Wilkinson hints at ignoring World Cup

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Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director, is heading for a dispute with his employers over the suggestion that his successor as national coach should "seriously" consider writing off qualification for the next World Cup.

Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director, is heading for a dispute with his employers over the suggestion that his successor as national coach should "seriously" consider writing off qualification for the next World Cup.

The caretaker coach made this startling observation in the wake of England's disappointing draw in Helsinki on Wednesday night, the second match of an eight-tie qualifying campaign. It left England bottom of Group Nine, five points behind the leaders, Germany.

This view runs counter to that of Adam Crozier, the chief executive, who indicated before the match that it was possible and desirable to pursue long-term team development within a short-term qualifying campaign.

Yet Wilkinson, when asked if the 2002 finals should be disregarded for the benefit of the national team's long-term health, said: "That is a possibility which has got to be seriously thought about. Yes, it has got to be seriously thought about. Whoever is in charge will have to sit down and ponder on that one."

A former England coach, Glenn Hoddle, concurred with Wilkinson yesterday, suggesting that the next coach be given a six-year contract. "The next man has got to be given that spell of time," he said. "The reason for qualifying [for 2002] is to give the young players the experience of playing at that level.

"The geography of where the next World Cup is [South Korea and Japan] would give us a very, very hard task to win the competition, so we are playing for the next competition, which is in Europe, and the next tournament after that."

Would Wilkinson be recommending such an approach to the six-man selection panel (including himself) that Crozier has drawn up to advise him on the appointment? "No. It is a decision the next manager has to consider and the technical director [ie. Wilkinson] might want to discuss the idea but, with great respect to my superiors, the chief executive and so on, I don't think they are the ones to decide football strategy."

However, such a decision would appear to be as much about corporate planning as football strategy with revenues of £50m-plus at risk should England fail to reach the 2002 finals.Given that, Crozier's view is unsurprising but he also added: "Any manager worth his salt is going to be trying to get there."

Crozier said he did not believe French claims to have sacrificed qualifying for the 1994 World Cup because they were working to a long-term agenda and would "bet my bottom dollar they were still trying to get there".

Besides, despite the despair of the past week and the poverty of England performances, it is premature to write off their hopes. The prospect of automatic qualification may be receding but there remains the play-offs. This would probably pit them against equally moderate opposition from Europe or possibly against Asia's fifth-best team, currently the United Arab Emirates, who are ranked 59th but only four places below Finland. England are 15th.

The Finns are England's next qualifying opponents, in the 24 March return at Anfield. By then England will have a new manager. Wilkinson's legacy is a point that would, with better officiating, have been three.

England's play could not have justified such a result but their attitude did. Wilkinson coaxed a committed performance from his mentally battered side. His tactics were less impressive; his considered version of 4-3-3 is complex and difficult to get across in two training sessions, especially when some of the players are ill-equipped for their roles.

"I tried to give them a shape and a plan," Wilkinson said. "Some didn't do as well as they would have liked but we were honest. In the circumstances it is a start, perhaps of clawing their way back. God got seven days, we got three."

When asked why a group of players regularly lauded as "world-class" had played so poorly, Wilkinson justifiably responded that it was the media who labelled them as such. On the basis of Wilkinson's definition, which limited the description to players who would make the squad for a "World XI", only David Beckham is a "probable" and Michael Owen a "possible".

Beckham was injured, Owen omitted. Wilkinson offered little succour to him as he said: "Like all players who aspire to greatness he has got to keep working, trying to improve. Look at Thierry Henry."

Yet Wilkinson did add: "The players we have, if the structure and strategy is right over the next two years and six games, are more than capable of competing with teams like Germany and Italy."

That appears unduly optimistic. Since 1966 England have entered 17 World and European tournaments and failed to reach the final in any of them. Germany have made eight finals, winning five; Italy five, winning two. In total a dozen teams have reached a major final since 1966, eight of them taking a trophy home. England are among eight further teams to have reached semi-finals.

Qualifying is tough enough: since 1970 England have made four World Cups out of seven, a record surpassed by eight nations, including Scotland and Belgium, and matched by eight more, including Bulgaria, Poland, Cameroon and South Korea. Germany and Italy were ever-presents.

How far England are behind Italy, who needed two soft penalties to beat Georgia at home on Wednesday, can be assessed next month when England play a friendly in Turin. With no appointment on the horizon, Wilkinson may still be in charge. A full Premiership programme means he, or his successor, will again have two days to prepare.