Lure of Newcastle leaves FA running out of time

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The Independent Online

Martin O'Neill has had to make some tricky decisions over the course of almost 40 years in football, and what may prove the hardest of all is imminent. A fortnight tomorrow, the Football Association steering committee of three officials will report back to the main FA board with their initial thoughts about who should succeed Sven Goran Eriksson after the World Cup finals. Since the name of O'Neill will figure prominently, it would make little sense for them to confess they had no idea whether or not he is interested in the post.

Yet there has apparently been no contact between O'Neill and the FA so far, and time could be running out. O'Neill is reportedly "very interested" in the vacant manager's job at Newcastle following the sacking of Graeme Souness, and could even take over after the FA Cup fifth round next weekend. The FA had better hurry up if they want him.

The race has also intensified with the news that one of the other main targets, the internationally experienced Dutchman Guus Hiddink, told the FA he only wanted the role on a part-time basis so he could continue in club management with PSV Eindhoven, which has effectively ruled him out of the running.

It is a juggling trick that he has pulled off with Australia, and with a year left to run on his PSV contract he has said he would want to do the same with England for the first 12 months.

Brian Barwick, the chief executive, worked with O'Neill in his television days and is best placed to take informal soundings, which he could convey to the international committee chairman Noel White and vice-chairman Dave Richards (also the Premier League's chairman).

Barwick is on record as saying he wants the best man for the job, and " so much the better" if that person is English. When Richards unexpectedly went on the record at a Football Foundation function last Thursday, however, he insisted there was "no distinction" between English and British, which was taken to be a signpost pointing towards O'Neill, an Ulster catholic from a nationalist family; it will be interesting to see if Barwick changes his phraseology.

Public opinion does not suggest that a UK passport is an essential requirement. In an opinion poll at the end of last week, 65 per cent said the head coach could be of any nationality. But elderly northerners ­ a category that covers all the FA subcommittee ­ want to go British and there is no doubt that among many football people Eriksson's indiscretions queered the pitch for any future foreign candidates.

The well known snag with O'Neill is that he left Celtic at the end of last season in order to care for his wife, who remains seriously ill but is improving. Friends have now intimated he might be able to return to work, especially to a job demanding fewer hours at the office. Even the geography would be ideal if England were to revert to using Bisham Abbey's training centre and Burnham Beeches hotel as bases once Wembley was finally ready; all three are in easy striking distance of the family home O'Neill has kept since his early days at Wycombe Wanderers. It was reluctance to uproot the family, and a three-hour commute, that helped limit his time at Norwich to a mere six months.

He then transformed Leicester's fortunes. To take that team into the Premiership and finish ninth, 10th, 10th and eighth, with three League Cup finals thrown in, was a considerable feat. Yet he still knew when it was time to take off for Celtic, adding major domestic trophies and almost 50 European ties to his CV.

"Everybody keeps telling me that there's all these people available," Richards has said. "We'll sit down and find out who is available." It is time to ask, and for once the answer from all the leading candidates, including O'Neill, is likely to be in the affirmative.

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