As the odds on who will be England's next head coach continue to fluctuate as wildly as ever at this early stage of the proceedings, Middlesbrough's chairman, Steve Gibson, has cast doubt on whether his manager, Steve McClaren, the bookmakers' initial favourite, is ready for the position.
On the day that Sven Goran Eriksson insisted his successor would be walking into the best job in football, his senior coach McClaren was finally attaching his name to a new four-year contract with Middlesbrough and dismissing all talk about England as "hypothetical and speculation". Although it is technically both, until the Football Association's full board meet on Thursday, his international qualifications far outweigh those of any other English club manager. He was assistant coach at the 2002 World Cup finals, took over again before Euro 2004 and has combined the work with his club job ever since, which adds up to some 30 England games.
Gibson, however, told The Independent on Sunday: "There's no get-out clause in Steve's new contract. We've never stopped anyone representing their country and I can understand ambition. But coaching is one thing, managing another. Steve's been a football manager for four years and we've had two years in the Uefa Cup. I think Steve isn't a realistic candidate. I said to him it shouldn't be his next job, it should be his last job."
McClaren's stock has certainly fallen this season. After Middlesbrough achieved seventh place last May - their only top-10 finish in his four seasons - they have sunk to 17th, without a win in their past nine Premiership games. He would expect to pull them round, and hope for continued progress in the Uefa Cup, but that might come too late to influence the FA subcommittee expected to be set up after Thursday's board meeting.
Meanwhile, Eriksson may suddenly be suspecting that, in the words of the song, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. Speaking in Montreux after the largely favourable draw for the qualifying stages of Euro 2008, he agreed that the position he will vacate after the World Cup finals this summer was the best in football management.
"I can't imagine anyone being offered the England job and saying no; you would regret that for the rest of your life," he said. "I will have had it for five-and-a- half years and I am extremely proud about that, I would not change that for anything. Before I took it I knew it was a huge job but not just how big it was, and such prestige. That surprised me. I remember [Arrigo] Sacchi when he resigned from Milan saying, 'I will not be a manager any more - unless to be the England manager'."
As Eriksson discovered, there are drawbacks. Having described the News of the World's fake-sheikh scam that led to discussions about his future being brought forward from March to last week as "a scandal... that could only happen in this country", he admitted: "You have to have a hard shell like a turtle. Those English managers before me had hard times for one reason or another, and many times it was not football reasons. That's sad, because I wanted to be judged on the results." Tongue edging towards cheek, his advice to his successor was: "If you are not going to the office or a match then stay at home, lock the door and do nothing else!"
Understandably unwilling, like the FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick, the previous day, to offer too many other observations about the qualities the next man should possess, he did insist that one of them should be good English. Whether intentionally or not, that could have been construed as an argument against Luiz Felipe Scolari, Eriksson's nemesis in the last two tournaments with Brazil and then Portugal, who seems to have become the flavour of the weekend.
Scolari required an interpreter to convey his opinion on Friday that the job was "very attractive". He would certainly prefer to be facing England's programme from September onwards than that of the Portuguese, who landed the unwanted extra two fixtures in an eight-team group as well as a Cook's tour of Europe's eastern extremities. It will all seem a long way from Cascais, let alone the Copacabana.
Eriksson, whose advice will be sought in planning the most desirable fixture programme, was amusingly confident about England's prospects of qualifying, expressed in a manner he would not have dreamt of had he still been the coach to negotiate it. "I'm convinced England will go through rather easily," he said, as they should with two automatic qualifiers from every group. As to his future, he will weigh the the attractions of day-to-day involvement at a leading club with Champions' League ambitions against continuing at international level. "I'm open for everything. After five years you get used to the rhythm of international football, and although you miss the daily contact with players there are many advantages. The only thing important for me is to continue as a coach or manager. Where it is doesn't matter if it's a club, a club with vision, not a club selling players. I have been in a club like that once, and you know you can't win."
Before all that, one ambition has now come into clearer focus than ever: "It's maybe the last chance in my professional life to win the World Cup. It's more than a dream. To put that up there... oh Jesus. The fact is that we have a chance to do it."
EURO 2008 RIVALS
Zagreb has been a footballing fortress since independence in 1991, with Croatia unbeaten there in 28 qualifiers. Well beaten by England at Euro 2004 but won their World Cup qualifying group ahead of Sweden after beating them home and away.
Coach: Zlatko Kranjcar.
Key player: Robert Kovac.
Flopped at Euro 2004 after knocking out Ireland and Wales. Coach Yuri Semin stepped down following a disappointing World Cup campaign: finishing third behind Portugal and Slovakia.
Key player: Alexei Smertin.
Improving country specialising in clever midfielders such as Yossi Benayoun (above) and Eyal Berkovic. Unbeaten (won four, drew six) in World Cup group including France, Switzerland and Republic of Ireland but edged out of qualification by the Swiss.
Coach: Dror Kashtan (from June).
Key player: Yossi Benayoun.
Mart Poom's team finished fourth in their World Cup group, just behind Russia, whom they held 1-1 in Tallinn. Have yet to win in 11 meetings against the home countries and Ireland, but have not been heavily beaten.
Coach: Jelle Goes.
Key player: Mart Poom.
Gave England two awkward games in qualifying group for Euro 2004, just as they had Ireland four years earlier. More recently, had wildly erratic results in the World Cup, ranging from a 2-2 draw with Holland to defeat by Andorra four days later.
Coach: Boban Banbunski.
Key player: Georgi Hristov.
Three wins in 10 years of international football, in friendlies against Belarus and Albania and then at home to Macedonia 15 months ago. With a national stadium holding only 1,300, likely to play England in Barcelona.
Coach: David Rodrigo.
Key player: Oscar Sonejee.
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