Sometimes, an answer can be staring you right in the face. The Football Association's promise to have one or more English managers shadowing Fabio Capello as part of the quest to find his successor, has so far foundered, partly on the grounds that clubs are not expected to be keen to release them. But here is Alan Curbishley, as serious a contender to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson four years ago as he was to replace Gérard Houllier at Anfield, who has not even been asked by the FA. "I think if someone spoke to me about it [I might be interested] but no one's ever really approached me," he says.
The oversight is almost as curious as Curbishley's plunge from the landscape of bright young English managers, into an extended period of unemployment which has just entered its third year. The 52-year-old has certainly not done much to deserve this. His feat in taking Charlton Athletic to the elite level and keeping them there for eight years is a far greater achievement viewed through the hindsight of so many other clubs rising and falling, while the average Premier League finishing position of Curbishley's sides is an eye-catching 10th. His success in preserving West Ham's top-flight status in May 2007 was near miraculous but after survival came sabotage. It was the decision of West Ham's Icelandic owners to sell one of his best defenders, George McCartney, to Sunderland, behind his back, which prompted Curbishley's resignation and subsequent period of purdah.
An 18-month unfair dismissal case has helped send him into the ranks of the long-term unemployed: "It was a big thing and a lot of people forget that West Ham sued me [for breach of contract] as well," he says. "The dates for the arbitration were over the Easter period so I would also have been in court at a key time." But Curbishley, who despite two meetings with the Aston Villa proprietor Randy Lerner last month was beaten to that manager's job by Houllier, is also reflecting on this country's tendency to remember a foreign manager's name more than an English one.
Rafael Benitez's accession at Anfield, in the face of Steven Gerrard and Danny Murphy's desire that Curbishley be given the job, is something he ascribes to the fact that overseas managers have been getting the elite jobs for years now. "We've pretty much accepted that the top jobs are going to go to foreign managers," he says. But it has been the more recent sight of foreign coaches getting second-tier Premier League jobs which causes him to wonder how England are going to find an English manager in 2012. "What we are finding now is that foreign managers are not just coming into the top jobs but taking over the other jobs – like Avram Grant at West Ham," Curbishley says. "And no disrespect to Gérard Houllier, but him at Villa [too]."
The wounds of that severance with West Ham run deep – Curbishley's seven wins from the club's last nine games in 2007 heralded an extraordinary deliverance and the next season started well before the new owners sold McCartney and Anton Ferdinand – which might explain why Grant's appointment at Upton Park seems to have stung. "There are not many foreign managers who have gone into a team in the bottom three and managed to keep them up," he says. "Sam [Allardyce] did that at Blackburn. I did it at West Ham and I kept Charlton in the Premier League for eight years. [Did] Avram Grant [achieve that at] Portsmouth? Portsmouth went down but he got acclaim – for going down. My [question] is: when a foreign manager has not gone into the best situation, how has he fared? Has Houllier gone into a bottom-three situation? Has he gone into Blackburn to keep them up? Has Houllier or a foreign manager gone into Wigan and kept them up, like [Steve] Bruce did? They seem to come in and get the better jobs. Maybe it's an image thing – I'm not too sure. We are very mindful of how many English players we've got to pick from every Saturday in the Premier League and we've got to be very mindful of how many English managers we can pick from, because there are less and less in the Premier League."
Curbishley presses his case more smartly than Sam Allardyce, whose suggestion last month that he was "not suited to Bolton or Blackburn" and "would be more suited to Internazionale or Real Madrid" hardly enhanced his credibility. Despite the oversight, Curbishley argues the merits of the FA's plan to have coaches within the England set-up during international breaks, which it was originally envisaged might have been in place ahead of tonight's qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley. "No disrespect here but how is Steve Bruce going to get the knowledge of a two-week campaign unless he sees it?" Curbishley says. "How is he going to get the chance of working with the best players in the country unless he's exposed to it?"
Curbishley has heard these FA ideas once before. He was one of a number of young coaches, including Peter Taylor and Peter Reid, who were earmarked by the then FA chief executive Adam Crozier to be given experience on the periphery of the England squad after Eriksson was appointed. "I think they forgot to tell Eriksson because it never got off the ground," he recalls.
Sir Trevor Brooking described last week how "the difficulty is that people assume [the chosen coaches] are the next manager," while the FA's former executive director, David Davies, has experience of how hard it is to prize managers from clubs on a temporary basis. When he and Crozier asked Newcastle if Bobby Robson might be spared to manage England as caretaker along with Peter Taylor and Steve McClaren after Kevin Keegan's sudden resignation in 2000, Freddy Shepherd refused them.
But ever since the youthful Robson, Brian Clough and Terry Venables had periods working with the England under-18s and under-19s in Ron Greenwood's day, such an idea has had merit. It was also enshrined in the Charter of Quality produced by Howard Wilkinson as the FA technical director in 1997, and in his current jobless state Curbishley seems like a good candidate.
He remains busy, with his active role at the League Managers Association taking him to Manchester last week for the LMA-backed Prince's Trust Managers Cup. This is a five-a-side tournament with eight teams of 16- to 25-year-olds each managed by a professional football manager as part of the Trust's Football Initiative, funded by the Premier League, Professional Footballers' Association and Football Foundation.
The managers – and the tournament – seek to instil confidence, motivation, discipline communication and teamwork in young people. A bit like running the England team then. Lightning strikes twice in a week as Curbishley, managing Blackpool, opens with an eye-catching win over Liverpool (revenge for that Benitez appointment) though it is Glenn Roeder whose Manchester side lift the trophy.
As he reflects on the cup, with defeat by Kevin Blackwell's Pendle side proving fateful and Phil Brown's appearance as player-manager proving futile, it's hard to avoid the idea that Curbishley will be back soon. "The Villa job was the one [I really coveted]," he reflects.
"I've had opportunities but I've been waiting for a Premier League club. It's probably going to be someone in trouble though, isn't it? If there's a managerial change it's not going to be someone in the top 10." Such are the modest expectations of a football manager who unfortunately happens to be English.
Reserved occupations: Englishmen as understudies
* The Football Association, whose plan to have English managers shadow Fabio Capello has yet to get off the ground, has a history of giving them experience with a view to them ascending to the national team job:
Had a very brief spell as England Under-18 manager in 1977. The best manager England never had took the job for one tournament in Las Palmas, Spain, where England won twice and drew once.
The Bradford City manager was England Under-21 coach for two spells – from 1996-99, and 2004-07, as well as being the caretaker manager for the senior side's 1-0 defeat to Italy in Turin in 2000.
After leaving Leeds United was appointed FA technical director in 1997. Has also been caretaker manager to the senior side twice and selected himself to be Under-21s coach in 1999 for a year. Left as technical director in 2002.
Became a national team coach under Peter Taylor in 2000, when he was an assistant at Manchester United and was promoted to Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant before Euro 2004, then took over the top job after Eriksson left following the 2006 World Cup.
Liverpool's assistant manager served as a coach under Eriksson from 2001-2004. In charge of Under-21s in 2006.
Took the Under-21 side to the 2007 European Championship semi-finals and the final last year. Also works as a coach to the senior side.
Former England manager returned to be McClaren's assistant during the disastrous Euro 2008 campaign, after which the pair were fired.