Football: The Hoddle Sacking - England cry out for experience

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The Independent Online
NOTHING SPEAKS more clearly of the failure of England's football administrators than the incoherence of the current debate over the identity of the next manager of the national team. The absence of a clear line of succession is the clearest possible condemnation of their priorities. The next manager, like too many of his predecessors, will in some senses have to start from scratch, because the nation that gave the game to the world no longer has a sense of living tradition, of historical continuity, on which he can rely.

And so, from the more free-thinking elements, the cry goes up: "Let's appoint a foreigner." Their argument is that foreign players and coaches, attracted to England by money, have helped blow the cobwebs out of our game. Can't one of them do the same for the national team?

Only good, in social and sporting terms, has come from the arrival of large numbers of foreigners at League clubs. As Ruud Gullit observed the other day, the world has changed, and part of that change involves no longer thinking of a centre-forward from Paris or a central defender from Yaounde as a "foreigner". Learning to pronounce their names seems a small but worthwhile breach in traditional British insularity.

Naturally, it would be interesting to see what Gerard Houllier or Arsene Wenger (or Franz Beckenbauer, come to that) might do with the England squad. Perhaps they would infuse the players with a fresher collective spirit and tactical vision. Perhaps the fact that they would not share the squad's raison d'etre might give them an objectivity denied to those who identify with a patriotic cause. The two French coaches have certainly been careful to retain many of those elements of footballing Englishness that survive at Anfield and Highbury.

Yes, it's fine to dream about such things. But I hope we never find out the answer.

Let's think for a moment about the company we aspire to keep. Can we imagine the Brazilians, the Italians or the Germans reacting to such a situation by employing a foreign coach? All these countries are familiar with the presence of such men in their club football. All, even Brazil and Germany, go through sticky patches. But pride alone - pride in the honours they have won, and in their contribution to the game - would surely dispel any notions of hiring an alien hand.

And do we want the England team to descend to the level of the emerging countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jamaica, who have looked abroad for experienced professional coaches to school their immature players? If so, the FA's International Committee should be compiling a shortlist including the names of Bora Milutinovic and Carlos Alberto Parreira, those much- travelled mercenaries accustomed to accepting the challenge of ambitious but technically underdeveloped nations.

No, we haven't fallen that far. But it is up to the Committee to act with the sort of care and wisdom with which they have not so far been associated. England's fate in the next two major tournaments will depend on their decision, along with the hopes of fans who see the domestic game enjoying unprecedented popularity, and expect, quite reasonably, to see such good health reflected in the fortunes of the national team.

Here's what the committee should do. They should begin by putting aside any idea of appointing a coach from among the younger club managers whose names are most frequently put forward. For a start, each of them already has a job to do. The FA would be setting a good example to the whole game if it showed its refusal to pluck a Keegan, a Gregory or a Bryan Robson in mid-season.

They should do the obvious by inviting Howard Wilkinson, their present technical director, to retain control after the France match until the end of the present domestic season. Wilkinson in turn should select Hoddle's typical squad en bloc, in order to retain continuity, at least until he has seen what he can do with them in the friendly match against France next week and the Euro 2000 qualifier against Poland next month. That ought not to present a problem, since the composition of Hoddle's squad was seldom contentious, and the players themselves deserve nothing less.

Meanwhile the FA should approach Bobby Robson. Once again they need not ask him to rupture his existing deal with PSV Eindhoven. They should ask him to take over from Wilkinson at the end of the Dutch season, when his contract expires, and to carry the squad through to the Euro 2000 finals, with a responsibility to groom his successor in time for the World Cup 2002 campaign and the promise of a permanent supervisory role at the end of it.

Why Bobby Robson, who is 62 years old and has already had one crack at the job? Not just because he is a charming man who loves football and talks about it at any opportunity with a broad knowledge and an unaffected enthusiasm that puts younger men to shame. Not just because his record as an English professional football manager is beyond compare, in that he has succeeded at the highest level in four countries (and his good reputation in Holland would do no harm at all were he to chaperone England to the low countries for the European finals). Not just because he made a decent fist of guiding England through Italia 90, showing a willingness to respond to the players when they felt they had a point to make. Not just because he must be psychologically secure enough to anoint his own successor without any danger of jealousy.

All of those, of course. But one thing more. Something that, in the present context, is of vital importance. Robson has been through it all. He has been, in the immortal words of Ted Dexter, lampooned and harpooned. And if any man with the remotest claim to the job could be said to be no longer a target, it is him.

I once knew a veteran racing driver who put a sticker on the rear of his car, intending it to be read by those eating his smoke. "Age and experience," it said, "will always beat youth and enthusiasm." How about age, experience and enthusiasm? For England, a sorry episode might have produced an interesting opportunity.