Is Steve McClaren really the best man to manage England?

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The Independent Football

Steve McClaren's surge to red-hot favouritism as the likely successor to his England boss, Sven Goran Eriksson, has been doused in reality by one of the nation's leading odds-makers. He says that there is only circumstantial evidence - and not too much of that - to suggest that the flavour of the month might just become the taste of the international future.

For a large section of a football public increasingly confused by the Football Association's meandering pursuit of a new national coach, it is no doubt a welcome ray of enlightenment after McClaren's dizzying rise from rank outsider to front-runner on the back of Cup victories over Basle of Switzerland and Charlton Athletic.

"McClaren is the favourite," said Mike Dillon, of Ladbrokes, "because a few people - and I mean a few - have got carried away with a couple of Cup wins. From my perspective, that's the strength of it."

Beyond the betting counter, a strong view within the game is that the job is still there for Martin O'Neill's taking, but for many people who are bewildered at the selection process involving the FA chairman, Brian Barwick, councillors Dave Richards, Noel White and David Dein, and the director of football development, Sir Trevor Brooking, the idea that McClaren is again a factor has only added to the uncertainties of England's approach to this summer's World Cup and Eriksson's enforced exit.

McClaren's reinstatement, at whatever level, in the race is no doubt football's eccentric version of an Easter story, but what kind of resurrection does it represent? Is it the measured judgement that McClaren, who three months ago saw his team picked to pieces 7-0 by Arsenal and a few weeks later had to attempt to console the weeping teenager Lee Cattermole after the nerve-shredding experience of losing 4-0 at home to Aston Villa, is the best available candidate? Or is it a pitiful riding of the moment, a piece of knee-jerk reaction to the fact that McClaren, who has had one of the best budgets outside of the established élite of English football but is still 40 points adrift in the Premiership title race, has rescued his season from outright disaster with Cup victories over such mediocrities as Basle and Charlton? It is impossible not to reach the second conclusion.

McClaren's Cup wins have given him a fleeting credibility that was utterly lacking in that new year meltdown which provoked one Middlesbrough fan to throw his season ticket at the feet of the Boro manager after five years of heavily financed campaigning which showed just one triumph... a League Cup final victory over Bolton Wanderers.

Where, you to have ask, as the bookmakers install McClaren as the 5-4 favourite and a full alert for insider betting is declared, is the body of McClaren's work that justifies his sudden backing in the race to the line?

In five years under the chairmanship of Steve Gibson, widely considered the most forgiving, generous and supportive club owner in England, McClaren has failed to establish Boro as a significant force. Boro's season-high League placing is seventh, a position that in this campaign has dwindled alarmingly and reconfirmed a pattern which some say has stretched even Gibson's patience to its limits.

This is on top of McClaren's failure, as Eriksson's high-profile No 2, to work effectively against the breakdown in tactics and motivation that led to the shocking manner of England's failures in the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup and the European Championships of 2004.

But could the selection committee, perhaps finally rebuffed by O'Neill, turn to McClaren and dust down an image desperately compromised so recently? It would be a befuddling development - but in the current climate, who can be sure it will not happen? Would McClaren have stood a chance a few weeks ago before the victories over Basle and Charlton? Even if he had interviewed so dazzlingly that he had presented himself as a combination of the late Alf Ramsey and Peter Ustinov, would they have had the nerve to unveil him as English football's new messiah? The idea beggars belief.

Yet some have already been persuaded to the point of putting down their money that it will be a fait accompli if O'Neill says no and Dein fails to persuade his colleagues that Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari is the man to take over.

The former Brazilian World Cup-winning coach who is currently in charge of Portugal - for whom he outwitted the combination of Eriksson and McClaren in Euro 2004 - represents one small breach in the FA's determination to return to an English, or in O'Neill's case, "nearly English" coach.

However, this is still poor consolation for the fact that the outstanding candidate, Guus Hiddink, has been pointedly ignored in the FA's series of interviews with candidates.

The Dutchman's agent has made it clear that FA interest in his client could scarcely have been more perfunctory... one inconclusive phone call. This is the great scandal of the story. While McClaren hardens, Hiddink has slipped almost out of the betting, a sad acceptance that a superb accumulation of football work has been cast aside because of some dogmatic belief that only an Englishman - or nearly Englishman - can properly lead the national team.

However mournfully it is done, in the current circumstances it is perhaps no less than duty to briefly remind ourselves of Hiddink's CV: a European Cup win with PSV Eindhoven, for whom he has won the Dutch title for three of the last four years while campaigning impressively in the Champions' League, a magnificent effort of organisation and motivation in carrying South Korea to the semi-finals of the last World Cup and, currently, the brilliant part-time stewardship of Australia into a place in the coming finals for the first time in 32 years. With the help of Roman Abramovich's money, Hiddink has now been employed by Russia to end their failure to perform according to their talent at world-class level.

Meanwhile, McClaren leads the betting field in England, though here maybe a little perspective is in order. Dillon points out that his firm has received six times more betting on the vacant Newcastle job. "Almost anyone you care to think of has been backed for the Newcastle vacancy... except Ant and Dec."

Neither have been nominated for the England job, which, given the circumstances, may come as something of a surprise. Certainly the graph of betting on McClaren's chances gives scope for bleak comedy. Last October, he was 5-4 favourite, then by 2 November he had slumped to 33-1, where he stayed until a victory over Chelsea and the recent Cup runs. Yesterday, one leading bookie dropped McClaren to evens with O'Neill second favourite at 11 to 8.

Hiddink? He was still listed at 50-1, despite the fact that he was confirmed as Russia's new coach yesterday after signing a two-year contract, which starts on July 9 after his involvement in the World Cup with Australia has come to an end. There, in a single line of betting, we had the travesty of England's search for their next coach. The punters may be wrong about McClaren, but they are dead right about the one certainty in the race - there is no chance, and never has been, for the classiest horse in the field.

The Sven succession stakes: How the runners and riders are faring in the FA's quest for a new England coach 23 Jan Sven out

Early betting

SAM ALLARDYCE 5/2

ALAN CURBISHLEY 3/1

STEVE McCLAREN 7/2

OTTMAR HITZFELD 8/1

MARTIN O'NEILL 10/1

STEVE BRUCE 12/1

LUIZ FELIPE SCOLARI 12/1

GUUS HIDDINK 12/1

STUART PEARCE 12/1

January: Hiddink's hot

*24 JANUARY

Bolton's Sam Allardyce is the bookies' early favourite, ahead of fellow Englishmen Alan Curbishley and Steve McClaren. Former Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld is the best-backed foreign candidate this stage.

* 26 JANUARY

Brian Barwick, chief executive of the Football Association and known to favour the former Celtic manager Martin O'Neill, says Eriksson's successor will be in place before the World Cup finals.

* 31 JANUARY

Eriksson reportedly tells guests at a Stockholm dinner that Guus Hiddink, the man who guided South Korea to the semi-finals in 2002 and won the Champions' League with PSV Eindhoven, will be the next England manager. The Dutchman's stock appears high and his CV is outstanding.

February Field shrinking

*2 FEBRUARY

The FA appoints a three-man team to find a successor, made up of Barwick, international committee chairman Noel White and Premier League chairman Dave Richards.

*9 FEBRUARY

Doubts arise within the FA about Allardyce, with his media spat with Radio 5 commentator Alan Green cited by a source

*10 FEBRUARY

Richards announces the FA are not looking to appoint another foreign coach, stating: "It's time for a British boss, somebody who understands our passion, belief and commitment." Like O'Neill?

*11 FEBRUARY

Pearce gains ground by changing his mind on the job. Rather than it being 'pathetic' to link him with it, he now says it would be 'absolute folly to rule himself out'.

*27 FEBRUARY

The three-man team report their initial findings to the FA chairman Geoff Thompson.

March-April: McClaren move

*10 March

Curbishley, the Charlton manger, becomes the first candidate to admit he was interviewed by the FA.

*1 APRIL

Curbishley admits he has had no further discussions with the FA about the post.

*5 APRIL

Brian Barwick is reported to have prepared a shortlist of three or four candidates ahead of formal interviews. O'Neill is still considered favourite

*14 APRIL

McClaren suddenly appears to have overtaken O'Neill, with the bookmakers and reportedly with FA officials after guiding Middlesbrough to the Uefa Cup and FA Cup semi-finals.

*15 APRIL

And then there were two?

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