Football: Instant marriage of convenience

FA live up to dynamic new image and act in haste by turning to the quick fixer with a common touch
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The Independent Online
NOW, LET'S get this straight; it's Kevin to have visiting rights to his adopted England lads at the end of April, three days in May, and then twice in June and to look in on them on occasional Tuesdays and Wednesdays; to look after his Fulham sons on Tuesdays through to Saturdays, and have time with his wife and daughters on Sundays and Mondays. Also, Uncle Howard will also keep an eye on the England brood - meanwhile a permanent foster father is selected.

It sounds more like a job for the Family Division of the High Court than the responsibility of the international committee of the Football Association, although the FA's technical director Howard Wilkinson probably summed up Kevin Keegan's part-time contribution to the England cause against Poland on 27 March most accurately, when he reflected: "It's almost got to be like a Queen's visit."

When the FA's executive director David Davies contacted Mohamed Al Fayed last Friday night, and met him at Harrods two hours later, he and the acting chairman Geoff Thompson, together with members of the international committee, knew that it was essential to have a coach installed quickly, with only four weeks before that visit of Poland for the first of five Euro 2000 qualifiers this year. But just as crucially, it had to be one who would register highly on the great public electro- cardiograph, one whose mere presence would raise the heartbeat of supporters and players.

Fulham's chief operating officer - once Liverpool's Mighty Mouse, but who now should perhaps be referred to as Midas Mouse, given what is expected of him - was that man.

For all the prevarication of their predecessors, the alacrity of the new, dynamic FA in disposing of Glenn Hoddle has been like Parliament rushing though a piece of ill-considered legislation rather than reacting after calm reflection. Such hasty acts have a nasty habit of becoming botched jobs. It meant, as Wilkinson said: "We have had to buy time".

In making running repairs to a problem, principally of their own making, there were few options open to the FA, once they had made up their minds that there would be no "going backwards", and no question of allowing Terry Venables' business profile to become a distraction. Alex Ferguson has always remained the ultimate prize, but is out of reach, while Wilkinson was clearly not the inspirational figure required in the circumstances, and anyway has a far more crucial role in planning a restructuring of the England set-up which is designed to avoid this situation ever happening again.

Signing up Keegan on a limited time-share deal will satisfy public demand for an all flag-waving, anthem-singing, source of motivation for the players, though he would not, you suspect, necessarily be the first choice of every club manager. "The short-term problem is that we have a match in four weeks that we have to do well in," explained Davies. "We want to give our players the best chance we possibly can to take the country to what is the second biggest tournament in the world. We have made that judgement and Kevin was the clear choice. But he said right from the start where he was coming from."

That was a recurring expression on Thursday evening, when several attempts were made by the media to determine precisely where Keegan was coming from. And, more pertinently, just how far he was leading England, and to where, on this, Kevin and Howard's most excellent adventure.

Let us be under no misapprehension; should England have a glimpse of the promised lands, Belgium and Holland, next year, the clamour for him to remain will be unremitting. The FA know that; Keegan, who has always had the England job as a life's ambition, is acutely aware of it too, despite his protestations that this man is not for turning. The players used to call him Andy McDaft at Anfield, but he is far from that. And as he stressed, the supposed status quo in football can change swiftly.

The prospect of him actually gathering his reins at Lancaster Gate, heading west towards a First, or maybe still Second Division, Fulham, and riding off into the sunset like John Wayne, his task completed, is inconceivable. Already, he has talked about continuing in some role, "looking after the forwards".

It would not be implausible for the England bed to be kept warm for him, maybe by Bobby Robson. If Fulham fail to win promotion, and it is not yet a foregone conclusion, then the pressure on him will be all the greater. Keegan is clearly torn. He wants to preserve a sense of honour. But he desperately wants the England job and the fact is that managers constantly leave clubs to better themselves, however unpalatable that fact is for a club's supporters.

Whatever his success, the FA may do precisely as they say, and by the summer identify a coach who is prepared to request his contract to be terminated. "We have reason to believe the list of potential candidates might be rather longer than it is in the middle of February," added Davies.

Or to put it another way, it is easier to walk out in the close season. The public could, by then, be amenable to a "foreign" coach, which might mean Scottish or Irish. The FA would be unlikely to countenance it because of his "record", but England's most successful coach, other than Ferguson, is George Graham. He is also utterly unfazed by any criticism. "I wouldn't like the job; I like the day to day work too much," Graham told me on Friday.

"But being a Scot wouldn't be a problem and I can't see any reason why England should not have a foreign coach, as long as he is used to the English game." He added: "Coaching-wise, Terry [Venables] would walk it, but they won't give it to him. Kevin's a national figure, the players will respect him right away. He's a good choice."

Few would would disagree. However, ultimately it will all depend upon which Kevin Keegan we see when the problems begin to mount, as they will. When he drops established players, when he responds petulantly - as many predict he will - to media criticism.

At the moment, there are encouraging words for the likes of Paul Gascoigne. Others, including Robbie Fowler and Chris Sutton, may have cause for optimism. But for every one of those, another player is going to be disenchanted.

When his preparations go smoothly, he can be, as Les Ferdinand, has said, "the best coach he has ever worked with". But there is another side. The man who stomped off and left Sky without a pundit, because he was refused entry to Southampton's car park. The player, who while at Hamburg, punched an opponent so hard, "for a split second I thought I might have killed him".

Those are, rightly, concerns; but for the moment his virtues should be enough to convince us that the FA have taken the correct decision in appointing one of Bill Shankly's adopted sons. "Shankly respected the opposition, but never led you to believe that they were good enough to beat you. It's a great philosophy," said Keegan. Modest beginnings, with Scunthorpe, have helped to maintain a healthy equilibrium in his career.

Unlike his predecessor, Keegan will suffer the player who does not possess all the natural skills, as long as his heart is in it, along with an aptitude for hard graft. As he said after twice capturing the European Footballer of the Year award, in 1979 and 1980, "My name is the weakest in terms of ability. I was the mongrel who made it to Crufts."

Performing for England under the full gamut of ideologies, from Sir Alf Ramsey, Don Revie, Joe Mercer and Ron Greenwood, through to Bobby Robson, has given him the broadest teacher base.

His sabbatical at Hamburg, which was a typical Keegan adventure, also enhanced his experience. Yet, intriguingly, it is not Shankly, but Mercer who has always been his most powerful source of inspiration. "With Joe, there was a freedom to express yourself," he recalled. "Joe could pick sides without worrying whether he was going to get the sack or not. I could do that, too, but I will worry about getting it right and being successful."

He has learnt that, in international football, as in the Premiership, as in the Nationwide League Second Division, gung-ho is a no-no, although, in truth, his reputation for encouraging his teams to be cavalier and with no respect for their defensive qualities is ill-founded. The Newcastle side who finished runners-up in the 1995-96 season conceded just 37 goals, only two more than the champions, Manchester United.

His patriotism does not blind him to reality, but he insists that England are "good enough, without a shadow of a doubt" to qualify for the championships. "It's not that the players aren't there," he said. "It is sometimes that players don't play like you think they're going to." If anyone can alter that, Keegan can. We have moved on from Hoddle the elitist to Keegan the egalitarian, Keegan the emotional man. Installed, in a sense by default, "King Kev" could just be what England demands. And if he gets it right where others have failed, long may he reign over us.