Football: Fruit of years of fudging and fear

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The Independent Online
EVER SINCE footballers stopped wearing bicycle clips and counting the notes in their wage packets, people have been saying that what England need is an inspirational manager who'll fill out the team sheet, give the players a slap on the back and a cheerful word, and send them out to enjoy themselves. Remember, they say, the careless rapture of Joe Mercer's brief term. And imagine what old Cloughie would have done, given the chance. According to this theory, it's not much more than a weekend job. Instead, we've been given a series of men bowed down by diagrams, dossiers and doubts even before they faced their first press conference.

But now, thanks to the Football Association's decision to appoint the freewheeling Kevin Keegan as coach of the senior team for their next four games, the notion will finally be put to the test. Now we're going to find out whether or not heart-on-the-sleeve enthusiasm is what it really takes, and whether off-the-cuff enthusiasm can be more effective than full-time commitment.

Keegan is a terrific fellow, good at establishing rapport with players and fans, absolutely wholehearted in his enthusiasm. But whatever his virtues, and whatever the euphoria greeting the announcement, the odds must be against a happy ending to the venture.

The FA's conduct of the search for Glenn Hoddle's successor has been lamentable, specifically in the tawdry use of controlled news leaks to test the reaction of possible candidates. If proof were needed that David Davies's talent belongs in the fantasy world of New Labour's spin-doctors, then the past fortnight has provided it.

Keegan, according to both Davies and Geoff Thompson, the FA's acting chairman, is the nation's choice. But what about Alex Ferguson, who was the FA's original target? And in their panic, they appear to have given in to just about all Keegan's demands. Including, or so we were told two days ago, a willingness to contemplate the idea of restricting the presence and influence of the technical director of the Football Association.

Howard Wilkinson, we were told in another of these leaks, would take no part in the activities of the England squad, and would not be invited to sit with them during international matches. This is a man who, only a week ago, was deemed suitable to lead the team out at Wembley. This is a man entrusted with the development of young players in England - the man most responsible, in effect, for the future of English football. And already, even before the new management team have even collected their monogrammed tracksuits, he is said to be persona non grata.

The fact that Wilkinson is not the man to coach England's senior side is neither here nor there. Nor was the FA's hurried spin-doctoring of the leak once it had been published. Today Wilkinson will appear at the press conference at Keegan's side, and the two will no doubt attempt to paper over the crack. But the substance remains, and in this casual insult we see the true desperation of the FA's international committee. Here is the fruit of years of expediency, fudging, fear, vanity, and sheer bad judgement.

Look - as we must, if we really want to learn anything - at France, whose display at Wembley last week was the performance of authentic world champions. The skill, strategic awareness and deep pride of those players was not the product of improvisation or expediency. It was the result of careful planning and diligent execution.

When Aime Jacquet won the World Cup with this team last summer, he had an extra medal struck and presented it to Gerard Houllier, the technical director of the French Football Federation, in recognition of the supporting role Houllier and his department had played in a sustained and carefully co-ordinated campaign. Houllier had been his predecessor; now Jacquet has become technical director, while his own deputy, Roger Lemerre, has assumed control of the team.

Throughout the Nineties, these men led a team which revolutionised the coaching structure of French football, integrating every level from the very youngest children to the elite of the national team. The men at the centre of the scheme were not flashy characters with big reputations as former players. They lacked obvious charisma. None of them could ever have been labelled "the nation's choice", in the sense that they would win tabloid popularity polls. But they are serious men with a belief that the only way to get results is to do the job with rigour, and with absolute co-operation at all levels.

They agreed on common aims, and they carried them out with immense determination - sometimes in the teeth of vicious criticism from influential voices in the French press. Their bosses never wavered in support. And it worked, providing a textbook example of what can be achieved through strategic planning, while demonstrating that such care need not be at the expense of expressive, even artistic football- that, indeed, it may become the artistic footballer's greatest resource. Just ask Zinedine Zidane.

Mere planning alone can't provide a guarantee of success, as the Germans will attest. But the Germans will also point out that it can give you a pretty good 30 years or so before you need to return to the drawing board. And if improvisation and inspiration are what's wanted, I would personally feel safer at Ronnie Scott's than Lancaster Gate.

Keegan will take the job on a tidal wave of goodwill. His own reaction to success and failure will reflect the fact that he is a creature of moods, and the more likeably human for it. It will suit him that the short- term and part-time nature of the appointment takes a lot of the pressure off his shoulders. The excuses are built-in. He, and we, could be in for a lot of fun, or a lot of tears. This is, after all, the coach who put Asprilla and Ginola in the same team. But he is also the man who abolished Newcastle United's reserve team, without getting round to installing Sir John Hall's much-vaunted youth development scheme.

Inspiration and improvisation will have to do, then. Best of luck all round.