A fog of false trails and dead ends

The impossible job was managing the England team, now it is proving to be finding the right man to do so
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The Independent Online

So, to sum up, a fellow who does a passable impression of Norman Wisdom has been appointed England's caretaker coach by Mr Grimsdale (well, a committee containing Mr Ridsdale, which is close enough).

So, to sum up, a fellow who does a passable impression of Norman Wisdom has been appointed England's caretaker coach by Mr Grimsdale (well, a committee containing Mr Ridsdale, which is close enough).

If it wasn't so serious, it would be easy to scoff at the Football Association's tangible progress thus far in appointing an England head coach, together with a coherent structure for the future. Yet, from the moment they began outlining their proposals to determine a replacement for Kevin Keegan, it was evident that it would be no facile matter. So it has proved.

After having one proposed caretaker (Bobby Robson) forced to reject the job by the myopic men of St James' Park, and two of their three possible permanent appointees (Arsÿne Wenger and Sven Goran Eriksson) apparently declaring "Thanks, but no thanks, at least for the moment", it leaves the third man.

Roy Hodgson? Possibly, although there has been speculation that the other man on the shortlist could actually be Johan Cruyff or Martin O'Neill. The latter is a manager in his managerial pomp, but who would hardly be likely to relinquish his Celtic role just now and has always emphasised his long-term ambition to coach Northern Ireland.

But is the FA's selection team really lurching about desperately in the dark in the search for a man to illuminate English international football, or is there more truth in the suspicion afoot that they are laying false trails - or at least doing nothing to prevent them being laid - in an attempt to keep their real targets out of the media spotlight? For the moment, the FA's chief executive Adam Crozier is adamant that no formal approaches will be made to anyone until this week, and that no go-betweens are involved in negotiations.

Certainly, Hodgson should come under consideration. The rather bookish, 53-year-old former non-League player and teacher scores highly where international experience is concerned. He has coached in Sweden and Switzerland, whom he lead to a World Cup and to the European Championship, and on the back of that was lured to Internazionale. Though not conspicuously successful there, it was a rare English sortie into the world of Italian football management, which led to suggestions that he would be the next England manager. (He has also claimed that he was once offered the position of German No 1).

Maybe he would be, too, if he hadn't agreed to go to Blackburn, a club who, as subsequent events have illustrated, had reached their zenith under Kenny Dalglish, and were in continual decline. His parting was an ignominious one, yet he remains a man much admired on the Continent.

If, for whatever reason, he is not the man, it is difficult to see where England proceed from here. Who is choice number four? And five? And would they take the job, conscious that they are regarded as such? It's starting to remind you of the title sequence of TV's The Prisoner. "Who is number one?" " You are number six''.

Having apparently overlooked FA technical director Howard Wilkinson and the former England coach Terry Venables, it is unlikely that the gang of seven would back-track so dramatically as to return to either of them.

Neither would they approach Glenn Hoddle, although he is best qualified to meet the FA's own criteria. If we ignore Hoddle and Bobby Robson, it leaves eight English Premiership managers, none of whom would be likely to be considered for the role of principal because they have no international or significant European experience. However, apart from Alan Curbishley, who is likely to join Taylor and McClaren, John Gregory is another who should be considered for a support role.

In the long term, England want to promote from within the English game; hence the resolve to build a "Team England" structure of up-and-coming coaches, who would stay with their clubs but also have some responsibility within the England set-up.

That is sound theory up to a point; unfortunately, it fails to take into account the vagaries of club management; the fact that managing a club is not purely a matter of potential, but tends to follow a more Darwinian process, of survival of the fittest. You could promote say, a David Platt, or a Curbishley, to the international ranks - just as the FA might have done with Hodgson not so very long ago - only to discover that results have prompted their club chairman to terminate his contract. What then? Do the FA persist with that man as an England contender?

However, that is for the future. The head-hunting of a charge d'affaires is the FA's prime task, and although they have yet to approach their three candidates formally, there is a great likelihood that all will reject it, or be refused by their clubs the opportunity even to discuss it. It is conceivable that England will head towards the end of the year with no one's hand at the tiller but Taylor's. His appointment, albeit ostensibly for one game, against Italy in Turin, is in many ways, remarkable: more so, in fact than McClaren's, who has had considerable experience in the Premiership with Derby and Manchester United, and also been confronted by many of the world's finest players in the Champions' League since joining Sir Alex Ferguson early last year.

His appointment reminded this observer of a date back in 1995. A reporter on my then publication was dispatched to cover a Southend home game. It was by, all accounts, a dreadful affair. Southend lost, and to give some illustration of the lack of understanding within the team, the reporter humourously referred to an incident when two of their players had run up simultaneously to take a free-kick. First thing the following Monday, an infuriated manager - Peter Taylor - rang that reporter, using words to the effect that "reports like that could lose me my job". A couple of weeks later he was out, although it is unlikely that it was merely those words that provoked the dismissal.

Yet, when other characters may have quietly disappeared from the scene, only a year later Taylor was back as coach of the England Under-21s, under Glenn Hoddle. He then took charge of a decent Gillingham team, and won promotion with them before moving on to Leicester, stabilised into a mid-table team by Martin O'Neill.

Though few coaches can have been given control of a national side after so brief an apprenticeship, Taylor's expe- rience of working with many of the younger players he now wishes to call up for the Italy game will be invaluable. He is also a supremely confident man, with burning ambition, though as the Southend incident illustrates, he can be rather sensitive to criticism.

Possibly not an ideal quality in an England coach? By all accounts, Taylor was not overly impressed last week when The Sun, dependable as ever, reproduced photographs taken in the Seventies in which he is seen stripped to the waist and dancing with a Page Three model. To which one can only reply that,so far at least, there is absolutely no evidence of suspect business dealings or obscure religious beliefs.

If an appearance as Page Seven Fella is all that the tabloids can discover, he doesn't have too much to worry about. With an astute tactical brain, it all bodes well. For Taylor, at least.

For the FA, though, the hunt continues, one that gives the impression that searching for a lost tribe in Papua New Guinea might just be a simpler option.