Football: Life after Hoddle - Three days to shake the world

Time is not on Wilkinson's side as he prepares for the world champions. By Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online
MICKEY ROURKE and Kim Basinger got Nine and A Half Weeks to sate their sadomasochistic desires; Howard Wilkinson gets just three days to indulge his. After a farrago of TV and radio interviews, and the constant strobe-light effect of camera flashes, Sgt Wilko sat, sipping black coffee and constantly rubbing his eyes, as he did his best not to dwell on the one factor he is denied in his quest to motivate England to victory over the world champions, France. Time.

"I'd like to speak to Terry Venables, Graham Taylor, Bobby Robson, Don Howe, Ron Greenwood, and Glenn, too," admitted the man who took Leeds to the First Division championship in 1992 after managing Sheffield Wednesday and Notts County. "But I'm only doing the job for a week and I don't want to start work on Sunday and the players get the impression that I'm making it up on the spot. In my view that does not come about by me sitting down with the back of a Woodbine packet for 20 minutes on a train. I've got to find some time."

Rarely can a man have been placed in such an invidious position. A friendly against, say, Latvia in three weeks hence would have been one thing. This is quite another. Whatever might be said in his mitigation, if England lose this will be all about Wilko's Woe. That is the nature of things. His desire to continue at least until the summer, about which he won't publicly commit himself until Thursday, can only be jeopardised by such a result. Some will suggest that it is all happening 10 years too late. He was denied his real chance when the then Leeds chairman Leslie Silver refused him the opportunity to consider the job in 1990, after Bobby Robson's exit.

In that sense, though, the man responsible for the Charter for Quality in his role as the FA's technical director has nothing to lose this week. Even should the worst scenario occur and the international committee decide in its wisdom that a younger, more high-profile name is desirable, he will merely be restored to his influential role within the FA from whence he came.

Wilkinson, as dead-bat Yorkshire as Geoffrey Boycott when it comes to a question that he has absolutely no intention of answering, has no pretensions about himself, or the nature of the immediate task that faces him. Certainly, he is not about to make extravagant claims about the squad he has inherited. "What can I say? It's a very good squad. But I'm not an expert on squads. Even now, I've got one part of my brain dealing with the technical department, turning teams out next week, courses and Uefa approvals, and on the other side dealing with this."

Had he decided how the team would play at Wembley? "No." Is there a team in your mind? He grunts, to the negative. "I'll talk to the staff [John Gorman, Peter Taylor and Ray Clemence], but a big factor is going to be who's available for Wednesday night."

His dry humour helps him turn the pressure down on what, for many, would be an intimidating task. "I was asked to take charge of the game against France - and I'm sitting here feeling a little bit of a fraud," he concedes with a smile. "It's a lot of attention for an international rescue, or a paramedic job."

Perhaps understandably, the former Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton winger ponders deeply before responding to questions, occasionally drifting into an almost literary mode of speaking. Like when he was amplifying his views about what "should be the best job in football". He explains: "By best, I don't mean the easiest, the most comfortable, snowdrops and doves and mist wafting round the ankles; I'm talking about the choice of the best players most of the time and the opportunity to pit your wits and their ability against the best opposition."

Though he personally prefers 4-4-2 and is not known to have a penchant for wing-backs, Wilkinson is likely to remain faithful tactically to what Hoddle may have envisaged rather than make radical changes at this stage. The likelihood is that the captain, Alan Shearer, will start alongside Michael Owen, although, with Poland in next month's Euro 2000 qualifying in mind, he will almost certainly use the opportunity to examine the resourcefulness of Andy Cole, named by Hoddle almost like a reluctant last bequest from a dying man, or Robbie Fowler.

Significantly, Wilkinson insisted on Gorman remaining, at least for the time being, despite the fact that the Scot is a close ally to Hoddle. Continuity of players, and management, is an important component of his ideology - this, after all, was the man who established the academy at Leeds which has been so productive - and he has a clear ideas about the kind of back-up a new manager should expect.

He should be provided with "a continuous stream of world-class international footballers with appropriate character. He should then be able to select them and train them, and have available the best sports science, the best video analysis, nutrition, medical record-keeping."

Wilkinson adds: "If you're sat there the night before a big World Cup game, and considering bring in a debutant, it's crucial that where you've got a choice you know what the odds are on that boy. If you've had him in the system for six years it should be there for the manager to look back, all little details - they can be crucial even for the leader whose effect on teams is 100 per cent personality and charisma."

What also concerns Wilkinson is the amount of games youngsters are asked to play, to the possible detriment of their international careers. "Between the ages of 15 and 25, we've got as good a group as there is anywhere in the world, but if you are an 18-year-old who has the benefit of being in a successful environment with a knowledgeable manager he can control your growth. If not, and if the club's needs happen to be considered greater than yours, you can find yourself slogging away, week in, week out. In those situations the sprinter becomes the slogger."

As for management itself, the man who last experienced it at Wembley in 1996, when Leeds were defeated 3-0 by Aston Villa in the Coca-Cola Cup final, accepts its vagaries. "In general, you get paid for it, and you pay for it. Look at the last World Cup - 75 per cent were on their bike; yet, I can't see how 75 per cent of teams who went can consider themselves to have failed. Some were sacked within a week. In my humble opinion, a week is not long enough to sit down and see how you failed."

Neither, he might add, is three days sufficient to mastermind a victory.