Some players are beyond description. You see them with your eyes and you try to explain what you see to those around you, those who aren’t at the match; those who weren’t able to see the magic you saw. But words can only go so far because some players, and some movement, have to be seen to be believed.
The accusation most often thrown at English football is that far too few elegant players emerge from the youth systems of top clubs or, if they are suitably so, their talent is restricted in order to better suit tough-tackling football in dirty, bobbly pitches. But, every once in a while, a diamond slips through the cracks and manages to create an impact that passes through different generations to become a legacy. For the 1970s and 80s of London football, there was one remarkable diamond in town: Glenn Hoddle.
Following his debut for Tottenham in August 1975 – a 2-2 draw against Norwich, wherein a 17-year-old Hoddle replaced Cyril Knowles – no player has been able to manipulate the ball to their own will, not exhibited the ability to capture the imagination of fans, quite like Hoddle did. Though he was made to wait almost six months, until February 1976, to make his first start for Spurs, it proved a debut start worth waiting for; scoring the winner in a game against Stoke, finding the net behind future England goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
Even at such a young age, everyone was aware of Hoddle’s extraordinary talent and knew a great deal about his ability to be a match-winner, be that for England or for Tottenham Hotspur. Hoddle was a breath of fresh air in an era where long balls and muddy pitches reigned supreme and players of Hoddle’s ilk were either cast as showboaters and luxury players or encouraged to ply their trade away from the British Isles; or, most common of all, they simply weren’t English.
England and its old First Division was lucky enough to be blessed with Hoddle and his talents for the first 12 years of his career, making 490 appearances across various competitions for Spurs, not only scoring over 100 goals from midfield but also winning trophies. Hoddle collected three FA Cup two years in a row, in 1980/1981 and 1981/1982; the UEFA Cup, won against Anderlecht in what is remembered as an iconic game in the history of Tottenham, and shared the Charity Shield with Aston Villa.
Perhaps the most famous of all his achievements was reaching the Top 20 with ‘Diamond Lights’, a classic song that culminated in Hoddle and Spurs teammate Chris Waddle going on Top of the Pops to give a performance described as “a timeless classic for all the wrong reasons … You got the feeling that Waddle was rightly embarrassed to be there while Hoddle genuinely felt he was at the start of something big.”
Neither ‘Diamond Lights’ or their follow up single ‘It’s Goodbye’ were bad songs – at least by 80s pop standards – but perhaps they would’ve been better received had they not been performed by Spurs players? And if you’re wondering why you never heard of the follow-up single, there’s a good reason for that.
Waddle remained at Spurs but Hoddle left, joining Monaco in what was, at the time, considered a huge transfer. It was fitting that the most continental English player was moving to the continent, but it was a move that shaped much of what was to come across Europe and in England as well.
One reason that is often attributed as a cause for this move was the Heysel disaster, which saw English clubs banned from European competition and subsequently saw players like Hoddle leave to play abroad in order to play in the European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. For Hoddle, however, there was more to it than that.
Hoddle’s Monaco move was a chance for him to showcase his skills in front of fans who appreciated his talents more than the general English fans. Of course, Spurs fans loved Hoddle for what he could do, but he always felt more continental in his talents than English, and this was his chance to show how good he truly was.
Moving to the south of France alongside Mark Hateley and George Weah, the trio learned and grew under the stewardship of future Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger and would each go on to have great success, but Hoddle did later admit that he nearly joined Gérard Houllier at Paris Saint-Germain, confessing it was Wenger who won him over having found he and the Monaco coach to have been “on the same wavelength”.
Hoddle’s impact could be felt immediately, with Wenger introducing Hoddle as the number 10, just behind the two strikers, with defensive midfielder and future manager Claude Puel doing the majority of the defensive work for Hoddle; leaving him free to play his style – something that rarely happened during his time with Tottenham.
The freedom that Wenger and this Monaco side allowed Hoddle meant that the Englishman was enjoying football like never before. He was encouraged by Wenger, his teammates and the fans to play incredible passes, influence games with his magnificent first touch and creativity.
Being the focal point of the Monaco team that won the Ligue 1 title in 1988 – their first triumph for six seasons – brought immediate success for the attacking midfielder. His exuberance, talent and sheer natural ability saw him crowned as the best overseas player that season in Ligue 1, in a league containing talent like Weah, Klaus Allofs and Roger Milla. Hoddle remained a level above them all.
As Brian Clough once said: “It takes great courage to play the way Hoddle does” – and it took great intelligence to truly see how great he was, perhaps something that fans didn’t realise until he left England to play in Europe. His 20 goals in 47 appearances in the 1988/1989 season was his second-best in terms of goalscoring and proved that he could very well function as a goal-scoring number 10, instead of just being a purely selfless force. But the everlasting impact on Hoddle in Monaco was more than just his Ligue 1 title success or the fact his style of play was fully appreciated.
Without Hoddle in that number 10 role, Wenger may never have implemented the same system at Arsenal, because Hoddle was the driving force of his Monaco team. Without Hoddle, Dennis Bergkamp wouldn’t have had a footballing idol to look up to, and may never have fitted so perfectly as Wenger’s number 10 at Arsenal. Furthermore, young footballers in England wouldn’t have been inspired to be more free and expansive with their play, with their first touch or pass, if it wasn’t for Hoddle, someone who really should be viewed as a revolutionary for the number 10 role.
Hoddle’s style of play at Monaco showed Wenger to be someone who could make a great player an even better, more technical one. Hoddle was, and still is, treated as a legend at Tottenham and perhaps should be treated as one around the world, simply because so many people, whether they realise it or not, have been influenced by him. Those who loved Bergkamp and those Wenger teams in Arsenal red should thank Hoddle, as it was he who helped give David Dein the heads up on Wenger.
Hoddle himself admitted that he dearly loved playing for Wenger at Monaco, saying: “It was enthralling playing for him, I enjoyed every single second. He wanted me to play just behind the striker, which was Mark Hateley. I always felt that was my best position, but I never really played there for England or even during my hey-day at Spurs.”
He was superb, the lynchpin of a famous title-winning side, and adored not just by fans across the continent but also some of the very greatest footballing brains, such as Wenger and Johan Cruyff, with the latter saying to Hoddle, after an Ajax-Tottenham match: “I’ve heard a lot about you, but I didn’t realise how good you were until I played against you.”
If your on-field talents are enough to please somebody as great as Cruyff, you must be special. But what’s more, Hoddle was a trailblazer, particularly for the likes of Ray Wilkins, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne, who similarly sought out a purer game abroad, because Hoddle showed you could be a talent on foreign soil and, as a result, if we’re being truthfully honest, there stands no reason to explain why Hoddle shouldn’t be listed alongside the 80s greatest talents. Michel Platini once said: “If Hoddle had been French, he would have won well over 100 caps and the team would have been built around him.”
Hoddle is a great man and an even better footballer, and, if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Cruyff, Wenger and Platini instead.
By Tom Scholes @_TomScholes