Keegan's exit leaves FA back at square one

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The end, when it came, was swift and no amount of persuasive words from Adam Crozier, as Kevin Keegan and the Football Association's chief executive huddled by the dressing-room toilets on Saturday night, could prevent it. The beginning of the end for the England coach could, however, be traced back 15 months.

The end, when it came, was swift and no amount of persuasive words from Adam Crozier, as Kevin Keegan and the Football Association's chief executive huddled by the dressing-room toilets on Saturday night, could prevent it. The beginning of the end for the England coach could, however, be traced back 15 months.

On the evening of 9 June, 1999, Keegan stood on the running track besides Sofia's People's Army stadium looking utterly dejected and mentally exhausted. He had just tried one of the hunch selections which became a feature of his reign, like playing Gareth Southgate in midfield on Saturday, and it had been found wanting.

In Bulgaria, Keegan had played Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham and Robbie Fowler as a three-prongedforward line in a Euro 2000 qualifying tie. As usually happens in such a set-up, the strikers cramped eachothers' space while the midfield was outnumbered.

Bulgaria, though reduced to 10 men before the hour, not only gained a draw but looked the more likely winners.

Four days before, at home to Sweden, England, unbalanced in midfield and one-dimensional in attack, had been booed off the pitch after struggling to a goalless draw. The euphoria which had greeted Keegan's appointment in March had gone and the reservations about his tactical acumen, suspended for his first two matches, were reinstated. Four days on, even the usually effervescent Keegan seemed to share them.

It has taken another 14 matches, in which Keegan constantly seemed to learn from his mistakes, only to repeat them, for that disillusionment to become crushing. Injuries did not help, especially on the left flank, but in persisting with 4-4-2, which required two left-footers, he maximised the problem.

Keegan's teams had their moments, notably the opening win, in a European qualifier over Poland, victory at Hampden Park in the first leg of a Euro 2000 play-off, and the defeat of Germany in Charleroi. But they owed more to moments of individual inspiration than consistent achievement. They also became increasingly rare. Only three matches in the last 10 were won, three of the last five were lost.

Under Terry Venables, England always seemed to be working towards a plan; under Glenn Hoddle they were playing to a plan; under Keegan no-one knew what would happen from match to match. A five-man midfield was tried successfully on several occasions, then dropped each time; asrecently as last month splitstrikers worked, only to bediscarded on Saturday.

Increasingly, there was the feeling that, as Geoff Thompson, the chairman of the FA, admitted in an unguarded moment when Keegan was appointed, "it would all end in tears".

Thompson bears a measure of responsibility for England's stagnation. He was "acting" chairman when Keegan was appointed and there is a feeling that he encouraged the FA to act hastily to enable him to stand as "the man who delivered Keegan" in the subsequent election for the permanent post.

At the time Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director, had outlined two choices. The long term, which meant writing off the European Championship campaign, involved appointing a senior front man, possibly Wilkinson, to guide a younger coach who would step up to full control once they had learned their way around the international arena. The short term meant appointing someone who, he said: "could come in and go 'whoosh'."

Keegan, said Wilkinson, was the only man who could do that, like "John Wayne riding into town". It was, he added, a choice between "long-term or big".

The FA, having "gone big", are now back at square one.

This time the FA, led by Crozier, are likely to think long-term. That may involve a senior figure like Bobby Robson holding the fort for a couple of years, or Wilkinson also taking charge of next month's friendly against Italy - who beat Romania 3-0 on Saturday - in Milan. There is no rush, the next competitive match after Wednesday is the return with Finland in March.

"Everything we do is aimed at putting England in the frame to win tournaments," said Crozier. "I do not want us to still be harking back to 1966 in 10 years' time."

The priority at present, said Crozier, is Wednesday's World Cup qualifying tie against Finland in Helsinki. On Thursday he will start looking for a new coach. "There has been some pre-thinking," he admitted, "not because we anticipated this but because, in any major organisation, you always consider the 'what if' scenario - what if so-and-so falls under a bus."

Or on his sword. Crozier was one of the first to know Keegan had, but Keegan, typically, told the players first. Keegan, who had been abused by spectators as he left the pitch, told them as soon they returned to the dressing-room.

The first indication to the outside world came when Crozier appeared in the tunnel, where the media were waiting to interview players, and entered the dressing-room. "I can never remember something like that happening," said Alan Shearer who was working for television.

Crozier took up the story. "I received a message five or 10 minutes after the final whistle to say Kevin and David Davies [the FA's executive director] were asking for me."

Davies informed Crozier of Keegan's decision, then the Scot and the defeated English patriot went to the back of the dressing-room, into the corridor between the toilets and showers.

Crozier added: "I spent 20 minutes trying to persuade Kevin to change his mind. First for the long-term, then for Wednesday's match. I reminded him that everyone supported him - and he could see the players were devastated. I think Tony Adams had already spoken to him. He and David Beckham were very upset."

Keegan lost his mother a fortnight ago, but Crozier, though he said Keegan was "very much a family man", did not think that had affected his decision.

"He was emotional but calm, as calm as I have seen him. Often, when things are at their most difficult, people are fundamentally honest. He was determined and sure that he could do no more. He felt he was making the right decision for Kevin Keegan. At that stage you have to accept someone's resignation."

Crozier insisted Keegan had not left England "in the lurch" adding: "He genuinely feels that going now is to England's benefit, that someone else can get a better result than he can in Finland."

There will be no settling of Keegan's £1m-a-year contract, which had two years to run. "He resigned," noted Crozier matter of factly.

He added: "I then spoke to the players and made sure they understood what would happen ahead of Wednesday."

Wilkinson, who had been at the game, was contacted soon after he arrived back at the Hertfordshire hotel the England Under-21s were staying in. He was told of developments and travelled to the senior team's Berkshire base to meet with Crozier. Having agreed to take charge of the team, he met the players last night - they had been allowed Saturday night with their families - and will take training today before flying to Finland this afternoon.

Neither Wilkinson himself, nor the FA, view this as a long-term solution. Constitutionally, Crozier can make the decision alone, but he said he will be doing a lot of listening before presenting his suggestion to the International Committee. This time he hopes the end result will be a trophy in the FA's new Soho offices, not a hurried meeting by the toilets with another career going down the pan.