In June 1993 Glenn Hoddle became player-manager of Chelsea, a concept that seems almost alien in today’s ultra-professional Premier League era. Hoddle joined Chelsea from newly promoted Swindon Town and was in the twilight of his playing career. Noted as one of England’s finest technical footballers, Hoddle’s range of passing and football intelligence allowed him to play to a high level despite his advancing years.
Chelsea’s capture of Hoddle was seen as something of a coup. At 36 years old Hoddle represented a new wave of English managers and his time at Swindon had been incredibly successful. Switching from a diamond midfield Hoddle implemented a 5-3-2/3-5-2 system that catapulted Swindon from relegation fodder to the Premier League.
It was an unusual departure for a Division One team and his deployment of advanced wingbacks with himself in a sweeper role presented far too many problems for opposing teams. Playing against conventional 4-4-2 sides on a weekly basis, Hoddle’s Swindon regularly outnumbered teams in all phases of play. He would allow the side to operate as a back five when defending and this transitioned to a five man midfield while in possession. Hoddle was certainly at the cutting edge of English football in his attempts to openly exploit the advantages of a three man midfield when facing a traditional 4-4-2.
Hoddle’s philosophy might well have been extremely progressive, but during his first season at Chelsea our league form fluctuated. Seemingly comfortable against top sides, a familiar pattern of underperforming against lesser teams emerged. Football is rather odd in terms of the symmetry that it can occasionally generate. In isolation that description of our performances could very well be describing the 2013/14 season. This curse would be something that haunted Chelsea for a number of years. It cost us a first Premier League title in 1998/99 when a loss to Leicester City, despite being 2-0 up, ruined our championship hopes. An inability to beat cannon fodder in 2013/14 has had the same effect.
FourFourTwo specifically asked Hoddle questions pertaining to his attempt at redeveloping the playing style at Chelsea:
“I wanted to try and play good football, in that first year I tried to get across to the team how I wanted them to play until we got better quality players in and could take it to the next level”.
It was a sentiment that probably echoed true for several managers post-Hoddle. He (and others further down the line) wanted to move things along too quickly.
Peter Watts writing in the Chelsea Independent provides a magical first-hand account of Hoddle. The parallels with another de rigueur manager Chelsea acquired are stark. Hoddle, like André Villas-Boas, seemed to have all the technical knowledge in world football but could not translate that into a cohesive strategy:
“At Chelsea [Hoddle] has attempted to introduce the 3-5-2 and 5-3-2, the discredited diamond and lord knows what else. Every time he has been forced to revert to a traditional 4-4-2 game. Maybe this is the players fault, that they can’t develop their game to fit in with the ever changing plans. I don’t think so. Half the time the players themselves don’t appear to know exactly what role they are supposed to be filling. The manager simply serves to confuse them”.
Hoddle’s first year at Chelsea felt strangely familiar, although he notably turned Chelsea into an impressive cup side. His teams frequently looked at odds during games - the diverse range of abilities proving a hindrance in terms of finding a total overall direction. The bulk of Hoddle’s squad were uncomfortable switching to a system that relied upon technique over tenacity. There were frequent instances of isolated players and a complete lack of movement ahead of the man in possession. As Watts suggested, the insistence on flipping systems multiple times throughout the season did not help the team acclimatise to a new way of thinking about football.
Hoddle’s philosophy was a simple one but it required better players to translate that simplicity into a consistent performance level. “Maybe we changed it too quickly, but you have to try and mould them” was Hoddle’s explanation for Chelsea’s varying form. There were, however, some beacons of hope that would inspire Chelsea in years to come. These would largely come in the form of backroom changes and modernising Chelsea’s youth development programme.
From a tactical perspective Hoddle seemed eternally stuck between an ideological goal and the limitations of the squad before him. One would still probably question whether his methods would have worked with a vastly superior set of players. All the technical knowledge in the world cannot supersede the interpersonal skills a manager must possess to inspire his players. A fantastic manager may well be a good tactician, yet those who leave legacies breed players who run through walls for them.
Neil Vincent said it best when he described this version of Chelsea as “a side who reflect perfectly the personality of Hoddle, full of good intentions but without the ruthlessness that Premiership football requires”. Trevor Sims put it slightly more colourfully “being a supporter for over thirty years, it makes me so angry to see no passion, no flair, no commitment and no f***ing idea. Okay the players try, and yes they were trying but the ultimate blame must lie with the manager”.
While the tangible fruits of Hoddle’s labour did not produce consistent results, philosophically he did change the club for the better. To transform Chelsea into “Ajax-on-Thames” was the ultimate goal of Hoddle’s revolutionary thinking. There was a continental restructuring of everything at the club to reorient Chelsea with contemporary thought. Watts argues in “In Hod We Trusted” that Hoddle’s legacy at Chelsea would be the “backroom revolution” he actuated.
This innovative thinking slowly took Chelsea from a bleak period into a new age. All of the modern staff roles we frequently take for granted were introduced at the club. Soon Chelsea had a dedicated dietician and masseuse. More importantly the entire structure of Chelsea’s youth programme was tipped on its head. Cause and effect can be arbitrarily linked to anything to prove a point, but the reinvention of Chelsea’s youth team did coincide with a 14 year old John Terry joining the club. The environment that Hoddle propagated would certainly have aided and influenced Terry’s footballing education.
Hoddle appointed Graham Rix as his youth team coach and Rix’s description of distilling Hoddle’s ideas to communicate to his young group of players is particularly intriguing.
“On my first day I was asking a squad of players I had not chosen or even seen to change everything they had learnt. I said there would be no more knocking the ball behind full backs and chasing it, they should give each other passing options rather than lash the ball upfield. Every coach was handed a document that read ‘the pattern of play should be persevered with under all circumstances … the long-term development and education of the player is more important than winning a particular game”.
Unquestionably Hoddle’s strength was enmeshed in his core philosophy. While it only occasionally translated into results at the first team level the long lasting effects of his youth team policy were far reaching. For the first time Chelsea appeared to have a fluid identity that ran throughout the entire club. The attempt to evolve Chelsea from a mediocre football team would appear to come from within. Neil Bath, Chelsea’s Academy Manager, was a part-time coach during his formative years at this point. It is of little surprise to see some of this Hoddle mantra prevalent in his running of Chelsea’s youth programme.
Away from his successful restructuring of the Academy, Chelsea’s first team struggled to find anything resembling consistent form in the league. A comfort level found within European competition led the club to a Cup Winners Cup semi-final. Likewise, a fondness for cup football in general developed and Hoddle led Chelsea to their first FA Cup Final in what felt like an eternity. Dissatisfaction was still rife though amongst supporters. Hoddle’s appointment had raised the bar and a side resembling Hoddle’s own personal style of football was still nowhere closer to fruition. Was this another false dawn?
Chelsea were purportedly at a crossroads in their existence. Did we as a club choose to amble along in the hope that over time Hoddle’s overhaul of the youth structure would pay extreme dividends? Or was there another way? There have been many pivotal moments in Chelsea’s existence and another was on the horizon. As a club we had been brought to the edge of extinction by an overtly opportunistic property magnate. We had survived and the verge of a brighter tomorrow was staring the club directly in the face.
Rick Glanvill, Chelsea’s Official Historian, put things into a succinct context during his superb The Official Biography. A meeting between Glenn Hoddle, Ken Bates, Matthew Harding and Colin Hutchinson would in Glanvill’s words “[be] the most vital meeting in Chelsea history for 90 years”. The discussion centred around a certain Dutch footballer who “was available”. In the discussion of iconic players Ruud Gullit is occasionally overlooked. We may in fact never realise just how influential his signing was and the change it effected.
Hutchinson in particular appeared to be extremely perceptive with regards to the impact signing one of world football’s icons would have on the club. “Who wouldn’t want to play with Gullit?” and ultimately he was right. The overall goal was to dramatically expedite Chelsea’s image across Europe to levels that meant attracting quality European footballers was seen as the norm.
This conversation known as the Marriott Accord conceivably laid the foundation for everything that came after 1995. The growth of Chelsea was catalysed by the wonderful football being played and the excellent work in the transfer market. We have much to thank Matthew Harding for in this period of Chelsea’s history. Hutchinson went as far as to say that “[…] if Matthew hadn’t been around I’m not sure we would have embarked on [this]”.
With a vision laid out for the club Ruud Gullit’s addition began a sea change in the club’s fortunes. Soon after his arrival Mark Hughes and Dan Petrescu joined the revolution. Both were undoubtedly phenomenal additions to the club. Hughes gave Hoddle’s team a focal point and an edge that it had lacked previously. Petrescu may remain one of the most exquisite footballers this club has ever seen and his ability in wide areas allowed Hoddle to use him as a wingback or wide midfielder. They both contributed greatly to Hoddle’s ability to play a more coherent 3-5-2. The rebirth was well underway.
This may be a touch of nostalgia speaking but Gullit as a player was simply on another level to anything we had seen at the club in years. Miles ahead of his teammates in his understanding of the game, it pays to remember that Gullit finished his first season at the club as runner-up to Eric Cantona in the Footballer of the Year voting. Despite some highly publicised issues with his knees, Hoddle pushed Gullit into a central midfield role. There he began to exhibit the type of control and influence on a game that had been non-existent at Chelsea for two decades. Hoddle was certainly on to something.
Gullit’s first goal certainly alluded to this new dawn. A clipped ball saw Mark Hughes peel away from his marker expertly. Gullit, noticing the gulf of space in front of him, moved forward as Hughes cushioned an angled header in his direction. Chelsea number four hit the ball on a side volley in full stride, slamming the ball past the goalkeeper. The ease in which he evaded his marker to explode into the space and his anticipation of Hughes’ cushioned header were qualities that no one at Chelsea possessed. His presence raised everyone around him - the ultimate sign of a phenomenal footballer.
Arguably one of my favourite pieces of play from Gullit was a pass he hit against Coventry that put Mark Hughes through on goal. He received the ball just inside his own half towards the right touchline and dribbled forward as he scanned the entire field ahead of him. With the outside of his right boot he arrowed a forty-yard pass across the ground through a myriad of Coventry and Chelsea players that arrived on Hughes toe as he burst into the penalty area. Hughes collected the ball and rounded the goalkeeper with a neat finish. It was otherworldly vision and execution - Gullit was a class apart.
Gullit’s existence in Chelsea’s starting XI transformed from a stark reminder of an embarrassing gulf in ability into something that elevated his teammates technically and tactically. While an 11th place finish seemed underwhelming it was the intangible effect that his success would eventually have for the club. Hutchinson’s earlier thoughts about Gullit’s effect were materialising.
Gullit’s star quality would eventually attract the talents of Vialli, Zola and Di Matteo. In winning our first trophy since 1970 Gullit intrinsically wove himself into the rich tapestry of both Chelsea’s history and its future. He somehow managed to sign players whose legacy at Chelsea transcended the boundaries of mere footballers. Vialli became one of Chelsea’s most successful managers, Zola was voted Chelsea’s greatest player and Di Matteo did the impossible and delivered the European Cup in Munich.
Returning to Hoddle and his last season at the club, he finally had some of the tools required to deploy his vision of the 3-5-2 formation. It did at times produce some scintillating football and a five goal victory against Middlesbrough remains of Chelsea’s finest performances as the club re-established itself. Nevertheless, tactical inflexibility remained Hoddle’s Achilles heel. Instead of letting his available players dictate the shape or style he played Hoddle rigidly stuck with a 3-5-2 formation.
Hoddle had seemingly solved half the puzzle. There were times when Chelsea’s football was as good as anything seen at Stamford Bridge. Equally, some of the performances bordered on wretched and as many accounts testify it was largely Hoddle’s insipid motivational techniques that were to blame here. Di Matteo was later testament to the powers of organisation and unparalleled man management.
Where does Hoddle stand in the pantheon of Chelsea’s great managers? He deserves an enormous amount of credit for modernising the backroom set-up at Chelsea. Moving the team from the dark ages into something that resembled a European team was a notable achievement. Moreover, the 1994 FA Cup Final did a lot to salvage the hopes of fans and restored some much needed faith. However, he seemed very much style over substance and failed to deliver the new brand of football he promised.
Ranking Hoddle appears difficult because it vastly differs on how much emphasis you place on setting foundations. Was the signing of Gullit a catalyst in itself or was Gullit’s time as player-manager far more crucial? Do you point to Hoddle’s rather mediocre league performances or inconsistency to form some sort of base level opinion?
Hoddle was certainly a key figure in the redevelopment of Chelsea Football Club. Without him there would arguably have been no Gullit. Without Gullit the likelihood of persuading Zola, Vialli or Di Matteo to join Chelsea seems almost non-existent. While it is slightly too farfetched to extrapolate the “what ifs” in this scenario, you would imagine the future of the club would look slightly different had none of this panned out. Results did disappoint, but Hoddle should be viewed as a significant variable that impelled Chelsea’s re-emergence. For that we can be eternally thankful, even if his current punditry leaves a little to be desired.
We Ain't Got No History's 2015/16 season preview was edited by Joe Tweeds and designed by Graham MacAree. If you've enjoyed the work of the authors who generously donated their time to this project, please share with your friends and consider supporting The Chelsea Foundation as a way of saying thank you.Credits