Weep for lost glory of English game

England's agony: Dignified resignation of national coach shows appalling timing and reflects low standards of Football Association
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The Independent Football

Kevin Keegan didn't so much fall on to his sword as disappear right off the end of the trampoline on which he has conducted most of his emotional life as a big-time football manager.

Kevin Keegan didn't so much fall on to his sword as disappear right off the end of the trampoline on which he has conducted most of his emotional life as a big-time football manager.

As a player, he was a marvellous concentration of spirit and application, a combination of qualities which made him great. As a manager and coach he was, apart from a few uplifting months at Newcastle, a mess.

Nowhere was this more evident than at Wembley at the denouement of the ghastly afternoon which saw both the end of Keegan and, surely, the last vestiges of belief that on the international field England has the means to heal itself.

The news that the Football Association, aware at last of the appalling drift of England's reputation as a serious football nation in Euro 2000 but still obdurate in the belief that Terry Venables is beyond consideration, had already drawn up a wish list of foreign contenders for Keegan's job, will inevitably raise some patriotic hackles. But reality says that we have passed the point of such sensitivities. If England won under Arsÿne Wenger, it would still be a triumph of English blood and sinew and talent. Waiting for such an English victory fuelled by native brain power might just impinge on eternity, and if national pride is a virtue, national self-delusion is not. It is also true that the New World was still a source of vast Spanish pride even though its discoverer, Christopher Columbus, was born in Genoa and thus more likely to be a fan of Sampdoria rather than Real Madrid.

Such debating points for the moment shrivel beside the mountain of futility bequeathed by Keegan. Certainly much less academic is the apparent certainty that the FA will continue to keep the door closed on Venables, the one Englishman demonstrably equipped to provide a sound alternative to the acceptance of the need for a leading foreign mercenary. That Venables is abundantly qualified in every respect - conspicuously including that of the street appeal which the FA found so persuasive in the appointment of Keegan - scarcely requires restatement here, except perhaps for a reminder that we're talking about the job of an accomplished football man and not a company secretary. What perhaps does need underlining is the meaning of the rise and fall of Kevin Keegan.

The heart of it was touched upon by Keegan in a resignation speech that managed, extraordinarily, to embrace both real grace and appalling irresponsibility. Keegan conceded that he should probably have gone after the disaster of Euro 2000, as did Dino Zoff, who came within a heartbeat of leading Italy to the championship and Frank Rijkaard, who had produced exciting tournament favourites in the Netherlands until they ran into the iron grill of Italian defence. The point is that in any other allegedly front-rank football nation, Keegan would have been a goner the moment England's involvement in the championship was over. So would Glenn Hoddle after the World Cup of 1998, when England, after a chaos of selection and the lack of a consistent build-up matched only by Keegan's approach to Euro 2000, were knocked out in the round of 16. But instead of the chop, Hoddle, whose bizarre philosophical leanings were already on the record, including his belief that his biggest mistake was not to take to France a faith healer, received a pat on the back and a substantial rise.

It draws us unswervingly to the conclusion that in England standards, and demands, at least in official quarters, had dropped to pitifully inadequate levels by the time Keegan got the nod 18 months ago. What criteria was applied to the appointment of Keegan beyond the certainty that it would please the mob? The day Keegan was presented to the world, the FA's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, sat by his side. Ever since Wilkinson has been talking about the need to "license" football managers, and the responsibility of his coaching department to groom a hand-picked successor and impose "continuity." But whose hands would do the picking, and whose continuity would be created? Presumably that of Wilkinson, the man who so blithely welcomed the appointment of a national coach who spent the first eight years of his retirement as a player on the golf courses of Andalucia.

So far Wilkinson's most striking executive decision was to sack Peter Taylor, the hugely successful coach of the Under-21 team, who currently has Leicester City on top of the Premiership.

On Saturday night, when Keegan, as impulsive as ever, walked away with England's World Cup qualifying campaign already in crisis, and with a difficult assignment in Helsinki just four days away, it was hard indeed not to weep for the lost glory of the English game. Wembley, a place of yearning and magic for so long, was physically a slum and psychologically about as uplifting as a crowded GP's waiting room. Germany, who rivalled England for futility in the Low Countries summer, were not exactly rampant but they had at least thrown away their crutches. Keegan said that he was going because of his awareness of his own tactical inadequacies - and because the fans had told him it was the right time. Even as you warmed to the honesty and dignity of the first part of Keegan's explanation, you had to be appalled by the idea that the cursing of the terracing could in any way have been a contribution to the timing of his decision, which in military terms was to walk away from his troops in mid-battle. Sir Alf Ramsey, you were bound to recall, was cursed on his way to winning the World Cup, but like Lester Piggott on the day he was booed for "jocking off" a rival before bringing home the Derby winner, he refused to even register the braying of the crowd.

Of all his problems, Keegan's greatest as a football manager was the desire to be loved. It is hard to imagine a more crippling liability, but, as an international boss, Keegan had one in his failure to grasp even rudimentary tactical requirements. His weakness was clear enough to even those who believe that the emphasis on team formations, rather than the composition of the personnel, has been elevated absurdly to an importance beyond its due. For Keegan, though, the tactical mysteries, such as they are, were beyond penetration and his selection of Gareth Southgate on Saturday after Steven Gerrard's failure to pass a fitness test was a thoroughlybefuddling move.

That, it seems clear enough now, was the breaking point for key players who had been prepared to balance tactical naïvety against the honesty and warmth which had been ultimately lacking in the previous regime. It meant that Keegan's last chore was to get right the timing of his departure. He muffed that, as well, of course, but if his parting spoke more than anything of a man most preoccupied with his own emotions, it did serve one highly useful purpose. It surely defined for the FA precisely the qualities required of the next football man to take the challenge.

Toughness under pressure, an easy familiarity with tactical needs, deep experience, are all more important than popularity on the streets - Keegan is just the latest witness to how quickly that can dissolve - and a British passport. For this reason, Arsÿne Wenger, perhaps the most acute reader of individual talent in the game, and his compatriot Aimé Jacquet, who won the World Cup for France under a barrage of fierce criticism, must head the list of candidates. Domestically, Venables is the onlyviable contender. But he is not liked at the FA. That this should represent a death sentence on the hopes of a man who has already done the job once, and successfully, is not the least sadness of one of the bleakest weekends English football has ever known.