The Nick Townsend Column: Big Phil leaves a big hole - but it could be a blessing in disguise for England

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The Independent Football

Early Thursday, and purely by coincidence, this observer was en route to Liverpool's Melwood training ground to meet Steven Gerrard. With the name of Scolari then being variously revered for its association with World Cup glory but also ridiculed for its connection to some dubious political views, Radio Five Live was pumping out every opinion imaginable; some from Scolarists, others from Luiz Felipe-phobes and many in between.

One listener's email suggested that the England players should be consulted on the Football Association's preferred choice. Perish the thought, most of us would submit. The image of a changing-room convention, chaired by David Beckham and Gary Neville, came to mind and it was not an attractive one. Anyway, I proffered one back page, bearing the headline It's yours, Phil, to the Liverpool captain. Having diplomatically commended Scolari as "a great manager" with a "really impressive CV", the England midfielder declared: "The most important thing for the players is that we get the right man, the best coach, who can continue to take the team to the next level; someone who can improve you individually, someone who you can learn things from. But we're not really interested in names; we want the best man for the job."

Despite displaying less of the Wisdom of Solomon and more of that of Norman, the FA looked, for 24 hours, as though they had succeeded in falling over the best man available for the job... only for the rejoicing to turn to scorn for the English game's govering body when the nation discovered it was collectively clad in a top bearing the slogan: My friend Brian went to Lisbon, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.

Whether it was money, the lack of, which deterred Scolari; whether it was the fact that the Brazilian never had any intention of dancing an intimate slow number with the FA and instead indulged in a quick, flirtatious salsa, employing the FA's interest as a bargaining tool to enhance the terms of a contract extension with Portugal; whether it really was the death threats to his family, or the seemingly risible excuse of media intrusion; or whether we have not yet heard the last of Scolari in an England context. All will emerge in time.

In time, one presumes, one of the forgotten men of British football will receive the appointment by default. Which would be a case of "Come in number three!" If, as the bookmakers' prices suggest, McClaren is that man, he would be FA chief executive Brian Barwick's third preference, after his reported first choice, Martin O'Neill, and Scolari. Not much of an endorsement for a manager who has at least been prudent enough to expose his extra-marital trouser-dropping before his installation. Yesterday, there was rare respite from the red-top obsession with John Prescott's dangerous liaison. From Prezza to Macca, the focus had switched, with the headline "My Secret Affair" referring to McClaren's admission that last year he had an affair with a secretary during a "trial separation" from his wife.

But could the FA return to a character for whom there is so much antipathy from the public, let alone the media? And that before he is even in place. Sam Allardyce may become the compromise choice after all, unless the FA can be persuaded that Martin O'Neill is the only authentic answer.

So, unless David Dein has another foreign luminary up that capacious sleeve of his, England will begin their preparations for the 2008 European Championships qualifying campaign under a British coach. Or will they? The bad odour Barwick and his band of headhunters find themselves dogged by is one that could be further complicated should Sven Goran Eriksson's men take that giant leap and emulate their forbears of '66, particularly now with the pressure off the Swede. There have been more curious occurences in world football. In those circumstances, could there conceivably be calls for the Swede's retention after all?

Such a happening would be condemned no doubt by The Society for the Promotion of Undervalued English Managers. Howard Wilkinson, in reality the chairman of the League Managers' Association, has the game's best interests at heart, but you suspect his thinking is corrupted by self-protectionism on behalf of his members. It's a kind of football Nimby-ism. There is constant talk about having something to learn from foreign coaches, and they have certainly flourished in this country at club level but employ one as England's leadership symbol? Not in my backyard, thanks.

The whole episode is beyond parody; worse, for the FA, it has legs, and longer ones than Peter Crouch. It suggests the hierarchy at Soho Square have learned little from past miscalculations. And much of what occured on frantic Friday could have been foreseen.

There was always going to be trouble ahead, not least over the Brazilian's reported demands of £5m a year - the FA having established a profligate precedent with Eriksson - and duration of tenure. And not insignificantly either, there were already hints of the mischief-making to ensue if Scolari's success failed to match his reputation. The Sun, which can be counted upon to leave no idiosyncracies unturned when presented with a new England coach, had pronounced: "If you thought Glenn Hoddle was a little off the wall, wait until you hear about Big Phil."

Perhaps England were better off without him after all. He must be strange. Apparently, he prefers to sleep with his wife...

Gerrard touched by Henry's unprompted salute

Even as he bathed in the exhilaration of the moment on Tuesday night, Thierry Henry remained a class act. The Frenchman had just captained his team to a Champions' League final; yet, without prompting, he still found the grace to offer his congratulations to Steven Gerrard for securing the PFA Player of the Year award, claiming that his contribution to Liverpool's Champions' League triumph a year ago "has been an inspiration for us".

Gerrard, who had been watching the game at home, was equally moved. "I've got some friends at Arsenal, but I knew their phones wouldn't be on, so I got in touch with the physio, Gary Lewin [who is also one of the England backroom staff]," the Liverpool captain told me. "They were all in the showers, singing and dancing. He put me on to Thierry, and I just said, 'Thank you. Those words were really touching. You didn't have to say what you said. But congratulations. I hope you follow in our footsteps and go and win it now'." He added: "We obviously know Thierry the player, who is in my eyes the best in the world. But for someone to come out and compliment a fellow professional, and say that at that time, after just qualifying for the final, just goes to show that he's a great man as well as a great player."

So, any advice, from one captain to another? "All I'd say to him is: 'Don't come back with any regrets - and go and get that trophy'."

Henry, rightly in this observer's opinion, later received the equivalent award of the football writers for an unprecedented third time. Ironically, it was announced after an Arsenal performance in Spain which was more about pragmatism than footballing perfection.

Their respective honours say as much for the esteem in which Henry and Gerrard are both held as characters who exemplify the positive aspects of the game as for their prowess on the pitch.

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