England Squad Selection Memories

World Cup 98

England Squad Selection

By Alistair Bain (@allybain)


As Gareth Southgate brings together his provisional 33 man squad ahead of this summer’s European Championships, it lead me to reflect back on my first memory of major selection controversy which would take place on June 1st 1998, with the central characters in this tale being Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne.

At the time of this particular news story my world view of football was almost entirely UK centric. Growing up in Hamilton in Scotland gave me a closer allegiance to Scottish football, particularly Rangers, however the happenings of English football and its national team was still very much front and center of the football media I’d be consuming. With no sky TV I relied heavily on Shoot and Match magazine to fill the void with football news, allied to the weekly Football Focus and Match of the Day intake that formed nice book ends around my trips to Ibrox on Saturday afternoons. Such was my rudimentary view of football at that the time squad selections for national teams seemed pretty straight forward. Pick your best 22 players, considering for a decent balance between the positions, and jobs a good un. The intricacies of form, injuries, suspensions, player personalities, club allegiances and how football actually functions, were a world away from where my understanding lies today. Better yet, International management seemed like a real life version of Championship Manager, given you don’t really get to train its all about picking the right players surely? Through all the haze of my memories of adolescent thoughts in 1998 one thing does remain crystal clear, and that was how utterly crestfallen I was upon learning that Paul Gascoigne wasn’t selected for France 98. He had reached god-like status in the Bain household, serving as the football savior that I worshipped on a weekly basis as he slalomed passed Bells Premier League opponents with ease, before curling in a perfectly executed strike into the top corner with those mercurial Adidas Predator boots.

By the summer of 1998 I was now old enough to conceptualize the reasoning for his demise as a Rangers player, but it certainly didn’t allow me to accept it. In my utter denial I was unable to view Gascoigne’s transfer to Middlesbrough in March of 1998 as anything other than a disaster for the club. He was supposed to be fighting to win Rangers a 10th straight league title and prepare himself for a strong World Cup showing in France, yet by the end of that summer neither would come to fruition.

Today I want to take you back to the start of Glenn Hoddle’s tenure as England manager, and assess over the course of his World Cup 98 campaign why not picking Gascoigne may have been in the pipeline sooner than we all thought.

Understanding Hoddle

In Glenn Hoddle England were hiring not only someone with an immense pedigree in the British game, but also someone who had performed to an elite level in Europe also. Management at this time required the cache of an elite playing career, not only for the validation it brought to underline their football acumen but to ensure the players and fans respect was immediately forthcoming. Hoddle ticked all of these boxes, but in replacing Venables he had to follow someone who not only performed well at Euro 96 but was an elite level coach in his own right. Hoddle had shown at Swindon and Chelsea that he was a very hands on type of manager, more in the Head Coach mold that had become common place on the continent, so this seemed like a perfect fit for England with Hoddle offering a natural progression from his predecessor. When we delve deeper we soon see the very stark differences between the two, and while aesthically their teams appear similar how they get there is markedly different.

As a man Venables seemed very affable with his players and could rely on a common bond that he created within his group. Looking back on the culture that surrounded football in the 90s it could be regarded as mis-management given some of the reported exploits of his players while on international duty, but as was evident at Euro 96 this squad gave everything and more for the manager. Tactially Venables was perhaps more pragmatic in his approach, something we covered extensively in our analysis of EURO 96, while not wavering from a possession style of play Venables was far more amenable to changing systems when required.

Hoddle on the other hand managed his squad with a higher degree of control than those before him, with many examples being cited by players of that time as unnecessarily micromanaging. He placed restrictions on what players could eat, how they would prepare physically with dietary supplements and even scheduled players to visit his faith healer. In 1996 British footballers were certainly not accustomed to new methods of preparation, therefore the effect Hoddle desired them to have were to take time in being accepted. As Hoddle’s relationship with Gascoigne is concerned it certainly didn’t get off to a great start, where after only a few months in the role Hoddle was faced serious questions over his selection of Gascoigne despite him recently being charged for domestic abuse. In this press conference we hear him answer questions on the subject, as well as giving his take on “his need to change.”

On the field Hoddle was very single minded in his football beliefs and would firmly fall into what is commonly referred to these days as a Philosophy manager. We’ll discuss the intricacies of Hoddle’s game model later in the piece, but his apparent lack of tactical flexibility away from a 352 could be argued that it prevented certain players from realizing their potential as England internationals. With English football favoring an equally rigid 442 set up at club level, traditional full backs and wingers who were featuring at the elite level for their clubs were quite often disregarded. Steve McManaman was a prime example of a talent that by the end of the decade would be lifting the Champions League with Real Madrid, yet he rarely featured for Hoddle due to his limitations within a 352 and inability to adapt to the system. This subsequently led to the breakdown of his relationship with Hoddle and his England career would struggle to gain traction thereafter.

This magnificent article (CLICK HERE) by Rob Smyth for Eurosport delves deeper into the psyche of Glenn Hoddle as England manager and cites numerous examples from players within the 98 squad.

Glenn Hoddle Game Model

Over the course of his two years in charge Hoddle had implemented a very clear playing style within a fluent 3-5-2 structure. While this strategy was very much identifiable at the top level of European football, we need only look at the UEFA Champions League winners Juventus that year who similarly used a 352, almost every player Hoddle was selecting for England played in the English Premier League which was very much a 4-4-2 centric competition at the time. International calendar scheduling was nowhere near as sophisticated as today, so it required Hoddle to get his ideas across in training at a far faster pace such was the lack of preparation time the squads were given in the mid to late 90s.  

When we examine how Hoddle built his England squad we have to start with the back line. While ball playing goalkeepers weren’t as common a fixture in the mid 90s as we see today, in David Seaman England had a starting keeper that was highly competent with the ball at his feet and a shot stopper that had played at the top end of the game for almost a decade.

Within his back three Hoddle liked all players to be solid in possession, but none more so than the central player in the trident. Tony Adams would feature as the prominent figure in this position at the 98 World Cup, but Gareth Southgate was also used in qualifying, as was Sol Campbell centrally. Defensively the central player had to be able to lead the line aggressively to negate any space between the midfielders and the last line as play progressed, something Adams was very suited to doing. The role of the left and right central defenders out of possession was more of a traditional marking center back, with these two players quite often man marking the opposition twin strikers movements. Martin Keown and Gary Neville would feature in the right sided positions, with Sol Campbell and Stuart Pearce doing so on the left. Each of these players are strong in 1v1 defensive situations, which was critical in a system that exposed itself in defensive transition leaving defenders to cover the entire width of the field.

The reason why the spaces became so vacated in wide areas was down to the positioning of the wing backs, which Hoddle believed had to be more active in the midfield line than the defensive one. In the modern era we’ll see sides drop into a line of five defensively, while Hoddle certainly had the players to do so, these positions pressed forward aggressively when in & out of possession. Stuart Pearce had started at left back under Venables with Graeme Le Saux in the squad as his understudy, so it was assumed with Pearce initially retiring after Euro 96 but then laterally coming back to play as a left center back that Le Saux would claim the starting position. With Le Saux suffering with injury through much of 96 and early 97 Everton’s Andy Hinchcliffe would come in to assume the role, although as we moved into 98 roles would reverse with Hinchcliffe missing France 98 through injury and Le Saux moving to Chelsea and becoming the countries most expense full back. On the right side Gary Neville assumed the role of the default right wing back, however as the system evolved and became more of an attacking position we’d see David Beckham and Steve McManaman used in this role. Darren Anderton was a player that Hoddle had admired for some time and prior to France 98 would go on to perform well in the right wing back position, one that he also had experience playing in under Venables in the previous campaign. Based on his selections we can assume that Hoddle didn’t view these positions as being designed for defacto full backs of the time, such as Lee Dixon or Nigel Winterburn of Arsenal, if anything these were wingers who had the ability to cover the entirety of the flanks.  

In central midfield Hoddle often fielded a blend of creativity, craft and defensive solidity. The player positioned deepest in Hoddle’s midfield would, through a modern lens, be classed as a holding player but that wasn’t the case at all in this England set up. We’d see Paul Ince and David Batty play in games throughout Hoddle’s England tenure at the base of a midfield trio, both of whom were happy to advance forward when the time was right but would also relish protecting the spaces in front of the back line with a physical encounter.

The craft in England’s midfield came through players who had the quality to link up play but would also be able to cover ground in both attack and defense. David Beckham seemed the perfect fit for this particular role, such was his energy allied with an elite ability to serve balls from deep and shoot from attacking positions in the final third. Rob Lee was someone who narrowly missed out on the Euro 96 squad under Venables but was highly regarded by Hoddle and regularly made squads during this period. Jamie Redknapp is the final player in this position that strangely only featured once for Hoddle. Perhaps a mixture of injury and bad luck during this period prevented his England career from taking off, as Redknapp fits the mold exactly of a midfielder you’d expect Hoddle to fit into this side.

The final midfield position wasn’t necessarily positioned underneath the striker structurally, like we’d rationalize a Number #10 doing so in todays football parlance, but it was a position that required an elite level of quality on the ball and served as the lynchpin between England’s midfield engine room and the strikers. Paul Gascoigne is the player that would assume this role, as it gave him the creative license to attack forward with multiple options, but also afforded him the defensive solidity behind him should he be unable to get back in defensive transition. Injuries to Gascoigne at the start of 1997 would allow Hoddle to experiment with others in that role, with Matt Le Tissier and Paul Merson initially utilized, however it was in May of 1997 that Paul Scholes would be handed his England debut and almost immediately staked a claim in making the position his own. Scholes impressed at the 1997 World Cup warm up event “Le Tournoi”, in which he would score against Italy and link up well with the teammates around him. With Scholes now a firm fixture in the Man United side, despite him operating in a two man midfield with Roy Keane, the third attacking midfield role seemed a perfect fit for someone who had begun his career as a striker but was now playing in a deeper position.

To finish out Hoddle’s England blue print he would search for a strike pairing to cap off his 352 set up. As would be the case in a 442 of the time it was widely regarded that a strike pair had to assume different characteristics, but the synergy would come from their ability to work in service of each other. This remained the case within Hoddle’s system, however given they had a dedicated creator coming from midfield we saw him frequently field two recognized target men as well as two natural penalty box finishers together. The level of strikers available to Hoddle during this era, even by modern standards, is quite staggering. At the start of Hoddle’s reign he would promote Alan Shearer as the new team captain, therefore it was expected that he would form one half of the attacking duo. Teddy Sheringham showed himself to be a very able strike partner during Euro 96, so he continued to feature throughout the Hoddle era, as did Les Ferdinand who would be Shearer’s strike partner at club level with Newcastle. In addition to this Hoddle would rotate through further options in Ian Wright, Andy Cole, Dion Dublin, Nick Barmby, Robbie Fowler, Stan Collymore and Chris Sutton. A veritable who’s who of strikers who were regularly recording double figures in the English Premier League. What a time to be alive!

Yet it would be an unknown quantity in Michael Owen, who at the start of Hoddle’s England tenure hadn’t even made a first team appearance for his club, that would go on to be the shining light of the World Cup 98 campaign. Aged just 17 at the start of the 97/98 Premier League season Michael Owen would quickly become a starting striker for Roy Evans Liverpool side, making 44 appearances and scoring 23 times in all competitions. It wasn’t until the February of 1998 that Hoddle brought Owen into the national team set up, and no fewer than in four appearances Owen had found his first goal for England. Perhaps a mixture of opportunity and an expectant press surrounding Owen forced Hoddle’s hand to include him in subsequent World Cup games that summer, but as his performance against Argentina was to display Michael Owen was a world class talent in the making.

In these clips from England’s final qualifying group game with Italy we can see the possession based philosophy in play, and how the players combine in wide areas to break the opposition down.

Qualification Campaign

As the qualifying groups were put together England’s failure to qualify for USA 94 meant they had been dropped in their seeding into Pot 2. With a solitary automatic qualifying spot from each group they would have to beat out one of the continents top teams, and unfortunately for England they would be placed in Qualifying group 2 with Italy. The Italians were World Cup Finalists in 1994 but were entering this campaign on the back of a disappointing early exit from Euro 96, after failing to advance out of their group section. Italy were themselves about to embark on a managerial change, with Cesare Maldini coming in to replace the outgoing Arrigo Sacchi. It could be argued the remaining teams in the group, Poland, Georgia and Moldova, would serve as cannon fodder to the top two seeds, however the complexities of advancing via the playoffs, should you finish second, meant that finishing top was the ultimate priority and would inevitably come down to winning as many of the eight qualifying matches as possible.

In February of 1997 England would face Italy at Wembley, after both sides had made a 100% winning start. Despite the home advantage a Gianfranco Zola inspired performance fired the azzuri to a 1-0 victory, giving them 3 points but also an advantage in the qualifying campaign that now required other results to go England’s way.

With pressure mounting on England to maintain pace with the Italians, it would be the Azzuri who faltered first after failing to score in a match in Tiblisi in September 1997 against Georgia, which would end 0-0. This presented England with the opportunity to leapfrog Italy in the table, which they duly obliged with a resounding 4-0 victory over Moldova at Wembley. This now set up an enthralling encounter at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome a month later.

Italy’s home record in qualifying was exceptional so this required a real coming of age performance for Hoddle’s England side, with a single point being enough to get England through. When analyzing the line up its evident that Hoddle has favored experience, but it’s probably what many thought to be his strongest team at the time.

We can see from these highlights that England certainly didn’t plan to sit back and give the game to Italy, if anything Hoddle’s strategy was to keep the ball for long periods and force Italy to tire themselves out through over pressing.

After what was an action packed 90 minutes a 0-0 draw saw England book their place at the World Cup, with a jubilant Gascoigne leading the way in an England team that looked every part a contender for the up coming tournament in France. How can someone so influential in this game find himself out of contention by the end of that season? Well, I have a theory.

Away from England duty Gascoigne would take part in a crucial Old Firm match for Rangers in November of 1997, a game that would subsequently derail Rangers’ title bid after a late equalizer from Celtic’s Alan Stubbs. With Rangers building up a decent lead over their rivals the 1-1 result seemed to galvanize Celtic in a way that seemed to be equally corrosive for Rangers. Why this was so significant for England and Hoddle was Gascoigne’s involvement ended that night in the 65th minute, with him being shown a straight red card after a clash with Celtic’s Morten Weighorst.

We’ve since learned that idle time doesn’t serve Gascoigne well, and from this point forward his season would degenerate into a spiral of depression and injury that would ultimately end with his departure from the club in March 1998. Walter Smith had simply had enough, and at this point it gave Hoddle some serious food for thought. 

Squad Announcement

June 1st 1998; Glenn Hoddle would announce his final 22 man squad in front of an expecting press conference at the team’s training base in La Manga, Spain. The day prior Hoddle had met with each player individually, discussing the plans for those who were included for what lay ahead that summer and to personally deliver the message of non-selection for those who hadn’t. In what has been described by many within the squad as a day of tension and anguish, the much publicized incident with one player in particular makes this particular squad selection a very memorable one.

Hoddle had capped 40 players during what would become his only full campaign as England manager. He ended the international careers of Steve Stone, Mark Wright, Steve Howey, Peter Beardsley and David Platt before the qualifying campaign had begun, but during the course of 96, 97 and 98 would hand debuts to Rio Ferdinand, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen. With many of England’s top players entering their peak years and a raft of exciting youth talent emerging, the country waited with baited breath as to who Hoddle would select in his twenty two man squad.

*Players highlighted in red are those who made the World Cup 22 man squad.

For the final training camp Hoddle would select a 28 man squad that would compete in three preparation games against Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Belgium. At the end of the camp here are the players who Hoddle would leave out:

Ian Walker / Goalkeeper / Tottenham

01ASUA2U; IAN WALKER Tottenham Hotspur FC and England International Footballer Seen at Bisham Abbey during an England Squad open training session for the 1998 World Cup. COMPULSORY CREDIT: UPPA/Photoshot…

Walker had made the Euro 96 squad under Venables and was widely considered as a future starting player as he established himself as a Premier League keeper with Tottenham. While he featured briefly for Hoddle in qualifying Nigel Martyn was selected ahead of him.

Phil Neville / Defender / Man United

Phil Neville was another player that Venables had included in the Euro 96 squad, aged just 19 at the time, however he hadn’t featured much under Hoddle despite making 24 starts for United in the 97/98 campaign. The only realistic position Phil Neville would feature of England would be in the wing back areas, and due to his versatility could do so on either side, but given the competition for places in the squad it would be hard to see who he’d displace.

Nicky Butt / Midfielder / Man United

Butt had established himself as a regular England squad member by the summer of 1998, and in the 97/98 season he would make 31 appearances for a very strong Man United side. The Central midfield positions in this particular England squad was hotly contested, therefore with Hoddle favoring more experience in these positions Butt’s exclusion does make sense.

Dion Dublin / Striker / Coventry City

Dublin had finished the 97/98 season as joint top scorer in the Premier League on 18 goals with Michael Owen & Chris Sutton, and would make his England debut in February of 1998. Scoring 18 goals for mid table Coventry was no mean feat, and it would earn him a move to Aston Villa in the process. Despite his form Hoddle would publicly state he favored Les Ferdinand as the target man of choice for his squad, which on reflection is probably a fair choice.

Andy Hinchcliffe / Full Back / Everton

Only injury would prevent Hinchcliffe’s inclusion in the World Cup squad, something that he also suffered ahead of the Euro 96 squad selection. This paved the way for Graeme Le Saux who was more than capable of starting in this position, yet it would be an area England continued to lack depth in for some time.

Paul Gascoigne / Midfielder / Middlesbrough

Despite a resurgent end to the 97/98 season with Middlesbrough in England’s 1st division, it was fairly evident that Gascoigne was fighting a losing battle to re-establish himself as a viable entity by this stage. Eight months is certainly a long time in football, but considering where he was in October 97 compared to June of 98 its almost hard to comprehend. Looking at pictures of his Middlesbrough signing day it was clear he was physically out of shape, much of which was brought on by his mental health at the time and lack of support system, but with other candidates staking their claim it almost appeared like a token gesture by Hoddle to involve him in the end of season World Cup preparation matches in Morocco.

Gascoigne faced stiff competition from his Middlesbrough teammate Paul Merson who had finished a wonderful season on Teeside by spear heading the clubs return to the Premier League, and was rewarded with a return to the England fold after a four year absence. Despite Man United narrowly losing out on the title Paul Scholes continued to go from strength to strength, and since the turn of the year had become a regular for both club and country.

When I weigh up the options Hoddle had to pick from, I have to say, there is an embarrassment of riches there. Its arguably the strongest group of players any England manager has had to pick from in my lifetime, so in making the decision to leave out Gascoigne there is justifiable evidence there should Hoddle want to use it. I personally don’t subscribe to the notion that Glenn Hoddle sought to make a name for himself with Gascoigne’s exclusion, as had been suggested by many reporters and namely Gascoigne himself, Hoddle didn’t stand to gain anything personally from doing so and his reputation within English football certainly didn’t need elevated. I do however believe that Hoddle was deep rooted in his belief of how footballers should lead their lives and what level of dedication they must impart upon their careers. Gascoigne was clearly failing to meet those standards, so in a very cerebral way Hoddle was able to compartmentalize what that exclusion meant to the greater good of the team and its supporters, seeing his exclusion as one less headache to worry about in France. A further example of this was David Beckham’s exclusion from the opening game of the 98 World Cup against Tunisia. After cementing himself as a starting player in the run up to the tournament Hoddle described Beckham as becoming “distracted” given his public relationship with Victoria Beckham at the time, citing that the media attention had removed his concentration from the match itself.

With all of this considered what we must understand is the depth of feeling the football public had for Gascoigne that superseded virtually anyone in that squad. For so many England fans in an age whereby league football was no longer available to the terrestrial viewer and the names of club heroes were now imported from other countries, Gascoigne represented the everyman that British football had always had in the decades prior. He was the literal embodiment of what a working-class person living his dream looked like. While Gascoigne was perhaps one of the last vestiges of these figures within the changing landscape of British football his exclusion, while on a purely clinical football level was probably correct, for so many other reasons it felt like a complete missed opportunity. Glenn Hoddle remains a very complex character and, in this instance, presided over an equally complex situation that brought the curtain down on the England career of Paul Gascoigne. If England had gone on to win France 98 perhaps the memories of this period would be different, and the actions surrounding non selection would be vindicated, however for me their remains that element of doubt as to what could have been for England in 98 had Gascoigne been selected to attend.

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