Football: Keegan remains England's key candidate

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S VICTORY over Poland under Kevin Keegan was put into stark perspective by Sweden's single-goal win over the Poles in Chorzow four days later. Effectively this means that England's best chance of qualifying for Euro 2000 will be through the two-leg play-offs next autumn. Sweden are five points ahead in England's group and other countries, most notably Ukraine and Romania, both with 11 points from five matches, are likely to beat England in the rankings for best runners-up.

So, when the Football Association and Keegan sit down to discuss their future after the new coach's four- match tenure of office, they are likely to be facing the prospect of another four games before England's Euro 2000 fate is known. It is highly unlikely that a change of management will be made at that time.

Then, if the friendly match against Hungary in Budapest later this month survives the Balkans conflict, it will not provide much of a pointer to the future. Already Keegan is talking of introducing fringe players as the run in to the Premier League title hots up. And the Hungarian team of the 1990s is far from the wonderful pioneers of the '50s. They currently trail Portugal and Romania in their group.

Keegan's hand in June will be as strong as it is today. He does not cunningly map out his future, but is shrewd enough to make the most of the favourable cards that fall to him. Nobody believes the England display against Poland was faultless, but the reaction afterwards has confirmed that the FA has never had its heart in the search for a permanent successor to Glenn Hoddle. All its spokesmen have said is that they would like Keegan to change his mind and take the job full-time.

At least things have changed since a previous chairman of the international committee refused Bobby Robson's request for a No 2, saying: "There's not enough work for you, never mind an assistant."

If someone new were appointed in June, it would be a cause of further disruption, not only to the England team but also, assuming the person is currently a club manager, to the club concerned. The club would already have made plans and sold tickets for the new season. Liverpool had to wait until after the World Cup final last July to confirm Gerard Houllier's appointment and they have never rectified problems that were apparent from the start of the season. It may be that the FA is looking at a coach from the continent where coaches' contracts are often shorter-term and changes are more frequent. But there is no evidence of this.

Perhaps there are some closet Manchester United supporters at Lancaster Gate hoping the Reds will win Alex Ferguson's long-cherished European Cup and thus free the Scot to allow his name to go forward as a candidate for the England job. He is surely the right age to release the reins of club and move to the national stage. And friendly with Howard Wilkinson. However, given the rivalry between England and Scotland, this is a long shot.

Roy Hodgson is out of favour with the FA, while it would be a big gamble to go for Martin O'Neill. And I would not wish the job on Peter Reid just now - far better he stays with the magnificent Sunderland supporters who idolise him. The FA said Terry Venables would not be ruled out, but I doubt whether his telephone has rung yet. Bryan Robson has reportedly blotted his copybook off the field.

There are obvious difficulties in trying to carry on with a part-time manager throughout a full season. The problems faced by a manager with a Nationwide League club are probably greater, because teams play more League matches and there is less flexibility in the fixture schedules. Fulham could easily be involved in play-offs at the end of May in 2000 just when England, hopefully, will be preparing for the European Championship finals. But maybe Mohamed Al Fayed's offer to release Keegan has demonstrated a way forward. Perhaps Keegan could give, say, a quarter of his time to Fulham under some form of consultancy arrangement.

The majority of his commitment would then be to England. Wilkinson, the technical director, is now fully involved in the organisational and back- up work for all the England teams. The coach no longer has to worry about any medical or scouting issue. The Under-21 team is not now the responsibility of the head coach. The much-needed continuity is provided by the technical director's back-room set up.

Given that Keegan wants the England job - and on the evidence so far he has taken to it like a duck to water - this seems to be the likeliest way forward.