Football: Ferguson heads FA's wanted list

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The Independent Online
THE POSSIBILITY of a Scottish accent delivering English rallying calls strengthened yesterday as a groundswell of support developed within the Football Association for Alex Ferguson's candidacy as Glenn Hoddle's successor.

Senior FA figures, anxious to settle the issue as soon as possible, began discussing names within hours of Hoddle's departure and Ferguson's was prominent. The FA had confirmed they were prepared to seek a non-English manager and some within the organisation believe the Manchester United manager's qualifications outweigh the fact of his Tartan allegiance. Indeed, he was close to being approached three years ago before Hoddle was appointed.

While United had already declared Ferguson off limits the 56-year-old, who managed Scotland at the 1986 World Cup in the wake of Jock Stein's death, had made no official comment prior to the club's match at home to Derby County last night. Not that this mattered. The FA is aware that managers who rebut any interest in public may not be so dismissive if actually offered the post. For that reason Kevin Keegan, though he said yesterday he wanted to stay with Fulham, has not been ruled out.

Other candidates include Bryan Robson, Arsene Wenger, Roy Hodgson, Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, Gerard Houllier, David Platt, Peter Reid and the caretaker, Howard Wilkinson.

Like Keegan, Bryan Robson, Wenger and Houllier have ruled themselves out of the running. Robson's denial is the most convincing, he turned down the job before it was offered to Hoddle. Hodgson and Venables are both available, but there are reservations about them. Bobby Robson would be a short-term solution, he is into his sixties but he could be teamed with Platt, whom he gave an England debut to as a player and who is probably too inexperienced to take the job at present. Reid has influential supporters around the FA. While Wilkinson has his feet under the table, he said yesterday that he had not considered whether he would want the job permanently and would not do so until after Wednesday's match with France.

Although the list includes some worthy contenders, Ferguson's CV is better than any. He would also be a popular choice with the Government. Ferguson is closer to leading Labour figures than is commonly realised. Born in Govan, Glasgow, on New Year's Eve 1941, he was a tough centre-forward who had a brief spell with Rangers. They were the club he followed from the terraces as a boy, but the association ended unhappily after he was blamed for a Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic.

He went into management at East Stirling in 1974 before moving on, via St Mirren, to Aberdeen. He led them to their greatest period of success, winning three league championships, four Scottish Cups and the 1983 European Cup-Winners' Cup. This array of trophies appears even more impressive in the context of the club's history. Outside Ferguson's reign they have won just one other league title and three further Scottish Cups.

In November 1986, he moved to Manchester United, where he struggled initially before gaining himself time with the 1990 FA Cup success. The European Cup-Winners' Cup followed a year later, sparking a run of success that has seen United become the game's dominant force. They have won four of the six Premier League titles, not finished out of the top two in seven years, won two more FA Cups and one League Cup.

They have also reached the semi-finals of the European Cup but not won it. That is where the FA's biggest problem lies. United would doubtless fight hard to keep Ferguson - think of the effect on their share price should he leave - but his relations with the board have not always been warm and, if he wanted to go, he probably would. But, while the footballing challenge of the England job may appeal to him - though he has jokingly suggested in the past he would only take it "to get England relegated" - he is obsessed with winning the European Cup for United. If United overcome Internazionale in next month's quarter-final he may be hard to prise away before the season's end.

This need not be an insurmountable problem. Wilkinson indicated yesterday he may be prepared to extend his caretakership until then if required. Since he and Ferguson are close, they could even work in tandem for a while. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. When Ferguson led Scotland he did so part-time, combining the job with his duties at Aberdeen.

The England job may be bigger, but Ferguson is well aware of the squad's capabilities and has several of them at his club. In international weeks there are probably more United players at Bisham than Old Trafford.

The question marks concern his sometimes tetchy dealings with the media, especially the capital's tabloid press, his occasional outbursts against referees, his nationality and even his identification with United. Plus, would he want to subject his family to all the hysteria?

There is only one way to find out but the FA are not likely to ask him just yet. The priority is next week's game with France. However, it would be no surprise if discreet enquiries were made.