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Football: Smooth transition by relaxed Wilkinson

THE LAST time Howard Wilkinson made a public appearance at Wembley he was booed off the pitch by Leeds United supporters after their team's abject League Cup defeat by Aston Villa in 1996.

Maybe it was that memory that sustained him yesterday for, as he faced a media which, in many quarters, is being accused of "hounding Glenn Hoddle out of his job", he could not have looked more relaxed.

He spoke at length, leavening a thoughtful plea for England managers to be better supported by the Football Association with a dash of humour. "When I got home last night my wife questioned my sanity - but that's nothing new, she does that all the time," he said.

"I could have said `no' to the job but I felt the downside was less than the upside. If we win [against France next week] I will be able to put `England manager' on my CV, `beat the world champions'. Then when the manager of Mongolia gets the sack I can send that off."

There was none of the fractious hostility which had characterised Hoddle's final press conferences, nor were there rambling references to spirituality. As a new man, Wilkinson was obviously given a gentle ride but his manner suggested that, when it came to the political aspects of the job, he could be a capable caretaker.

"Clearly taking charge of a national team is a great honour in whatever circumstances," he said. "The honour quickly disappears when I get into the details. At the moment my head is all over the place. I have a list of things to do with 30 items on it."

Wilkinson looked to be relishing the occasion but said he "had not even considered" whether he wanted to apply for the job permanently and would not do so until after Wednesday's game, the result of which would not influence his decision.

What did he expect the mood of the squad to be when they meet up on Sunday night? "In my experience," he said, "players vary. Some form an emotional attachment to a manager. Some don't like him. Some just turn up and play."

He said he had slept well on Tuesday night, only to be woken before six by the first press phone call. He added: "I've seen how managers like Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson have suffered. A lot is talked about the pressures of the media but that is the reality of life. There was a time in my naive youth when I thought I could change that - I now know better."

With reference to that he said: "The FA's structures do not give the manager enough support, they let Glenn down. It is not an impossible job, it is up to the employer to make it possible." He then referred to improving continuity of staff - most England managers bring in their own men and discard the knowledge acquired by others. The use of computers to record information about about opponents and players was mentioned and the establishment of a national football centre like the French have at Clairefontaine. This, like some of the other reforms, is on the way, a product of Wilkinson's work as technical director.

He spoke to Hoddle yesterday lunchtime. "He wished me all the best and said if he could be of assistance to give him a bell. What happened to him is sad, obviously. It is not pleasant if someone loses their job. But it is the nature of the beast, of the job we choose to do. It does have a lot of advantages. In some cases the money's very good and it's nice to work with players, to go to football matches and win them, to see your team perform."

Wilkinson managed clubs from Boston and Notts County to Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds for 24 years to 1996. Had he missed it?

"I haven't missed arriving on the team bus at a ground and seeing a 38- year-old man with a seven-year-old son mouthing obscenities at the window." However long he reigns as England manager one hopes he is spared that but, if temporary becomes permanent, it would seem an inevitable fate at some point. That is the nature of the beast he now rides. That is what Wilkinson will be pondering as he considers his next move.

England succession, page 26