Football: Partly incompetent, wholly misguided

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The Independent Online
It's a lousy job but it could be an even worse hobby. Kevin Keegan's much-debated arrangement with the Football Association to coach England in his spare time over the next four months contains so many areas of potential calamity it is difficult to know which to fret about first. But before we evaluate the troubles ahead it is worth studying how English football came to find itself in this strange situation.

This unprecedented period of instability in the history of the FA began with the resignations of the chairman, Keith Wiseman, and the chief executive, Graham Kelly, over the alms for Wales affair a couple of months ago. Then followed swiftly the Glenn Hoddle fiasco which left England without a coach - an urgent problem they have hurriedly tried to navigate through with a shortage of experienced hands at the helm. Thus do they find themselves deposited up a dun-coloured creek.

There is a slim chance that the Keegan deal will work out to the satisfaction of all, but too slim to be comfortable about, and if you detected a sense of panic behind it you would not be alone. Neither is it easy to subdue a feeling that what we have witnessed falls distressingly short of the work of the wise.

The way that senior FA officials scurried up to Keegan's home in the North-east to offer him the job, were rebuffed and took another three days to cobble together a scenario that suited him, was hardly the behaviour of a supreme and confident organisation. They seemed prepared to bend over so far backwards they would have agreed to him doing the job by post.

There is no complaint that they should earmark Keegan as a top candidate but if he was not available full-time - and he had genuine reasons not to be - they should have made other arrangements. They had at hand two former England coaches in Bobby Robson and Terry Venables, who were eager to help with no strings attached. The FA, it was reported, felt that appointing either would be putting the clock back; which is rich coming from a body whose timepieces are permanently behind the times.

Robson, still in good shape at just turned 66, could have taken the job until Keegan had fulfilled his obligations to Fulham and England would have been assured of his full and undivided expert attention.

Venables, being much younger, would have required a more permanent arrangement, but there was everything to gain from allowing him to finish the task he left incomplete at the end of Euro 96. Keegan could still have occupied the background as coach-elect but Venables offered an ideal solution to the present predicament.

Apparently, this was not possible because Venables does not enjoy universal personal affection among the FA's decision-makers. No consideration other than who has the most impressive, most proven, credentials to lead England into the battles looming up should have entered the heads of those who find themselves with the power to decide. Whether they like the way he looks or acts should be irrelevant. As Miss Tina Turner is apt to ask: "What's love got to do with it?"A significant majority of opinion among the public and Press and within the game, including Keegan himself, strongly supports Venables' claims and for that to be ignored because of personal objections is unforgiveable.

This is not the first time that the antipathy denying Venables the opportunity he deserves has reared its amateur head. Brian Clough and Jackie Charlton were two outstanding managers whose claims were rejected by men who did not feel comfortable with them.

We go to great lengths to examine those who would be international managers but we know nothing of the shadowy figures who somehow appear with the authority to select them. Who picks the pickers? We are never likely to win the right to question their worthiness, but we are surely entitled to demand that the needs of the nation should lead their priorities. After all, we expect that of the coach and the players, why should less be expected of the administrators?

As for Keegan, he has been credited with the cuteness of negotiating a risk-free deal. I don't doubt his ability to succeed at it but there is a painful precedent set, ironically, by his old Liverpool partner, John Toshack, who agreed to take control of the Welsh team at the same time that he was managing the Spanish club Real Sociedad.

Toshack said yesterday that he believed Keegan can succeed, but back in 1994 it didn't take Toshack long to realise what he had let himself in for and he beat a retreat within 47 days. What hadn't occurred to him when he agreed to come to his country's rescue was that if he wasn't successful at both enterprises any failure would carry double the burden. So when Wales lost their first match under his command he was regaled by chants of "Go back to Spain," and when Sociedad lost he was invited, even more rudely, to return to Wales.

The distance didn't assist that short experiment but the principle still applies. Both Fulham and England have much riding on the next few months.

Let no one doubt the potency of the temptation. It carries a similar fascination to that faced by the bold young suitors of old - slay the dragon and the hand of the lovely princess will be yours. A tough assignation, fraught with danger but success would bring your heart's desire... on the other hand, no dragon's breath can scorch like that of a football crowd who feel they're being short-changed.

Let's look on the bright side. If Fulham win promotion, England win all all four matches and Keegan keeps his pledge to return to full-time duties with Fulham, what replacement would relish having to match such a level of success with the hero waiting in the wings? Most previous England managers have the advantage of taking over after a period of failure. When times are hard, straits are dire and ebbs are low, a new man has time to settle before the expectations begin to swell.

One exception was Hoddle, who took over a respectably successful team from Venables. Look what happened to him. The harsh truth is that they took England from a seasoned, experienced man and gave it to a rookie - and I mean no offence to Hoddle to term him thus. The lack of wisdom that has declined to send the team on the return journey is to be deplored.

Accusations that modern footballers are molly- coddled would have been strengthened by the news that among the economies being introduced at Portsmouth FC in an attempt to save the club from financial disaster is for the players to start washing their jockstraps from game to game. At the moment, Portsmouth spend pounds 112 on a set of new jockstraps for every match.

Apart from being not what we meant by the call for clubs to be more considerate towards their supporters, this raises a few serious questions such as what they do with the old ones and in what other ridiculous luxuries are they indulging themselves in these poverty-stricken days? As an old parks player, I may be naive in these matters but if ever we could afford one of these contraptions it would have to last an entire career and your hamstrings would go long before the elastic. Even today I know women tennis players who keep the same jock-strap for ages.