When Sven Goran Eriksson became the England manager five years ago he said he knew all about the job. He had even read books about it. He knew how many men it had humiliated and tossed aside, and, yes, he conceded, maybe it was true it was the impossible challenge - too much pressure, too much misguided expectation, too many knives glinting in the shadows.
If you wanted to defend Eriksson and the pitiful hiatus he now occupies in the approach to the World Cup, which some once thought might be the high point of a successful and hugely enriching career, you might say that his greatest crime has been merely to act on the lessons of history he had apparently learnt so well.
You might say he knew how the story had always ended and was determined to fashion a new twist ... one in which victim turns winner, not in any measurement of glory but in the cold security of untouchable wealth.
You might say all that and still be utterly wrong because those who believed in Eriksson - who thought him a man of the world unlikely to plunge into the traps that Graham Taylor, Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan made for themselves, and even the distinguished football man Sir Bobby Robson only narrowly avoided - must also count themselves in the list of those betrayed.
The fact is that the task of managing England is not beyond the resource of a talented, knowledgeable and passionate football man. Sir Alf Ramsey proved this 40-odd years ago when he introduced new dimensions to the job, sent the committee men packing and reached down for the best in English football.
That is the challenge now and the Football Association, so craven in the face of Eriksson's deceits and self-interest, will be indicted all over again in the court of public opinion if it dares to make another quick, reflex and slipshod appointment.
There is only one virtue in the FA's tawdry compromise in sending England into a World Cup under the command of a man for whom it has lost respect and any significant faith: it is that it has a little time to get the choice of his successor right.
And how does it do that? For a start, it seeks professional advice. It talks to men such as Sir Geoff Hurst and Sir Bobby Charlton, men of the calibre of the late Bobby Moore who, unlike his great adversary Franz Beckenbauer, was never invited into the inner councils of his nation's football.
Moore scuffled for a living, analysing the game in which he was a master for a local radio station. Beckenbauer gave the German football authorities the benefit of his knowledge as a man who knew what went into winning a World Cup. Run a slide rule down the relative success of the two nations on football's greatest stage and you cannot escape the conclusion that Germany embraced the best of their tradition while England threw their own to the wind.
Some will say now that such quality of leadership has to be found within the borders of England. They say this because of the Eriksson experience. It is another illiteracy. Otto Rehhagel, a maverick German coach, made little-fancied Greece champions of Europe two years ago while great powers such as France, the Netherlands, Italy and, not least, England performed mostly with miserable indifference. Did the Greek players respond any less to Rehhagel's passion and knowledge because he was a foreigner? The record says not.
The FA must now pursue the best man whatever his mother tongue. That must take them into talks with the 59-year-old Dutchman Guus Hiddink. He may languish behind Sam Allardyce, a man of no international experience as either a player or a manager but who has, unlovely though it has often been, put together a successful body of work with Bolton Wanderers.
Yet Hiddink's odds are already being trimmed after some substantial bets that he will emerge as the man, and there are excellent reasons for this.
Like Eriksson, Hiddink is a football man of fortune, a mercenary who has plied his trade in his native land, Spain, South Korea and is currently mixing duties as coach of PSV Eindhoven and Australia, a junior soccer nation agog with the prospect that he may do for them in the World Cup finals in Germany this summer what he did for South Korea four years ago.
Who could forget Hiddink's South Korea fighting their way to the World Cup semi-finals, where they were denied only by the formidable Michael Ballack? Or running at the Italians so hard the Azzuri wilted before your eyes. They were said to be lucky against Spain, some even suggesting they benefited from refereeing bias, but the reality was that another gifted team were run to the limits of their ability.
What you also saw in South Korea was the hand of a real football man, an organiser who knew how to implant, along with wonderful enthusiasm, a hard tactical coherence and a sure grasp of such fundamentals as clean passing and a constant willingness to get into space to receive the ball. No one could imagine Hiddink, who won the European Cup for PSV in 1988, countenancing the indulgences granted to David Beckham by Eriksson, who played his captain both in that 2002 World Cup and the 2004 European Championship while he was plainly less than fully fit. There would be no place for marginal fitness in a Hiddink team, nor the aching problem of the failure of Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard, two of the game's most powerful midfielders, to work together on a systematic, game-winning basis.
The only baggage Hiddink would bring to the England job is one containing the weight of achievement, of career-long dedication to the art of improving and exploiting the talent of the players in his charge.
Hiddink was fortunate with South Korea in that he was able to assemble the squad for a month before the opening of the World Cup. He is a man who hoards every second he can get with his players. It is unthinkable that he would squander all the opportunities Eriksson had to forge an understanding for when the big challenges came in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and European Championship. Hiddink would not willingly cower before the weight of big club managers while sending their players out for derisory little excursions in the shirt of their nation. How would 11 South Koreans have fared against 10 Brazilians? We will never know, but we can guess that there would have been no sense of opportunity simply draining away.
Of course, Hiddink isn't the only contender, but he is the one of compelling merit who outstrips other possible runners in the depth of his appeal and breadth of his candidacy. Who do we put up against him? Big Sam? His challenge is that of a media-friendly star of narrow achievement. It comes from a different and lesser league. Steve McClaren? Do his accomplishments begin to match up to his ambition, and how easily can he be detached from the weaknesses of Eriksson's regime? Alan Curbishley? A good football man, and no doubt a darling of the Little England brigade, but does his portfolio run beyond a brilliant survival touch in the wealthy but technical limitations of what passes for most of the Premiership? Stuart Pearce? At some point, a certain contender, but, as he says himself, he still has some formative work to do as a manager. Martin O'Neill? A formidable motivator, a passionate football man, but again someone still lacking the range of the Dutchman.
Hiddink has rich experience of every level of football, club and international. He has done the work, racked up the achievement and that has to be the starting point of the FA's quest.
Hiddink has workable English, but that isn't really the point. More importantly, he has proved he knows every nuance of the language of football.
The English game, at this perilous time, can no longer deny itself such discourse.Reuse content