James Lawton: There is only one imperative: to find the best man for the job

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The Independent Online

So the FA smoke signals say the new coach of England will not be foreign but British, rather than English. This would suggest Martin O'Neill, a formidable operator, as he proved at Leicester City and Celtic, but let's hope that he will not be borne into office on some dubious logic that if he is not English, he is also not some dodgy European or South American.

Please, let's get something perfectly straight. The debate about nationality is an irrelevance, a chauvinistic stutter of reaction to the way the appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson turned out.

There is only one imperative now, as there was in the wake of Kevin Keegan's departure five years ago.

It is to get the best man. O'Neill has excellent football credentials as a club manager. As a player he was exposed to the unconventional brilliance of Brian Clough. He has been around success most of his career and, if he is appointed, will no doubt bring some excellent qualities to the job, passion not the least of them.

But it won't be English passion. It will be Irish passion and that's perfectly fine passion, but it is certainly not the kind that the loudest supporters of the likes of Sam Allardyce and Alan Curbishley have been advocating. That school of thought says that only an English coach can truly inspire English players. Why? Because only an English football man can truly understand his players, draw the best out of them, be united by the flag and shared experience.

Some said that the great drawback of Eriksson was that he couldn't relate to English yearnings to win the World Cup and the European Championship when the pressure was at its greatest. He couldn't invoke the spirit of Dunkirk or Agincourt. But of course that wasn't the problem at all. He didn't have to play John Bull, just show a modicum of loyalty and make the right substitutions rather than sitting like the victim of a car crash when Luiz Felipe Scolari drove on Brazil and then Portugal.

A good football man is a good football man whatever language he speaks and to find one was the obligation of the FA when it formed its headhunting panel of Dave Richards and Noel White and chief executive Brian Barwick.

If O'Neill is appointed, it will be nice if it is explained why his candidacy was considered the strongest. In the mean time we will probably just have to brace ourselves against some mumbo-jumbo about how O'Neill will be better able to understand the psychology of the English footballer.

Whatever we think of some of the graceless posturing of Jose Mourinho, perhaps we should consider for a moment his impact on three vitally important players in England's pursuit of the World Cup in Germany this summer - Frank Lampard, John Terry and Joe Cole. All three have improved vastly under the promptings of their Portuguese coach. Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard have not exactly languished in the regime of the Spaniard Rafa Benitez. Arsène Wenger got the ultimate contemporary English defender, Tony Adams, to play so well out of his lines that the old sneer of "donkey" died on a million lips.

It is certainly something to consider as the FA moves towards the appointment of a man who is neither English nor foreign but when all relevant credentials are fed into the mix there is one outstanding candidate. It is the Dutchman Guus Hiddink. He is deeply experienced in both club and international football. He has won the European Cup with PSV Eindhoven, a team he serves currently with great distinction as he prepares Australia for World Cup action. His South Korean team were one of the great stories of the last World Cup. They played with passion and a sure tactical sense. They ran endlessly and exhibited all the qualities of a real team.

Hiddink's track record soars beyond the details of his passport. This doesn't mean that O'Neill would represent a bad appointment. He too has impressive credentials, but they are not in the same league as Hiddink's. This leaves us with the worry that, in the minds of the FA, O'Neill's qualifications have been enhanced by an accident of geography. That would be wrong, and pitifully so.

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