Slow and painful death from quick fix

Will the Premiership representatives on the selection committee discuss a reduction of their league from 20 clubs to 18, or even 16? Of course they won't

Despite appearances to the contrary, this column is too wise to go "head-to-head" with "Jack Ass",
The Sun's donkey candidate for the England manager's job. For one thing, Jack has already won hands down in the satire stakes, being a genuinely funny creation from a source that more usually strips the enamel off my teeth when it comes to comedy.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this column is too wise to go "head-to-head" with "Jack Ass", The Sun's donkey candidate for the England manager's job. For one thing, Jack has already won hands down in the satire stakes, being a genuinely funny creation from a source that more usually strips the enamel off my teeth when it comes to comedy.

And if those who have created and celebrated "Jack" are to be taken at face value, there is suddenly a welcome perspective around about England's real prospects for international competitions. Travelling in hope and humour rather than in frenzied expectation has long been a character trait that English fans should have adopted.

Nevertheless, England's followers have a right to expectthat the disarray into which the national team have fallen over the past 18 months can at least be sorted out, if not in time for qualification for the 2002 World Cup, then at least for our team to present a credible challenge in the European Championship of 2004. But several issues need to be addressed before that can happen, and I don't just mean the appointment of a wondrous new coach who will deliver all we ever wanted, and quickly too. Unfortunately, such a man doesn't exist.

The pub game of picking the next England coach is all very entertaining, and is a valuable source of copy for toilers such as myself, but those pursuing the "quick fix" solution seem to be making the same sort of optimistic assumptions that brought Kevin Keegan into the job. The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once wrote that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". While this remark was unlikely to have featured in Sergeant Wilko's team-talkbefore the game in Finland, those in charge of appointing the next coach might do well to heed it.

In the first instance, the selection of new England managers has come - apart from Bobby Robson's high point of a World Cup semi-final in 1990 - at times of crisis. Don Revie was appointed after the Football Association ran out of faith in Alf Ramsey. Ron Greenwood was rushed in after Revie's Dubai desertion. Graham Taylor was hopelessly over-promoted because, despite having two years' notice of Robson's retirement, the FA hadn't bothered to groom a credible successor. Terry Venables briefly cleared up the mess of the Turnip Years, while a God-fearing Glenn Hoddle briefly cleared up the mess left by Venables' extra-curricular business interests. Keegan was coaxed into the job after the England team were in danger of becoming a religious sect, the "Over the Moonies". But all Kevin had to offer were homespun Yorkshire homilies, masquerading as tactical nous.

Do you see the pattern here? Desperate crisis management rather than intelligent planning from those reputed to be in charge of our international football. A stunning ability to sort the wheat from the chaff, and then give the chaff the job.

Now, despite the assertions of the FA's boyish chief executive, Adam Crozier, we are in grave danger of repeating past errors. The seven men of the FA's selection panel - four club executives, the FA's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, and its executive director, David Davies, as well as Crozier - represent so many conflicts of interest that it will be all but impossible to reach the right decision.

In the first instance, neither the Leeds United chairman, Peter Ridsdale, nor Arsenal's vicechairman, David Dein, are likely to allow much discussion about their respective team managers, David O'Leary and Arsÿne Wenger, becoming candidates. Wenger is already making noises about not wanting the job, and Ridsdale is unlikely to offer up O'Leary, who is probably the most progressive young manager in the game, despite his initial pursuit of Martin O'Neill as George Graham's successor. Will Noel White talk up Gérard Houllier's chances? If the chairmen start putting up candidates from other clubs, don't they risk antagonising their fellow executives? What will Wilkinson do, given that he probably wants the job himself and also has an empire to protect?

Beyond the selection process, though, there are more profound tensions. We saw how Wilkinson and Keegan singularly failed to sing from the same hymn sheet, with differing tactics and contrary selections. Remember Wilkinson declining to pick Joe Cole for an under-21 friendly with Argentina last spring, despite Keegan's exhortations? Defining the new coach's realm will be just the first of many problems. Is he to be just a team-picker, following the system defined by the technical director?

Beneath these top two, even if they can work in harmony, there are clearly structural faults. The FA also preside over both the Premiership and the Cup, two competitions that are so overblown and overextended they have increasingly come to be a drain on thenational team. Will the Premiership representatives on the selection committee discuss a reduction of their league from 20 clubs to 18, or even 16? Of course they won't,despite the certain knowledge that this would help reduce the strain on our international players and allow more time in the schedule for Team England sessions.

Will the FA and their Premier-ship partners finally hold their hands up and say that the mass importation of foreign players is now almost certainly blocking off the flow of talent the England team so desperately needs? Or will they stick to the same argument that the quality of the imports will rub off on the locals? Can they even give us definitive evidence of this effect - perhaps the fluent movement and collective intelligence England showed at Euro 2000? Or maybe the rarefied technical abilities on display in the two play-off games against Scotland? I don't think so.

Perhaps the FA could, instead, make some contribution to helping our younger Premiership players get more chances of playing for the first teams? They could stipulate that the FA Cup, rather like the Olympic football tournament, be restricted to native under-21 players. But this would undoubtedly be condemned as "a downgrading of an historic competition", despite the fact that the FA know in their bones that this process is already happening.

Every route looks like a cul-de-sac at the moment, which may help explain Wilkinson's recent notion that the team should dip out of the 2002 World Cup, in favour of squad development. As I've already written, in another place, that Keegan should have done exactly this for Euro 2000, I suppose I should support this view. Indeed, there is some merit in discarding those players whose age and form offer no plausible life-span. If you took the ruthless line that they've done nothing in the last four years, the decision becomes easier. Equally, there is no absolute logic that says a youthful, developing England squad would necessarily fail to qualify for the next World Cup - Germany apart, Group Nine is hardly a Group of Death.

In an ideal world, our new coach would work in harmony with all at the FA, and all the Premiership managers whose players he summoned. A reduced Premiership season, with more English-qualified footballers, would give him more time to get the young squad together, based on the model of the "contract players" for English cricket. He could bring in specialist coaches for ideas on technique or set-pieces.

If the press and fans can take a more relaxed view of our true position in international football'shierarchy, the coach could build an England international system to last, rather than one for expediency's sake. Let's face it - it's either that or "Mule Never Walk Alone" again in The Sun.

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