Charlton looks right on target

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They did not even have the decency to say "thanks, but no thanks" when Jack Charlton went looking for the top job in London. So how will they feel if he comes marching back again, leading his Irish team to Wembley with the ultimate answer to not s o mucha rejection, more an insult?

The next full year in Charlton's distinguished football career, doubtless his last, will be devoted to showing the English what they missed.

"I never even had a reply," he says about his application for the England manager's job, some 15 years after scaling the 39 steps to Wembley's royal box to receive a World Cup winners' medal as a player. The elderly guardians of English football have been constantly reminded of their error as Charlton has guided his adopted Republic of Ireland to unprecedented glories since Dublin accepted him as one of their own in 1986.

The biggest irony of all is that he has recruited players whom England also did not want to help him overshadow the mother country.

Never mind two glorious Irish World Cup adventures to Italy and America. This really is the big one for Charlton - the last, hurrah before he bows out of the game and takes up his fishing rod full-time.

There is still a long way to go on the qualification road to Euro 96 in England. But who can doubt that Charlton's confident team are more than half-way there?

Three games, 11 goals - four of them against their Northern neighbours in Belfast last month - and none against so far. As usual, the Republic are setting the pace and will take some catching.

Northern Ireland's new manager, Bryan Hamilton, has to have faith that it can still be done - or at least that his rebuilt team can overhaul Austria and Portugal to join the Republic in England.

They were certainly no match for their Southern rivals in November - but then injuries and suspensions to key players had disrupted Hamilton's plans and he is entitled to expect better luck when the two teams meet again in Dublin in March.

That is the next step on the qualifying road in Group Six and Hamilton's team have to revive the pugnacious spirit that defeated Austria in Vienna in October to have a respectable chance of inflicting the Republic's first European Championship defeat since 1988.

That is a minimum requirement now if the North are to take their qualifying ambitions into the spring when, on the same April day as the Republic tackle unbeaten, but unpredictable, Portugal in Dublin, Hamilton's squad have little to gain against the minnows of Latvia in Riga.

The blossoming talent of Keith Gillespie, the Manchester United winger, and the maturing midfield strengths of Manchester City's Steve Lomas are new sources of encouragement for Hamilton, but there may be insufficient time for their development to make aEuropean impact this time around.

The veteran striker, Jimmy Quinn, still looks good for a few more goals and there is no sign of any weakening in skipper lan McDonald's ability to pivot a defence that draws so much more confidence from his presence. He was badly missed against the Republic last month.

Charlton has gradually phased out much of the old guard who served so magnificently. But the veterans who remain, like John Aldridge, Paul McGrath and Ray Houghton, still have parts to play, while relative newcomers Jason McAteer, Phil Babb and Roy Keanemove towards fulfillment of vast international potential.

At just 20, however, Gary Kelly, the Leeds right-back, already looks the finished article and there is no reason to suppose he cannot become one of his country's most celebrated stars. The boy from Drogheda is as fine a discovery as any that Charlton haspoached from his own native land.