Football: Keegan's caretaker challenge

The England succession: `Nation's choice' will take on a dual role for next four games as the FA's search continues
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The Independent Online
KEVIN KEEGAN was duly confirmed as the England coach in succession to Glenn Hoddle last night - but only for the next four matches rather than on the widely predicted four-year contract.

In an unexpected twist to a saga that was starting to become as protracted as the Hoddle affair, the Football Association's acting chief executive, David Davies, admitted that Keegan remained unwilling to break his contract as Fulham's chief operating officer.

However, Davies said that Keegan was "delighted" to be given the chance to combine both roles on a temporary basis. He dismissed suggestions that it was a fudged arrangement - a caretaker replacing a caretaker - which left the national side in limbo.

The FA had hoped to unveil Keegan as England's ninth manager on a deal taking him through until after the World Cup finals in 2002. Instead, in perhaps the first compromise of Keegan's career, the former England captain will take charge only until June, starting with the must-win European Championship fixture against Poland at Wembley on 27 March.

Contrary to previous reports, Keegan will also be at the helm for the friendly in Hungary a month later, before bowing out after further Euro 2000 qualifiers against Sweden and Bulgaria. In the meantime, said Davies, putting a brave face on disappointment that must have bordered on embarrassment, the search for a full-time successor would begin immediately.

Davies added: "Over almost three days of discussions with the FA, Kevin indicated that he did not wish to be considered for the England job beyond June. He is committed to completing his contract with Fulham, which runs out in 2000. I've been speaking to Kevin again this evening and he said he was absolutely delighted. He is committed to Fulham, but believes he can do a successful job for the England team as well. He told me it would be a great thrill to work with everyone connected with the national team.

"We respect his wish to complete his existing contract. We have been determined to do everything possible to give the players the best chance of qualifying for Euro 2000. I'm convinced that's what we've done."

When it was suggested to Davies that Keegan's solution to the ultimate club-versus-country conundrum had left England in limbo, he replied: "We've got the nation's choice leading us in some crucial games. We wanted to get the best person for the job in the situation we're in, and we've got that. We have to live in the real world. Kevin has made clear what his wishes are - and we respect them."

Nevertheless, the short-term "fix" poses as many questions as it answers. If, for example, England were to win all four games under the 48-year- old Keegan and revive public enthusiasm in the process, would such a heart- on-the-sleeve patriot be able to turn his back on his country for the sake of a club who may still be in the Second Division?

And what about the pressures that a winning sequence under "the people's choice" would put on the manager-in-waiting, who would come into the job in the knowledge that he had not been the FA's first choice anyway? These issues, as well as how Keegan plans to work with Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director and interim England coach, will be addressed at a London press conference this afternoon.

Meanwhile, John Gregory, the Aston Villa manager, made what proved to be a timely endorsement of Terry Venables yesterday. Speaking before the FA announcement, Gregory admitted that Keegan would not have been his choice to guide England. "My original thought when the job became vacant was that Terry would be ideal for it, and I will stick to that," said Gregory. He believed England's need was not for a manager who was good at the "daily involvement of handling players", but for a coach to prepare the squad for specific matches. "There's no one better than Terry, but I'm also an admirer of Kevin's. He would be the ideal second choice for his passion, enthusiasm and... bulldog spirit."

Bobby Robson, one of three England managers Keegan served, has warned that it will be difficult for him to dovetail his duties with club and country. Robson, now with PSV Eindhoven, said: "My opinion is that if Kevin is to take the job, then he should do it full-time.

"When I took the England job and had to leave Ipswich, I was so happy at the club that I suggested to Bert Millichip [then FA chairman] that maybe I could do both jobs. But he said: `I don't think so'." Robson, who said it took him six weeks to realise that managing England was "not a part-time job", stressed how important it was that Keegan and the FA's technical director, Wilkinson, gelled.

Richard Williams, page 24

Keegan must go, Review, page 3