Punters gamble on McClaren for England job

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The Football Association no longer conducts its business in smoke-filled committee rooms - health and safety legislation has put an end to that - but there was still plenty of intrigue and mystery around yesterday's FA board meeting.

Even before the meeting began, reports in the Tyneside media claimed Steve McClaren was to be Sven Goran Eriksson's successor. This, it was pointed out, to underline the local interest, meant that Martin O'Neill would be free to take over at St James' Park.

The board meeting had barely nodded through the minutes of the previous meeting when a denial was issued from Teesside. Keith Lamb, Middlesbrough's chief executive, proclaimed: "Steve McClaren is our manager and nobody else's."

As Lamb had been in London on Tuesday, on Premiership business, and met David Richards, the Premier League chairman and one of the FA's three kingmakers, he ought to be well informed.

The punters, perhaps aware that not every denial from the Riverside turns out to be true, nevertheless continued to force McClaren's odds down from 7-1 to 5-2, prompting the man himself to declare: "It's pure speculation, and you know me and speculation - we never comment on each other. It's the same as it was two months ago, three months ago."

Still, the day when white smoke will, metaphorically at least, rise above the organisation's Soho Square offices, did move marginally closer with the board receiving confirmation that a shortlist has been approved. However, even those board members not directly involved in the process were not informed as to who is on the list. This, to be blunt, was because collectively, if not individually, they cannot be trusted not to blab.

Even with only three men in the know - the chief executive Brian Barwick, the international committee chairman, Noel White, and Richards - the process has been surrounded by leaks and speculation. It is a measure of the FA's success at keeping the process relatively secret that there has been a lot more of the latter than the former but it is understood the shortlist is not, as has been reported, exclusively confined to men born within the British Isles.

One aspect which has grown in importance in the debate, to the advantage of the foreign possibilities, and to an extent McClaren, is the realisation that the post is among the most scrutinised in football, and that, in itself, requires some consideration. When David Beckham spoke of the England head coach needing experience of "big games", he primarily referred to a tactical appreciation of the sport at that level but he could also have been alluding to the media demands.

Of all the contenders, only Luis Felipe Scolari, when coaching Brazil, has ever operated under a glare as bright as that which has accompanied Eriksson these last five years.

Fabio Capello and Guus Hiddink, both having managed Real Madrid, would also be forewarned to an extent but of the native and Irish candidates, only McClaren, having worked alongside Eriksson, has any real idea of the intensity of the focus.

Alan Curbishley's reaction to the storm which broke around him after his meeting with Barwick had been revealed - which seemed to simultaneously incorporate bemusement, shock, anger, concern and bewilderment - suggests that for him, Sam Allardyce, Stuart Pearce and even O'Neill, the attention could be overwhelming.

After yesterday's meeting, the FA said in a statement: "The FA wishes to clarify that the process of identifying and recruiting the next England manager continues.

"Chief executive Brian Barwick presented an update to the board on behalf of the nominations group mandated to manage the recruitment. The names of potential candidates were not discussed at the meeting.

"The FA can confirm that we remain on target to make an appointment before the World Cup. At this time, no decision has been taken on who the next England manager will be. Due to the magnitude of the England team, this process understandably continues to attract a huge level of interest, which leads to intense media speculation.

"However, out of courtesy to all parties involved in this process, the FA has a responsibility to ensure a level of confidentiality is maintained until we are in a position to make an appointment."

The board was also given an update on the financial implications of the delayed Wembley project. The board heard that the FA remains confident that Multiplex will be held to account for £18m of the cost, and that the banks are open to rescheduling the debt repayment.

Meanwhile, Visa is to sign a £150m-£200m sponsorship deal for the World Cup from 2007 as Fifa's new financial services partner.

MasterCard is the current financial services partner of world football's governing body and has been allied with the World Cup since 1990. Coca-Cola, Hyundai, adidas and Sony have already signed up as official partners with Fifa.

Visa is already an Olympics and Rugby World Cup sponsor and the former deal will run until London 2012.