Football: Bracewell in the Fulham frame

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The Independent Online
WITH KEVIN Keegan's announcement that he wishes to take on the role as England coach on a full-time basis, the time has come for Fulham fans to face up to the prospect of life without their beloved KK. First Division football will be played under a new manager next season, possibly Paul Bracewell, the incumbent player-coach.

Keegan seems determined to let Fulham down gently, still insisting he has a part to play there, but the unlikely love affair that has lasted for more than 18 months looks more and more doomed.

"They [Fulham] know my decision and what is going to happen and they are still saying: `Is there any way you can stay at Fulham in some capacity?' " Keegan said after Wednesday night's game in Budapest. "It is possible to still do something at Fulham but I promise I won't just take a position and have a name there if I feel I can't contribute, despite the fact they want to offer me some money for it. I wouldn't take it.

"I've always said my loyalty is to Fulham and Fulham fans and to the players, who are fantastic. I've got to get that right first so I won't rush it. It is a major concern for me. My message to the Fulham fans is simple: I'm determined the club should continue to go upward."

While the club itself reacted with a staunch stonewalling in the face of speculation concerning Keegan's successor, the supporters wasted no time expressing indignation at Keegan's decision. On the Fulham Independent website there were one or two sympathetic voices, thanking Keegan for all he had achieved, but the overall impression was that his avowed loyalty to Fulham was beginning to wear thin.

"We're Fulham FC, not Kevin Keegan FC" and "It will be nice to be Fulham again and not Kevin Keegan's Media XI" were a couple of the messages, while others referred to Keegan's "self-importance" and how they feel they have been misled by his deliberations. "There's only one man who is indispensable and that's Mohammad Al Fayed," said another, while there was even a suggestion that "Big Mo", as he is affectionately known in SW6, might "do a Ron Noades" and take over as manager himself.

Bracewell though has emerged as the No 1 contender and he seems to be a popular choice with the fans. The former Everton, Newcastle United and Sunderland midfield player impressed the Cottage faithful by taking a pay cut to join them in the first place.

Furthermore if Keegan, who has a five per cent share in the club, stays on in his former capacity of chief operating officer, it will be easier for someone untried in management such as Bracewell to work with Keegan hovering upstairs. A similar arrangement with Ray Wilkins was a conspicuous failure, and it would almost certainly be a stumbling block for Al Fayed should he wish to appoint a more experienced man.

The idea of Bracewell running the show without Keegan will probably not appeal to Al Fayed quite so much, and should Keegan relinquish all interest in the club the chairman will almost certainly want someone with a profile high enough to attract the best to Craven Cottage, using the pounds 12m Al Fayed has promised for new players this summer as profitably as Keegan has spent the pounds 23m he has already invested.

Of those mentioned in the past Ruud Gullit will still be under consideration, but with Newcastle reaching the FA Cup final and showing distinct signs of life once more it may be harder now to entice the Dutchman back to the capital.

Other contenders include Leicester City's Martin O'Neill and the former England manager Bobby Robson, who played for and managed Fulham. However, the prospect of causing a nuisance next door to his former employees, Chelsea, not to mention a salary in excess of pounds 1m a year might yet appeal to Gullit.