James Lawton: O'Neill finds himself on the sidelines for not telling the FA what it wanted to hear

Allardyce turned up for an FA interview with a laptop filled with coaching plans
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Surely all mockery has been spent in analysing the Football Association's ultimately cack-handed pursuit of a successor to Sven Goran Eriksson. Monty Python, Basil Fawlty, Mr Bean can be invoked only so many times. Even so, yesterday morning's odds, which had Steve McClaren installed as the 1-4 favourite, did provoke one last question.

It was simply this: why has Martin O'Neill, widely seen as one of the major managers in British football, indeed a potential successor to Sir Alex Ferguson before his enforced leave of absence because of the serious illness of his wife, slipped so far down in the running he is now 8-1 - four points longer than the eternal self-publicist and guru of the long throw Big Sam Allardyce? This, you may have guessed, is a rhetorical question - as lawyers say, never ask one publicly if you don't know the answer.

We are told that O'Neill interviewed poorly. That's one way of putting it but it depends entirely on your point of view. Those in touch with the realities of the game in which O'Neill has distinguished himself at every level this side of managing an international team would certainly express it differently. They would say that O'Neill simply didn't tell some of the committee men what they wanted to hear. He didn't go along with the moonshine that the coach of England also has to be the overseer of some bureaucratic coaching system, some mythical pyramid that had delivered World Cup success to France in 1998 and in the European Championships of 2000 but did nothing to guard them against complete disaster in 2002 and 2004.

Allardyce, of course, is a big coaching man. He has had the impertinence to say that Eddie Gray and Sir Trevor Brooking, whose backgrounds in the game and whose company they kept in careers of great distinction make that of Allardyce seem so like so much scuffling on the wrong side of the football tracks, were underqualified as managers or advisers to the Football Association. Allardyce showed up for one of his interviews with the FA armed with a laptop which was filled with coaching plans - a big contrast to the approach of O'Neill, no doubt, but let us briefly examine the difference for what it's worth.

Coaching certificates tell you that the holder knows how to organise a group of players in work sessions. It is not anything that warrants sneers. As a national serviceman Malcolm Allison, one of the most original of post-war English coaches and a spectacular winner, watched a Russian army team training in the Viennese woods with eyes that were opened wide with the force of revelation. He compared what the Russians were doing with the tedious formalities of a training sessions back home at Charlton Athletic. But Big Mal, unlike Big Sam, never made a coaching certificate the proof of a football man's worth. It was a job aid, not a badge of football brilliance.

O'Neill's position, apparently, was that if he took the England job it would be as a manager not the head of some elaborate system, one no doubt bestowing jobs for the boys who had the right certificates and the right accompanying patter.

O'Neill wanted to do the one job that marks down great football men. He wanted to do with England what Busby did with Manchester United, Stein with Celtic, Shankly with Liverpool, Ramsey with England - all without a set of coaching badges. He wanted to put into force all he had learned in a long and successful career as a player and a manager, someone who had known the force of one of the greatest, and mysterious, of all football men, Brian Clough.

O'Neill didn't play any games when he made his case to lead England. He certainly stood aghast at the point of questions about how he might handle a celebrity figure like David Beckham - the answer to that could scarcely have made more fundamental, he would be treated like any other player, someone as good as his last performance.

There is no apology here for a stated preference for a Guus Hiddink or a Luiz Felipe Scolari, coaches who had the opportunity to operate as international coaches and did so with conspicuous success and with an obvious ability to walk through any amount of chauvinistic drivel.

However, O'Neill's chances, you imagined, could never be easily discounted. Here, no doubt, was a football man of substance and force bright enough to play a game dictated by his available resources.

Yet he languishes, hopelessly, behind McClaren, a man locked into the failures of Eriksson at times of maximum pressure and who, it has been alleged by his senior, former England player Gareth Southgate, had reached an untenable position at Middlesbrough some months ago. McClaren is said to have scored some brownie points at the FA for his cool handling of unremarkable tabloid stories about his private life, accounts that in a reasonably adult society would not have been deemed worthy of the newsprint and whose successful countering say little or nothing about a man's potential to motivate the England team. O'Neill also trails Allardyce, who not so long ago embraced his player El Hadji Diouf for outrageously conning a referee and winning a penalty kick, and then said that he would react differently only when rival coaches did so.

Did we say that this whole business has gone beyond mockery? No doubt it has, but more seriously, also beyond reason.

Spectre of the past still stalks Rooney's World Cup participation

Like it or not, and latch on to the most optimistic medical bulletin out there if you must, we still have to face up to a wretched reality. It is the one that Wayne Rooney reacted to with almost unbearable emotion in the Stamford Bridge dressing-room last Saturday... that the heart has been torn out of England's World Cup challenge.

This doesn't mean that Sven Goran Eriksson isn't right to keep open a place for the prodigy. The possibility that he might come on, possibly as a substitute if England should survive to the later stages of the tournament, is certainly worth preserving. Even a Rooney well short of optimum match fitness has the potential to change the course of a tight game.

However, the spectre of England's experiences with David Beckham and Michael Owen in Japan four years ago could scarcely be more discouraging to the idea that Rooney can hope for more than a walk-on part. Both were palpably unfit, both occupied places of huge responsibility they could not possibly fill.

Owen scored against Brazil, but demonstrably had no chance of finishing the game. Beckham scored a penalty against Argentina but otherwise had scant influence; an undying image, unfortunately, is of him jumping out of a tackle and over the ball moments before the Brazilians equalised Owen's goal. In his defence it was pointed out that he would have been foolhardy to risk his vulnerable foot. Precisely.

On the subject of vulnerable feet, Nike's spokesman was understandably defensive after its client, Rooney, had joined the long list of broken foot casualties. He said, "Boot design is about striking a balance between protection and mobility. It is not possible to protect players from all injury - there would be no mobility." It makes you wonder how they pulled it off in the old days. Stanley Matthews used to have a contract with the old "Co-op" boot manufacturers. They had limited budgets and profits and research, but plainly they did something right. Sir Stanley went more than 30 years without a question mark against his mobility - and with flying metatarsals.

Curbishley's weary face tells story

Could some of the weariness on Alan Curbishley's face when he resigned with conspicuous honour from the managership of Charlton Athletic at the weekend have had something to do with his being drawn into the circus of the Eriksson succession?

Probably, but he also touched on another prime cause of a manager's fatigue. It is that for most football men, and certainly those who lack the backing of an oligarch, the job is about survival. It is endlessly working towards that point when you get the bullet, which almost invariably comes soon after the fans have turned against you, out of boredom or unrealistic ambition or just sheer ignorance of the ultimate futility of the job.

Curbishley's success has been one of durability and guts and know-how. This did not perhaps make him an overwhelmingly strong candidate for the England job, but it proved what can be done with fierce application and a lot of common sense. He deserves his rest - and the chance to return to the game he has so enriched in south-east London whenever he chooses to pick up the phone.

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