Wilkinson and the lost empire

Nick Townsend calls for technical director's role to be redefined
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The Independent Football

Amid the maelstrom in which the Football Association is engulfed, Howard Wilkinson has established himself as a rock, a by-word for continuity, the master of the long-term initiative. But, seemingly most of all, the untouchable. At least, that is how his employers view this Yorkshireman who keeps his head above water as those reckless enough to offer their services as head coach founder around him.

Amid the maelstrom in which the Football Association is engulfed, Howard Wilkinson has established himself as a rock, a by-word for continuity, the master of the long-term initiative. But, seemingly most of all, the untouchable. At least, that is how his employers view this Yorkshireman who keeps his head above water as those reckless enough to offer their services as head coach founder around him.

As the FA's technical director, the former Sheffield United and Brighton winger is the man to whom the blazers turn in the event of such calamities as Glenn Hoddle's enforced departure and Kevin Keegan's resignation as if he were some Merlin of the tracksuit. Sadly, on both occasions (his reputation protected by myriad excuses), he has proved as fallible as the men he temporarily replaced.

Tomorrow, the FA's chief executive, Adam Crozier, meets him to discuss how next month's friendly against Italy in Turin should be approached. Wilkinson is also a member of Crozier's six-man selection panel, which presents a certain conflict of interests in that he is believed (in the absence of any rebuttal) to be a contender for the head-coach position himself. Quite why he harbours that desire is a mystery. The fact that he considers himself suitable is even more perplexing, particularly after Wednesday night's experience. His selection, in fairness, was largely dictated by circumstance, apart from the omission of Michael Owen, which appeared to be the result of sheer perversity.

The 4-3-3 formation in which he sent them out, however, was not. Thus, we were presented with a team in which Paul Scholes was forced far too deep to operate with his usual verve and in which Andy Cole and Emile Heskey both remained on the field despite performances which declined.

Going forward, Wilkinson's sword was horribly blunt. Admittedly, the caretaker coach suffered from a lack of resources, but the tendency of the back line to lob the ball forward to the front men, by-passing an insipid midfield, was excruciating to observe. Given that paucity of supply, it is probably just as well for Owen that he was persona non grata.

Wilkinson's prime defence has been lack of time for preparation. Or as he put it, "cobbling together something which you know in your heart is not exactly the way you'd want to do it if you had four months to put together the programme".

He added: "I've come off the training pitch and I've given them less than what they're entitled to. But that's a fact of life. What's the alternative? Do I come in, put a funny hat on, play a few silly games and say 'Come on chaps, cheer up, forget last Saturday. Here we go again?'" He has a point. But not much of one. Apart from the mighty Finn Jari Litmanen and the splendidly impassive defender Sami Hyypia, England's opponents should not have required the acutest tactical thinking to overcome.

It was all such a gloomy throwback to the days when the dinosaurs roamed English football. Thus, when Crozier's headhunters assemble for their first meeting, they should not only eliminate Wilkinson as a candidate for head coach, but there should be serious questions asked as to whether the long-term future of the English game should continue to beentrusted solely to him.

For all that, Wilkinson has a sound organisational head and is dedicated to the national cause, presumably there will be a genuine concern among any potential appointees that there could be a conflict in ideas. Continuity is one thing; continuity down a disused route, as some might perceive the Wilkinson way, is quite another. The problem will arise when, and if, a man of genuine international stature is appointed who desires to bring in his own lieutenant to supervise England Under-21 operations. The political battle that follows would be an intriguing one.

Wilkinson's reputation has hardly been enhanced by his role, either, in Peter Taylor's departure from the Under-21 job, and his mere presence makes it unlikely that the Leicester manager will be considered for the England role.

At present, Crozier appears untroubled by Wilkinson's empire creation. He said of the relationship of Keegan's eventual successor and Wilkinson "that it is very important that they work together as a team". He added: "When people accept jobs, they do so under certain conditions. You don't give them absolute carte blanche to go off to do exactly what they want to do. The long-term is as important as the short-term, and they have to understand that we want to build England for the future. It's about sharing a reasonably similar philosophy [with Wilkinson] or at least working in the same direction."

That direction may include, for instance, the possibility of England abandoning its 2002 World Cup ambitions. "It obviously has to be considered," Wilkinson said. "It's in the pot with a lot of other possibilities. If it's the right thing to do in the opinion of the professional [the new coach], then they [the public] have got to stand for it. What's the alternative? To keep doing what we're doing? Riding this roller-coaster. Quite frankly, I'm fed up of that. I don't enjoy the highs particularly because every time we're up there I think, 'Here we go again. Hold on to the bar'."

It is essentially a sane suggestion. The only problem with the man who made it is that, if he continues as technical director, the new man might find it turns into more of a dodgem ride. In that case, England'sfuture will be no more assured than at present.

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