James Lawton: Desperation devours common sense in FA's insane rush to choose McClaren instead of O'Neill

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The Independent Football

No doubt the Football Association believed it was drawing a line under one of the most inept phases of its administration of the national game when yesterday it appointed Steve McClaren as the new England head coach. It was a pretty thought, one which the FA might even have believed was worthy of wrapping up in ribbons. The reality, though, was rather different. The strong possibility was that the FA was not drawing a line but digging a hole.

There will be no question about this if England fail to meet the challenge of a third successive major tournament in which McClaren has been Sven Goran Eriksson's No 1 assistant.

A good World Cup for England, by which we have to mean at the very least an honourable exit at the semi-final stage (for this, even without Wayne Rooney and with heavy doubts about Michael Owen, is supposed to be a golden generation of English footballers) and the FA could claim that it was not necessarily replacing one lame-duck coach with another. It might say that the new man had the potential to build on something more than guilt by association.

However, this isn't really the basic point. Two questions have to be asked? Is McClaren the right man, was he right in his bullish recent statement that his CV speaks for itself? And was the timing of yesterday's appointment anywhere close to wise? The second answer is easier in that it cannot be a hostage to events. The FA didn't need to expose a flank so hopelessly, it didn't need to rush at maniacal pace to the embarrassing breakdown of the talks with Luiz Felipe Scolari. It could have carried on its negotiations with some stealth, it could have put vital matters in place. Instead, it gave itself an insane and unnecessary deadline once it had decided that its distaste for Eriksson's behaviour stopped short of sending him on his way immediately after "Sheikhgate" and another episode of his disloyalty - this time in the presence of under-cover journalists.

The result, of course, was a circus of a selection process which had to put you in mind of the great Formula One man Sir Frank Williams' comment about many driving appointments on the Grand Prix circuit. "It's a bit like pinning the tail on the stage donkey," said Sir Frank.

No one would say that McClaren is a donkey. But then who could seriously argue that he has not, in a particularly abject way, been elected the flavour of the month? He is not so much a choice as a fallback position. He was cast aside before the Scolari misadventure, and for some fairly compelling reasons. A few months ago he was on the thinnest of ice at Middlesbrough, and quite how thin it was could not have been made more savagely clear by his senior player, Gareth Southgate.

Once you burrowed an inch below the niceties, you could see that the much-capped former England player was basically saying that McClaren had lost both the confidence of his chairman, Steve Gibson, and much of the dressing-room.

The commentary of the Middlesbrough fans - not to mention those of England when they voted overwhelmingly against him in a BBC radio poll - was explicit enough, not least when one of them threw his ticket at the feet of the manager. Fans can be fickle, of course, but they had endured a vertiginous experience with a 7-0 thrashing by Arsenal and what looked like a collective nervous breakdown against Aston Villa, at home. Even if the disquiet of the fans has been eased by Middlesbrough's arrival in the Uefa Cup final, the point of exasperation reached by Gibson, one of the game's most forgiving and generous of chairmen, is surely of more lasting significance.

So why did McClaren rise from the dead in the race for the England job? Why did his odds sway crazily from 33-1 to this week's 1-4? Desperation, that's why; the desperation of a chief executive, Brian Barwick, and FA councillors who plainly could not stand another week of severe embarrassment.

With due respect to such important figures, however, that mattered a lot less than signing up the best man in the field. After the Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who never really made it to the starting grid, and the Brazilian Scolari, one CV stood out - and it wasn't McClaren's. It was Martin O'Neill's. We have already discussed here the reason why he slipped back so quickly in the running, indeed scarcely made it beyond the first furlong or so. That was because he didn't sweet-talk the FA bigwigs on the airy-fairy subject of coaching pyramids and "continuity". Rather than that, he made clear his view that the job was about getting the best out of the likes of Rooney and Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

The fact that cannot but create some bitterness now is there were a number of certainties about O'Neill, not least a consistent track record as a manager before his wife's ill health forced him to resign at Celtic. At Wycombe Wanderers, Leicester City and Celtic the pattern was unbroken. He displayed the vital knack of getting the best out of available players.

Under O'Neill, Leicester, with modest funding, won two League Cups, appeared in another final and became a formidable unit, one in which signings such as Muzzy Izzet, Matt Elliott, Steve Guppy and Neil Lennon all graduated to international football, and a young Emile Heskey emerged as an eye-catching force. No one stepping into O'Neill's wake at Leicester has had anything like the same effect.

When he went to Parkhead, Rangers had just won the Scottish title by 15 points. O'Neill promptly delivered the championship to Celtic in his first season, something which conservative experts on the Scottish game thought would take at least three years. In European football he made a joke of the reckoning in England that neither of Scotland's Auld Firm could expect more than a battle for survival in the Premiership. O'Neill's team overwhelmed the expensive Liverpool and Blackburn sides of Gérard Houllier and Graeme Souness.

Another confident expectation by O'Neill supporters was that he would rip into the exclusive club culture built up by Eriksson over the past five years. No one - not David Beckham, Gerrard or even the prodigy Rooney - would have any privileges beyond acknowledgement when they delivered the best of their talent.

By their lights, the FA men did what they believed was necessary yesterday. They may have felt a degree of relief. However, pretty ribbons were distinctly out of place.

National managers over the past 24 years

SIR BOBBY ROBSON

Appointed: 7 July 1982.

Age when appointed: 49.

Most memorable match: 1-1 v West Germany (West Germany won 4-3 on penalties), 4 July 1990 World Cup semi-final.

Worst defeat: 1-0 v Ireland, 12 June 1988, European Championship group stage in Stuttgart, Germany.

Left: 7 July 1990.

Reason for leaving: After falling out with the Football Association and receiving extensive negative coverage in the press, Robson resigned to take up the reins at the Dutch side PSV Eindhoven.

GRAHAM TAYLOR

Appointed: 23 July 1990.

Age when appointed: 45.

Most memorable match: 0-2 v Netherlands, 13 October 1994, World Cup qualifier in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Worst defeat: 2-0 v United States, June 9 1993, international friendly in Boston, US.

Left: 23 November 1993.

Reason for leaving: Taylor resigned after England failed to qualify for 1994 World Cup finals in the US. Increasingly poor relations with the British media, including the Sun's infamous "turnip" depiction did not help.

TERRY VENABLES

Appointed: 28 Jan 1994.

Age when appointed: 51.

Most memorable match: 4-1 v Netherlands, 18 June 1996 European Championship Group A, Wembley.

Worst defeat: 1-1 v Germany (Germany won 6-5 on penalties), 26 June 1996, European Championship semi-final, Wembley.

Left: 30 June 1996.

Reason for leaving: After the FA refused to discuss a new contract with Venables, citing his court case with Alan Sugar as the reason, he decided to resign after Euro '96.

GLENN HODDLE

Appointed: 2 May 1996.

Age when appointed: 38.

Most memorable match: 0-0 v Italy, 11 October 1997, World Cup qualifier in Rome, Italy.

Worst defeat: 2-2 v Argentina (Argentina won 4-3 on penalties), 30 June 1998, World Cup second round, St-Etienne, France.

Left: 2 February 1999.

Reason for leaving: Sacked after saying that disabled people were being punished for sins in a previous life. "The karma is working from another lifetime," he was quoted as saying. "What you sow, you have to reap."

KEVIN KEEGAN

Appointed: 17 February 1999.

Age when appointed: 48.

Most memorable match: 1-0 v Germany, 17 June 2000, European Championship Group A, Charleroi, Belgium.

Worst defeat: 1-0 v Germany, 7 October 2000 World Cup qualifier, Wembley.

Left: 7 October 2000.

Reason for leaving: Keegan dramatically resigned in the tunnel, immediately after the defeat by Germany in the last game at the old Wembley Stadium, admitting that he was not up to the job.

SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON

Appointed: 31 October 2001.

Age when appointed: 52.

Most memorable win: 5-1 v Germany, 1 September 2001, World Cup qualifier, Munich, Germany.

Worst defeat: 2-1 v Brazil, 21 June 2002, World Cup quarter-final, Shizuoka, Japan.

Left: 9 July 2006.

Reason for leaving: Agreed to terminate his contract after a series of slip-ups - the last of which, including revelations made to a newspaper journalist posing as an Arab businessman - the "fake sheikh" - was seen as the last straw by the FA.

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