James Lawton: Hiddink's part-time achievements prove that less could be more for England

How long can it take the national coach to identify the best players in the land?
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The Independent Football

In the avalanche of unattributed advice that Martin O'Neill has the England job for the taking, a veritable golden nugget of insight came tumbling out of the Football Association's Soho Square office.

A "senior" source explained why the outstanding candidate Guus Hiddink was being sidelined. It was because he had advanced the astonishing theory that the job could be done part-time. Said the FA man: "The very thought that it could be part-time shows that foreigners don't really appreciate the special demands and pressures of the job."

Well, how outrageous to think they might. Really, it's amazing to consider how foreign nations like Brazil and Germany, Argentina and Italy have made such a habit of winning the greatest prize in football, and let's be fair, not without the odd hint of "special demands and pressure".

Italian national coaches could certainly vouch for that. The one who lost to North Korea in 1966 was pelted with rotten tomatoes when he arrived home in Rome. In 1982 the pipe-smoking Enzo Bearzot lifted that shame when he won in Spain and, according to one critic, "liberated the caged bird of Italian football". That didn't prevent one celebrated columnist, however, spitting on the sidewalk at Bearzot's feet after the Azzurri had been less than overwhelming in group play.

The little Netherlands, with a comparatively minuscule playing population, amazingly fought their way to two World Cup finals on foreign soil, but clearly one of their most sophisticated football men has learnt none of the lessons of the past.

Hiddink may have won the European Cup, done a brilliant job with South Korea four years ago, guided Australia to their first World Cup finals in 32 years - part-time - and piloted PSV Eindhoven to the élite of European club football, but plainly he is living in his own little world.

Do the England job part-time? What on earth is he thinking about? When would he find time to squire the likes of Ulrika Jonsson to dinner? Fly off to Dubai to negotiate with phantom sheikhs? Pop up to Old Trafford or Peter Kenyon's London flat when there was a whiff of a new job opportunity?

Early in his regime Eriksson invited a bunch of journalists to discuss a pressing matter. They were somewhat disappointed to be briefed on the fact that they should not ask anything that might be remotely relevant to the current situation of the England team. No, the point of the gathering was promotion of a football computer game to which his name had been attached. Fascinating stuff, and part of a major pursuit of personal sponsorship before the 2002 World Cup. To be fair, he was scraping along on wages barely nudging £2m a year at the time.

The fact is that, from Hiddink's perspective, doing the England job part-time is not some arrogant whimsy. He thinks it is a reasonable proposition, having already done the job with the Netherlands, South Korea and Australia. Why? Because there is only so much a national coach can do. How long does it take him to establish the best 20-odd players in the land? And what access does he get to those players? Precious little when they are grudgingly yielded up by their Premiership paymasters.

When you consider the recent history of the England managership it is possible to argue that the incumbents have had not too little but too much time on their hands. Glenn Hoddle had the time to write an outrageous, trust-breaking diary about the inner life of the team on the way to the 1998 World Cup - also far too much time contemplating the value of a faith-healing friend to the cause. Later, he bemoaned the fact that he hadn't taken her to France - apparently his one grievous mistake, far more serious than psychologically ransacking David Beckham before the first game was played and absurdly delaying the arrival of Michael Owen, eventually the outstanding young player of the tournament.

Kevin Keegan also probably had too much time on his hands, long enough certainly to meander into the conclusion that Andy Cole might be a better international finisher than Owen.

What are the vital attributes of a successful national coach? Insight on the competing qualities of individual players, a grand vision of how the team should play and proper discipline, a sense that no player - Beckham, for example - is entitled to special deference, not to say tolerance.

What it is reasonable to assume that Hiddink might make a fist of, in the time that would be allocated to him, which no doubt would be no more or less than that granted to Eriksson under prevailing conditions, is a proper organisation of the team and some progress on the challenge of getting Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, two outstanding players, to rationalise their relationship whenever they happen to find themselves in England shirts. Hiddink has built his reputation on making players play, and developing a sense of team.

One of the classic complaints of national team managers is that they have too much wasted time on their hands. They miss the day-to-day involvement of club football. There are only so many matches they need to see, and presumably Hiddink would be able - from somewhere in the vast resources made available by the departure of Eriksson - to appoint an assistant on whom he would be happy to rely for basic information like current fitness and form of key players.

Football is about intuition and a few hard, working principles. One of the advantages of being a national coach, at least one who continues to have a vital effect on his players, is indeed that he is not around them all the time, imposing day by day, week by week discipline, and Hiddink has already made clear with his work in Korea and Australia that he has the capacity for brief but intense contributions to the development of a successful team.

It was interesting that another foreigner, the Tottenham head coach and Hiddink's compatriot, Martin Jol, was asked to run his eye over the England candidates at the weekend. After brief contemplation he said, "Well, Guus Hiddink is the best coach - he has the best record."

Unfortunately, being a foreigner, he just doesn't understand the special demands and pressures of the job. Plainly, Hiddink would be a waste of time if not, like Eriksson, quite such a huge amount of money.

Revie's record wrongly rubbished amid praise for Greenwood

In all the legitimate praise of the great football man Ron Greenwood, there were unfortunately some savage dismissals of his predecessor in the England job, Don Revie.

Revie wasn't perfect, but his ability to recognise and develop outstanding talent was quite as phenomenal as Greenwood's. He bought John Giles, one of the most influential players of his generation, from Manchester United for £35,000 and within a couple of years Sir Alf Ramsey said that one of his greatest regrets was that the little midfielder hadn't been born in England. Billy Bremner was guided to greatness, and Revie also turned Jack Charlton into a World Cup-winning player and unearthed such brilliant talent as Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer, Paul Madeley and Norman Hunter.

In the Give Unto Caesar Department, it is also informative to recall the 10-year league record of Revie's Leeds and Greenwood's West Ham in head-to-head conflict. Leeds won 11, drew six (five of them at Upton Park) and lost three. West Ham failed to win in 10 visits to Elland Road, losing nine.

Overall, Leeds had a goals advantage of 17. Not bad for someone who in one gut-wrenching appraisal was dismissed as "inept".

Azzurri make thrilling promise

One of these days Italian rugby is going to take an ultimate step and bring down a bunch of authentic giants in their charming little stadium beside the Tiber.

At the weekend they again came up just a little short, but the margins are narrowing. England, according to some critics, were again a shadow of themselves - just a week after destroying the reigning Six Nations champions.

I prefer to believe that the rugby Azzurri had a vast amount to do with that. Indeed, in a championship that has already brought immense pleasure and excitement, the Italians have made a thrilling promise.

It is that they will in due time join the French as a delightful element in northern hemisphere rugby. It should leave anyone who loves the game most for its grace and spontaneity with a simple cry on his lips: Forza, Italia!