The Nick Townsend Column: Given this list, there is only one choice and the FA should get on and make it

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The Independent Football

The location: a 16th-century Oxfordshire manor house, owned by the newspaper magnate Sir Victor Blank. The time: Monday and Tuesday last week. The scene: reportedly, four men ferried in by a fleet of Mercedes MPVs, overseen by security guards in shades. The arrivals could have been B-list celebrities. In a sense, of course, they were, as the FA's attempt at secrecy was undone by one newspaper.

The FA, despite Adam Crozier's makeover - removal to Soho Square and the symbolic removal of ties by male staff - still likes to keep us entertained. In the week that the Faria Alam affair flared briefly into life again, with the official Employment Tribunal report into the former FA secretary's failed claim of sexual harassment stating that Eriksson had "misled" the FA, football's governing body duly lived down to their worst traditions.

Yet, though many have ridiculed the FA's ineptitude, nobody appears to have questioned the purpose and relevance of a risible exercise which appears to have been carried out more to convince us of its rigour, and the sense of collective respons- ibility among the organisation's élite, than to complete a straightforward task.

After all, just how difficult is it to appoint a successor to the Swede? And why does it require five arbiters - Sir Trevor Brooking, director of football development; David Dein, ABA (Anyone But Arsène) and FA board member; Noel White, FA international committee chairman; Dave Richards, FA board member and Premier League chairman; and Brian Barwick, FA chief executive - to do so?

What has been the form of these so-called "interviews"? Something like this? "Ah, good, come in Mr McClaren. Coffee? You've brought your CV with you? Excellent. Now tell us something about yourself, and why you think you may be suitable to fill our vacancy..."

Except this is not a quest for the new sales manager of a local confectionery company. It is to identify the next England manager, a vacancy which would attract a relatively limited candidature, all brandishing CVs which could scarcely be more public. Character, ambition, tactical prowess, honours, league tables... we could hardly know any more about all those apparently shortlisted.

Under the circumstances, it has been an excruciatingly protracted business, and unnecessarily humiliating for all those involved. No wonder Guus Hiddink has declared his faith in Russia, and Alan Curbishley has opined: "I think we are all getting a bit weary of it."

Now, for all we know this a highly complex affair, with some heavy discussion about England's left-midfield dilemma, and how to integrate both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. You somehow doubt it.

Whatever the procedure, what should concern us just as much is the apparent outcome of the deliberations thus far. At the conclusion of a week in which we have been expected to be exercised by the revelation that wealthy footballers bet, and, heaven forbid, sometimes in large amounts, the most curious headline accompanied a photograph of a beaming McClaren. It read: "He's odds-on". So, most bizarrely of all the week's events, if weight of money is to believed we appear to be confronted with the prospect of Eriksson's first lieutenant at the helm in a few months' time.

Unless the best men for the position, Wenger, Ferguson or Mourinho, could have been persuaded to come on board - and that would always be mighty wishful thinking - it was inevitable that the contenders would be headed by Martin O'Neill, an Ulsterman, who curiously appears to have been adopted as an Englishman even by those who would normally decry the installation of a "foreign" coach, followed by a list of Premiership managers who may or may not possess potential to flourish in the rarified atmosphere of international football, and the Brazilian "Big Phil" Scolari, who, of course, already has. If the latter is discarded, which appears likely, despite his boasting a nationality which is the sexiest in the game, there should hardly be a discussion.

Though there may be some question of O'Neill's temperament under pressure, he stands alone as a charismatic, cerebral character who has achieved distinction both as player and manager, and who would relish the role of England's Mr Motivator. His perception as Brian Clough's "footballing son on earth" also endears him to many.

Crucially, he is a winner. McClaren, despite the largesse of his chairman, Steve Gibson, cannot claim that distinction. Middlesbrough have finished seventh, 11th, 11th and 12th under him. This season, they have won 11 of 32 Premiership fixtures. True, Boro have progressed to the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and Uefa Cup, but that would be convincing only to the myopic and those who would prefer to ignore the fact that he is damned by association with Eriksson himself.

And that takes us right back to the reason why the FA were holed up in the shires this week. It all started with the News of the World's "fake sheikh". Surely it is not about to end with a new England coach who many would contend is no great shakes?

They like a franchise, we like a flutter. So what?

Newspaper "shocks" are rarely that, but we are in danger of being overcritical on the subject on football's "habit" - the one where instead of employing a £20 note to snort cocaine, players place a bundle of them on the turn of a card or the prowess of a racehorse.

The world and his counsellor is apparently aghast at the admission that some footballers like to gamble, following reports that Wayne Rooney owes £700,000 to a business partner of Michael Owen. The implication is that it would affect their rapport during England matches. Scarcely likely,one would have thought.

I make no apologies for repeating Steve Claridge's words in an interview which appears on pages 68-69. "Certainly from what I've seen, gambling is not as prevalent in football as people are trying to make out," says a man who was a gambling addict, something that Rooney apparently is not. "I've been in the game 22 years, and I can count on one hand how many people who've had a real problem with betting."

What concerns people is the belief that Rooney has been afflicted by the betting bug because he isn't, well, too bright. But as Claridge says: "It's nothing to do with intelligence. It's a misconception. It's right across the spectrum of society. I don't think he's as silly as people make out, anyway. He's a lot brighter than people give him credit for."

Frankly, the whole issue is about as revelatory as the admission that journalists enjoy a drink or, for that matter, that Malcolm Glazer regards Manchester United as a "wonderful franchise". BBC Radio Five Live's Jonathan Legard did a fine job in extracting even 50 seconds from the Howard Hughes of sport, together with his excellent report last week on the Glazer family's takeover. But as for franchises - that's how American businessmen talk; just as playing cards for money and backing horses are what some English footballers do.

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