Hart Lane, was the tiny, seemingly fragile Cockney, Tommy Harmer, master of a splendid repertoire of passes, an exquisite ball player. But needless to say he never got near the England team, either with Spurs and ultimately Chelsea. How it could do with him in South Africa; he, who ended as a messenger with an Anglo-Israeli bank in the City of London. Today, he would have been a millionaire.