Football: Keegan fights for more control

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The Independent Online
KEVIN KEEGAN'S appointment as England coach appeared to come a step closer yesterday, after he discussed the vacancy with the Football Association's king-makers - but the FA may yet have to look elsewhere because of a possible conflict between the control Keegan wants and Howard Wilkinson's sphere of influence.

David Davies, the FA's acting chief executive, and Noel White, the Liverpool director who is chairman of the international committee, visited Fulham's chief operating officer at the home in the North-east he retains from his time in charge of Newcastle United. An FA spokesman described their two-hour meeting as "amicable", adding that further talks would be held with Keegan "within the next 48 hours".

But while the former England captain is keen to answer his country's call, he is understood to be concerned that the position as outlined to him yesterday might not allow him to perform his duties the way he believes is necessary. Wilkinson, who was interim coach for last week's defeat by France, now has authority in his capacity as technical director over the Under-21 set-up, an area Keegan sees as integral to the domain of Glenn Hoddle's successor.

This potential sticking point may explain why the official line from Lancaster Gate is that the FA is still "considering all options". However, the fact that Davies and White trekked to Tyneside demonstrates that they remain keen to secure Keegan's services as a matter of urgency.

England have a European Championship fixture against Poland on 27 March. Wilkinson is likely to be asked to continue in his caretaker role, but 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 "a quiet day at home with my family", claimed in the aftermath of Hoddle's demise that he was "not interested in the job... I hope no one's had a bet on me." The likelihood of the 48-year-old Yorkshire miner's son becoming England's ninth "permanent" manager remains strong, but he will first want to be satisfied that he has control over his own destiny.

The other fly in the ointment is his 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.

Meanwhile, David Batty has handed the England coach - whoever he will be - an immediate selection problem before 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 at Elland Road against Coventry in December following his pounds 4.5m move from Newcastle and has not played since.

With Paul Ince already suspended, the loss of Batty will be a major blow. His combative talents were badly missed in the Wembley defeat against France last week, when England lacked anyone to play the protective role in front of the back four. Nicky Butt, Lee Bowyer and even Kieron Dyer of Ipswich Town may now be considered for selection.