James Lawton: Irishman has strength of mind to master impossible job

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The Independent Football

So now, in its time of ultimate need, English football is apparently turning towards a tough and prickly Irishman. This may provoke much howling by the pack of Little Englanders, but they should remember what happened a couple of decades ago when the process was reversed and the Republic of Ireland successfully wooed big Jack Charlton.

Charlton took his adopted nation into the heady terrain of World Cup and European Championship football for the first time. Martin O'Neill, if he has a mind for it after last year's fruitless, and deeply frustrating, collision with the Football Association, can both repay the favour and shatter a myth.

If he is persuaded by England – and there must be some doubt about this – he could, you have to suspect, make matchwood of the theory that coaching England is the impossible job. It only seems that way and this is for the most basic of reasons. With a few honourable exceptions, notably Sir Alf Ramsey, Sir Bobby Robson – for some of the time at least – and Terry Venables, the wrong men have been doing it.

While sacking the latest beneficiary of its unrivalled redundancy after-care service, the unfortunate and unsuitable Steve McClaren, the FA announced that it was about to launch a "root and branch" examination of the running of the England team.

Root and branch? They would be better lopping off the top of the tree, that part of the operation that produced the grotesque pantomime of McClaren's appointment, but in the meantime the hiring of someone with the force of O'Neill represents a more than adequate response to the horror of England's elimination from the European Championship, and the company of competent football nations.

O'Neill, just as McClaren's predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson, despite his superior record in club football, would come without guarantee. But if he failed, it would not be for the reasons that brought the demise of Eriksson and McClaren.

It wouldn't be because he had a tendency to blow in the wind like the greenest sapling. He wouldn't set up a celebrity club. He wouldn't leap from his table in the middle of dinner when summoned by David Beckham (Eriksson). He wouldn't fly to Los Angeles to check out the fitness of someone marooned, at near walking pace, in minor league American football (McClaren). He wouldn't drive away what should have been the heart and insight of England's midfield in Paul Scholes (Eriksson.) He would not have sickened off a defender of the quality of Jamie Carragher, someone who might have observed some basic rules of defence as the Croats waltzed to victory on Wednesday night (McClaren).

No, O'Neill would give to England what Big Jack gave to Ireland. He would give genuine, if sometimes cranky and eccentric, leadership. He would not attempt to cover his back with the high-profile appointment of a No 2 such as Terry Venables. He would get on with the job according to his own lights. He would recognise that, with the limited time available to a national team manager, he had to have a pattern.

In Charlton's case it was not one that was always compatible with the Irish tendency for clever football, which was something that at times made a victim of the marvellously gifted Liam Brady. But did the Irish complain when they saw their team heading off for the big tournaments? No, indeed.

Instead the people turned largely on Charlton's most eloquent critic, Eamon Dunphy.

O'Neill is not noted for the idealism of his football, but above all he is a pragmatist; it would be his team playing to his pattern, and of one thing we can be certain: Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard would not be allowed to operate like separate planets, following their own particular orbits. There would be no countdown to Beckham's century of caps. If Beckham had a place, a value, in his calculations, he would play. Or not. No national debate, not as far as O'Neill was concerned, but a practical decision.

Of course, there are other candidates. Jose Mourinho is a people's favourite and, heaven knows, his credentials carry him high. Apart from any other claims, he plainly brought the best out of John Terry, Lampard and Joe Cole, but then it would be the Mourinho show, a ferocious performance that might not work so well with the shifting population of a national team rather than players who, in terms of personal advancement in the bread and caviar world of club football, depended utterly on his patronage.

Guus Hiddink remains an option for anyone who wants a sense of team and progress, even though he had his shaky moments before deliverance came to him and his erratic, but undoubtedly developing Russia, so narrowly in Andorra.

O'Neill, Mourinho and Hiddink are linked by their bodies of work and the fact that they are not English. Between them, they make a nonsense of the belief that the job should be handed to a native son.

The argument that we have tried foreign and should not go back is weak. Eriksson had credentials that outstripped every English contender except perhaps Venables when he was appointed in 2001, and if his performance at the serious end of major tournaments was a grave disappointment to those of us who welcomed his appointment after the lungings of Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan, he displayed enough basic competence to ensure relatively stress-free qualification.

Where Eriksson was weak is where O'Neill's supporters believe he would be strongest. The Swede was passive at the most critical moments, three times failing to resist the bluster and optimism of Luiz Felipe Scolari in quarter-finals. O'Neill doesn't understand passivity. He is hyperactive, fiercely committed and with much of the self-perpetuating belief he learnt at the shoulder of his most important mentor, Brian Clough.

Such an obsessive nature is surely one vital element in a successful handling of the job. In the service of England it would represent an unchanging factor, as the style of Ramsey and Venables did in periods of clear team development for England, when the likes of Gerrard and Lampard and Rio Ferdinand reported for duty. There would be no hierarchy within the team, no separate development.

It would be O'Neill's way, hard and declarative – and certainly unforgiving of the collapse of football values displayed at Wembley on Wednesday night.

One word in football last night was that O'Neill, having mused on one bruising experience with the FA, is reluctant to expose himself to another. The hope must be that he might just wake up with an old yearning for one of football's greatest challenges. If it happened we might just see, for the first time in 41 years, how the impossible job might just be attacked, if not licked.

Names in the England frame

* MARTIN O'NEILL: The 55-year-old Ulsterman is thought to have been the favoured candidate of the FA chief executive Brian Barwick last time. Has decent European experience at club level with Celtic. Dour tactically?

Odds: 7-2 fav

* JOSE MOURINHO: The maverick Portuguese coach and former Chelsea manager, 44, has a track record of motivating players, a key asset in this job, and knows the English game well. Reassuringly expensive. The housewives' choice?

Odds: 4-1

* FABIO CAPELLO: The Italian serial winner, 61, has a CV including seven Serie A titles (five of them legal), La Liga successes and a Champions League win. Has thrown his hat in the ring. Real Madrid days taught him how to leave Beckham on the bench.

Odds: 5-1

* MARCELLO LIPPI: Another Italian, 59, with a top-class record, has won five Serie A titles, the Champions League, and the World Cup with Italy last year. Unemployed but reportedly turned down Juventus and – ahem – Birmingham recently.

Odds: 20-1

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