Headhunter's advice: go for the best

It all began with a blank sheet of paper in the days Armfield lured Tel and Hoddle
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The Independent Football

If Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle did at least as good a job in charge of the England team as the men who followed them, Kevin Keegan and Sven Goran Eriksson, it might behove those seeking the next head coach to have a word or two with the headhunter who recommended them.

One of the more inspired decisions of Graham Kelly's time as chief executive at the Football Association was to meet his friend Jimmy Armfield for a pre-match meal in the Old Trafford Grill Room and offer him a job, with the instruction: "For starters, you can go and find us an England manager." It was November 1993, Graham Taylor had just fallen on his battered sword after missing out on qualification for the World Cup, and the FA were desperate to maximise home advantage at Euro 96 as effectively as 30 years earlier.

Armfield was the perfect choice: a respected football man with experience, qualifications and contacts as a former England captain, First Division manager (taking Leeds to a European Cup final), broadcaster and newspaperman. "I began with a blank sheet of paper," he recalled at the PFA coaching office in Manchester, where he works part-time these days. He wrote on it the name of every Premiership manager, before crossing out five Scots and an Irishman; multiculturalism and inclusivity were not yet buzzwords in the football world. A list of eight Englishmen eventually remained, to whom were added Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins, both still playing, and Venables, who was unemployed after falling out with Alan Sugar at Tottenham.

Next he canvassed a wide range of opinion, including club managers past and present, Taylor and his assistant, Lawrie McMenemy. "I did a lot of travelling round and talked to about eight or 10 different candidates," Armfield says. "There was quite a wide field. But one thing people forget is you've got to get somebody who's available at the time. When you knock on a club chairman's door and say you'd like to take their manager, he may not be over-keen. And what's important to remember is that the job isn't like running a club team. It's totally different. There's all kinds of things come into it, a political side as well, handling club managers whose players you want and that big lull between matches."

Slowly, the celebrities were voted out of the Lancaster Gate house. Neither Gerry Francis nor Howard Kendall convinced Armfield they were keen enough. Robson, Wilkins, Hoddle, Trevor Francis and Peter Reid were noted as possibilities for the future. But one name kept recurring: "I remember doing a match for the BBC at Grimsby early in 1994, a big Cup-tie, and a crowd of their fans gathered round the outside broadcast van and said, 'We've come to tell you we want Venables, we think he's the right man'. I started getting a lot of letters and was surprised at how many from the North supported him as well. He was becoming the people's choice."

Not all the people, of course. One club chairman told Armfield: "I hope we're not going to have that barrow boy." Manchester City's Peter Swales was due to step down as chairman of the FA's international committee, which was just as well for Venables, of whom he said: "I wouldn't have him at any price. He's not the right man." At least two of the four-man appointment committee initially appeared to share that view. But Armfield had made up his mind: "They asked me for my opinion and I gave it to them. I just said I'd been round, talked to everybody and that was my opinion. My brief was to find the best coach, and Terry was that man."

After a long interview with the committee, concentrating largely on his business interests, Venables was finally appointed, until the end of Euro 96. But when he asked for the security of an exten-ded contract six months before the tournament began, Noel White turned him down, and suddenly Armfield's job as "technical consultant" encompassed headhunting activities again.

Second time round, the field was narrower, with a number of well-qualified candidates ruling themselves out. Chelsea's Hoddle did so within 48 hours but Armfield pursued him through three meetings, throwing in one question that seems more relevant with hindsight: "You say you're religious but you don't go to church, why not?"

Between them, Armfield's two appointees were in charge for 51 England games, losing only six plus two crucial penalty shoot-outs. So what are his thoughts about the next succession? "I honestly don't have anybody in my head at the moment. I'm not averse to a non-English coach, but I'd prefer someone from this country. I know Steve McClaren and he's been the coach, but running the team is a very different experience. I took Alan Curbishley with me as head coach with the Football League Under-21 side in Italy and I was impressed with him. Sam Allardyce was one of my early signings at Bolton. And I've been on courses with Guus Hiddink, who speaks good English and is a good man. There's nobody this time who really hits you. But then, Sven didn't at the time, did he? If you ask me, I think they'll probably look outside again."

They could do with looking in at the PFA office for some advice first.

FORM GUIDE TO ENGLISH CONTENDERS

SAM ALLARDYCE

The Bolton manager has taken his side into the last 16 of the Uefa Cup and yesterday's 1-0 defeat of FA Cup holders Arsenal was hard fought and well-planned. Astute and thorough.

STEVE MCCLAREN

Middlesbrough's 1-1 draw at Coventry was in keeping with a disappointing season so far, as McClaren tries to reinvigorate an ageing side. Has a seat on the bench with Eriksson already.

ALAN CURBISHLEY

A fortunate 2-1 defeat of League Two Leyton Orient will not have dimmed the belief among the Charlton manager's supporters that he is ready to leave The Valley for an even greater challenge.

STUART PEARCE

The Manchester City rookie has ruled himself out several times, but a 1-0 win over Carling Cup finalists Wigan is a reminder of the former England full-back's fast-evolving credentials.

PAUL JEWELL

He did wonders at Bradford, doing similar at sixth-placed Wigan, but FA Cup interest ended with defeat at Manchester City. Has also already declared himself not interested in the job.

STEVE BRUCE

David Dunn's goal saw Bruce's Birmingham earn a replay at Championship leaders Reading, but on current form perhaps Steve Coppell is the better bet.

Geoff Brown

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