With a World Cup fast approaching, it is always difficult for any competing country to work up much excitement about the draw for a European Championship that does not begin for another eight months. There are some intriguing possibilities for England in Montreux on Friday, but greater interest will centre on who will be in charge of the team come the first qualifying matches in September.
The entrapment of Sven Goran Eriksson by the News of the World confirmed what was already known about his eye for the main chance, and might have resulted in far greater indiscretions about his players, but the overall effect inside and outside the Football Association has been to increase the probability of a new head coach being required once the World Cup finals are over.
While the outcome remains unresolved, however - and it is in Eriksson's interests to sit tight and do nothing - the FA are in a tricky position. For whereas a World Cup is often a natural point to change coaches (as it proved to be for England in 1974, 1982, 1990 and 1994), this one appears to be arriving at a moment when the well-qualified candidates are not available and the available ones are not well qualified.
Football may record one of the most damaging legacies of the Eriksson era as being a resurgence of the belief that only Englishmen can be trusted to run the national side. Whether suchinsularity applies to employing an Ulsterman, Martin O'Neill, is as unclear as the matter of when his sad domestic situation will allow him to resume work. Arsène Wenger has repeatedly stated that he has no interest in the position, and will hardly be encouraged to develop any at this stage of Arsenal's history by the FA vice-chairman David Dein; and the other outstanding Premiership candidate, Jose Mourinho, is no keener.
That leaves Guus Hiddink, of PSV Eindhoven, who will take Australia to this summer's finals, as the outstanding foreigner, World Cup semi-finals with South Korea and Holland, and a European Cup win with PSV shining from his CV. The achievement at international level puts him ahead of other European candidates, and greater familiarity with English football culture and language gives him an edge over Portugal's Luis Felipe Scolari. But will the FA care to look even that far afield? "We'll want the best available person for the job, and if that person is English, so much the better," was the most recent response of the chief executive Brian Barwick.
So much the better for, say, Steve McClaren, the bookmakers' favourite, who by 10 July could conceivably be coach to the World Cup holders. Added to the miles he has put in shadowing Eriksson, that would look an irresistible qualification. Conversely, another failure this summer would reflect badly on him, just as Middlesbrough's record in his five seasons of heavy investment increasingly does. Yet again, the attractive notion of grooming a successor under the existing head coach would come to nothing.
In more egalitarian times, dragging a struggling club to success was the pathway to the job for Don Revie (Leeds), Bobby Robson (Ipswich) and Graham Taylor (Aston Villa). Now, any young English manager tends to encounter football's Catch 22: without joining one of the big four clubs, they cannot achieve significant success; but the big four will not employ them until they have done so.
Of the seven managers working at those clubs since 1998, not one has been English. The hope for an Alan Curbishley, a Stuart Pearce or Sam Allardyce therefore has to be one stupendous season just as the England job falls vacant. In the meantime, the danger with that group is mistaking the Manager (or flavour) of the Month award for a qualification to take charge of the national team; if it's September, Curbishley is the man, in October Charlton are on the slide so it must be Wigan's Paul Jewell.
Any of the above quartet given the job, or others like Peter Taylor, Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce, would ideally have a mentor to guide them through the minefield, but the perfect candidate, Sir Bobby Robson, has just been awarded that function by the Football Association of Ireland. How they will chortle in Dublin if the Irish are pulled out as opponents for England in Friday's draw.
The Republic are as low as the fourth pot, with Scotland, illustrating how disappointing results were in the qualifying campaigns for Euro 2004 and the World Cup. Wales are in the fifth pot and Northern Ireland the sixth, but England would be pleased to avoid all four after their struggles in Cardiff and Belfast last autumn. As one of the seven seeded countries, they could also come up against Germany or Italy, both only in the second pot.
For once, the mechanics of qualification are straightforward: the top two teams in each of seven groups join the joint hosts Austria and Switzerland in the finals. Whoever is in charge, England will be expected to make it for the sixth major tournament in succession.
EURO 2008: LINE-UP FOR QUALIFYING
Pot 1: Greece, Holland, Portugal, England, Czech Republic, France, Sweden.
Pot 2: Germany, Croatia, Italy, Turkey, Poland, Spain, Romania.
Pot 3: Serbia and Montenegro, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Slovakia.
Pot 4: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rep of Ireland, Belgium, Latvia, Israel, Scotland, Slovenia.
Pot 5: Hungary, Finland, Estonia, Wales, Lithuania, Albania, Iceland
Pot 6: Georgia, Macedonia, Belarus, Armenia, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Moldova.
Pot 7: Liechtenstein, Azerbaijan, Andorra, Malta, Faroe Islands, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, San Marino.
LIFE AFTER ERIKSSON
Steve McClaren (Middlesbrough)
FOR: Knows the job, the tournaments and the players, who appear to like and trust him.
AGAINST: Sven II? A conservative coach with only one top-10 finish at big-spending Middlesbrough.
Guus Hiddink (PSV Eindhoven)
FOR: Proven record at club and international level, like a World Cup semi-final with South Korea.
AGAINST: Eriksson's antics mean diminishing support at the FA and everywhere else for a foreign coach.
Martin O'Neill (Formerly Celtic)
FOR: Undoubted enthusiast, popular with the media and did a good job at Celtic, Leicester and Wycombe.
AGAINST: Unclear when he would be available; he is unwilling to work while his wife is still seriously ill.
Sam Allardyce (Bolton Wanderers)
FOR: Manages to weld disparate individuals from all over the world into an over-achieving team.
AGAINST: The Jack Charlton of his day? Lack of subtlety on and off the pitch may cost him the vote.
Alan Curbishley (Charlton Athletic)
FOR: His achievements against the odds at Charlton are based on generally good judgement of players.
AGAINST: Lacks experience of international football and, perhaps crucially, handling high-profile millionaires.
Stuart Pearce (Manchester City)
FOR: Playing experience, including 78 caps under five different England managers. And passion; he cares.
AGAINST: Short on sophistication? More important, less than a year into first real job.Reuse content