FA plays hard to get over England job

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The Independent Online
There was no sign of white smoke rising above Lancaster Gate yesterday. Indeed, there was not much indication of anything as the Football Association attempted to begin its quest for a new leader in greater secrecy than the Vatican.

"They met for 90 minutes and they had tea, coffee and sandwiches. That is all I can tell you," an FA spokesman said of the first step in finding a new national coach. Even that sounded as if he was hiding something. No mention of cakes, when Jimmy Armfield, the FA's Coachfinder General, has a noted sweet tooth? Surely not.

The news black-out is unlikely to last for long but, even now, it is not hard to deduce the FA's next move. It is likely to involve Armfield, who was involved with Terry Venables' selection two years ago, heading North-east to see if Bryan Robson and Kevin Keegan are serious in their lack of interest.

Gerry Francis, at Tottenham, will also get a call but it is Robson who remains the FA's favoured choice. He his held in high regard by Venables, who brought the Middlesbrough manager into the England squad as coach. He has the players' respect. He is also likely to be easier to prise away from Middlesbrough than Keegan is from Newcastle.

Keegan's emotional attachment to St James' Park, and the prospect of competing in the Champions' League next season, is likely to keep him at Newcastle even if Sir John Hall was prepared to release him from his lengthy contract, which he would only do with great reluctance.

Steve Gibson, the Middlesbrough chairman, is equally keen to retain his manager. But Robson has only been associated with the club for 21 months, and is believed to have a release clause in the event of England calling.

However, his agreement is not a foregone conclusion. Robson's recent interest in the Brazilians, Branco and Roberto Carlos, suggested Middlesbrough's immediate future was of greater concern to him than England's.

There is the possibility of a compromise, and it is that which will have occupied much of yesterday's meeting of the international sub-committee because it revolves around Venables.

At least one of the sub-committee's five members - Graham Kelly, the FA's chief executive, Sir Bert Millichip, the FA's chairman, Noel White (Liverpool), Keith Wiseman (Southampton) and Chris Willcox (Gloucestershire FA) - is understood to be in the FA's anti-Venables faction, but he is likely to be in the minority.

Venables is resigning because he feels the international committee's lukewarm support could turn icy by the time his autumn court case with Alan Sugar heats up. Robson is hesitating over the England job because he feels a loyalty to Middlesbrough and lacks experience.

The compromise solution would be to give Robson the job on a part-time basis - and restore Venables when his court cases is over. Robson would then take over for good after the 1998 World Cup.

There is one obvious danger - the court case, or the long-awaited Teddy Sheringham transfer inquiry, may go so badly against Venables that he is considered unemployable.

If Armfield's discussions with Robson go well, the sub-committee's next meeting, in two to three weeks, may have nothing more taxing to do than arrange a formal interview. If they go badly, discussion will turn to further candidates - Gerry Francis (who, of all those mentioned, may be serious in saying he would not want the hassle of the job), Frank Clark, Glenn Hoddle, or Howard Wilkinson. It may even cast its net further afield and consider a foreign coach.

The most likely candidate remains the man who wore the Cross of St George so boldly during his playing career it is probably etched into his scar tissue. Would Bryan Robson really turn down his country in its hour of need? We may soon find out.

Players' choice, page 22