Football: FA begins talks with Keegan

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KEVIN KEEGAN'S appointment as England coach moved a step closer last night after the Football Association's king-makers, David Davies and Noel White, travelled to the northeast to discuss the vacancy with the man currently working under the title of Chief Operating Officer at Second Division Fulham.

Davies, the FA's acting chief executive, and White, the Liverpool director who is chairman of the International Committee, visited Keegan at the home he retains from his time in charge of Newcastle United. An FA spokesman described their two-hour meeting as "amicable", adding that further talks with the former England captain would be held "within the next 48 hours".

Although the official line from Lancaster Gate is that the FA is still considering "all options", the fact that Davies and White trekked to Tyneside is a clear indication that they are keen to confirm Keegan as Glenn Hoddle's successor as a matter of urgency.

England have a European Championship fixture against Poland on 27 March. While the FA's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, is likely to be asked to continue in his interim capacity, the hierarchy would like to avail themselves of Keegan's inspirational input during the build-up to a match which is vital to the team's prospects of qualifying for the finals next year.

Keegan, who had earlier insisted that he planned to have "a quiet day at home with my family", claimed in the aftermath of Hoddle's demise that he was "not interested in the job - so I hope no one has had a bet on me". To actually be asked to lead one's country is, however, a different matter from being pressed to comment on speculation. It would be a major surprise if the 48-year-old from a South Yorkshire mining family did not now become England's ninth "permanent" manager.

The only fly in the ointment is Keegan's desire to do the decent thing by Fulham and see through their promotion campaign. Having persuaded international players like Chris Coleman, Kit Symons and Paul Peschisolido to drop into the third tier of the English game, he is determined not to be seen as disloyal to them or to the club's owner, Mohamed al-Fayed. Keegan has 18 months left on his contract, although al-Fayed cleared the way for a compromise by granting Davies permission to approach him.

The club-versus-country debate has resurfaced in relation to England's pursuit of Keegan, even if the club concerned were not Fulham. Walsall, who lie one place and two points behind the London club, yesterday stressed their unwillingness to switch their home game against Fulham from the day of Poland's visit to Wembley in order to preclude any clash of interests for the England coach-elect.

Walsall's commercial director, Roy Whalley, argued that rescheduling would cause a "big upheaval" for his club, who have sold more than 2,000 tickets for the game. Whalley added: "Kevin Keegan missed our match at Fulham in October through illness, yet that game wasn't postponed. So why should this one be moved if he decides to team up with England on a part-time basis?"

The FA has already intimated that it would grant Keegan leave of absence for the friendly in Hungary, on 28 April, if he felt that Fulham's League position required his presence at Craven Cottage.

Roy Hodgson, the former Blackburn manager who took Switzerland to the World Cup finals in 1994, yesterday endorsed Keegan's candidature, saying he was a "good and experienced" manager. Hodgson, who is reported to be on the shortlist for the post, said he would regard it as "an honour" to be offered the job, although he had had no contact with the FA.

David Batty has handed the England coach - whoever he will be - an immediate selection headache ahead of the game against Poland.

The Leeds midfielder, who was signed by Keegan for Newcastle in 1996, will miss the game against the Poles at Wembley with fractured ribs. Batty suffered the injury on his debut for the Elland Road against Coventry in December following his pounds 4.5m move from Newcastle and has not played since.

With Paul Ince already suspended for what is a crucial game, the central midfield roles are open to dispute, leaving players such as Nicky Butt Kieron Dyer and Batty's Leeds team-mate, Lee Bowyer, with the chance to stake their claims for regular international selection.

The loss of Batty will be a major blow to the national side, with a place in the Euro 2000 finals in the balance following a disappointing start to the qualifying campaign. His combative talents were badly missed in the Wembley defeat against France last week, when England lacked anyone to play in the protective role in front of the back four.