The Nick Townsend column: Has the England job ever been less attractive?

As fans continue to put their clubs before country, it is no wonder that taking the reins at international level is a thankless task
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The Independent Online

Big Eck, they call Alex McLeish. And no doubt many, upon hearing the Scot is decamping south and turning his broad back on a work in progress as Scotland coach, muttered something akin to flippin' 'eck when he succumbed to Birmingham City's overtures. True, a reported trebling of his 400,000 Scotland salary will have greatly oiled the decision-making mechanism. But that factor, together with the commendation of the job to him by Sir Alex Ferguson and, as he expresses it himself, the "desire to prove yourself outside Scotland... the old chip on the shoulder the Scots have", were enough to ensure he would join the great patriarch of English football and another fellow countryman, David Moyes. It was like a moth to a flame when he was offered a glimpse of the Premier League, even though he will have been aware that wings can easily get burnt.

Scottish coaches are in vogue. McLeish is just one of several of his countrymen of whom much is anticipated and who could eventually travel south, many the products of the SFA's much-lauded coaching establishment in Largs. Jose Mourinho finished his coaching qualifications there. Owen Coyle is a more recent name. Though it is early to judge, it wasn't just Burnley's triumph over Championship leaders Watford at Vicarage Road on Tuesday under their new manager, who came from St Johnstone, that caught the eye but, by all accounts, the manner of the victory.

But to return to the 48-year-old McLeish; he was in demand, and at the summit of his bargaining powers. Indeed, if JamesMcFadden had not spurnedthat late opportunity against Italy and Austria-Switzerland had beckoned, his stock would have been all the higher.

The demeanour of the former Motherwell, Hibernian and Rangers manager contrasted so graphically with that of histhen England counterpart, SteveMcClaren, that a week ago this column, dissecting where England go from here, did consider,mischievously and only fleetingly, that Brian Barwick and Co could do worse than replace one ginger-top with another; a man who had extracted the maximum from a team limited in quality for one who had grosslysquandered an opportunity.

Of course, the notion was immediately discounted as too implausible. Yet the fact McLeish would no more consider such an offer than would Ferguson or Moyes on account of the place of their birth should not blind us to the fact that he simply would not succumb to such overtures anyway. The Premier League possesses a remarkable allure and, for all the criticism it rec-eives, produces a roar of defiance, whereas the three lions of England utter a whimper. That's why it is the "impossible job".

You sense that Brian Barwick and his FA headhunters will require the equivalent of a poison dart to trap their ideal candidate. That, or such a goody bag of contractual enticements that the temptation proves simply too great to resist for a man driven by his ego. Speaking of whom, one suspects Mourinho would love to be asked, and we would hear no end of it, either. Whether, when you consider just what would arrive with him on the baggage carousel, it would be right for England or for him is another matter entirely.

But what will the new man discover on his arrival? Tourists heading for the State of Nevada desire the enticing lights of Las Vegas, not the desert surrounding it. English international football is a bit like that at present. In a football world that is money-orientated, dominated by foreign players and obsessed with the Premier League and Champions' League, the national team is not only of secondary importance to many football followers, but can be regarded as almost an intrusion. Those infernal breaks sorry, make that international breaks for qualification games are not regarded joyously, but carry the blame for disrupting the Premier League season. And isn't that where true commitment lies? With the clubs? And particularly among those who follow the elite?

Once England internationals were revered and applauded by opposition supporters in club matches. Today they are likely to be the object of derision.

What it all adds up to is this: can the England job ever have been less attractive than it is at the moment? And not merely because of the waning of England's influence in world football. It is pertinent to ask whether people other than the kind of committed souls who travel to Austria on a Friday for a friendly give a damn unless the nation is about to wander into the opiate-like haze of a flag-toting, car-decorating tournament summer. There is always an absence of continuity where the nationalteam is concerned, and that will be all the greater this time around. Without a competitive match until September, England, as opposed to English football, will become even more obscure in the national psyche.

But at least the new man will have one advantage over his predecessors. He will discover a nation not so much manically depressed as hyper-realistic.

A poll this week reveals that just four per cent of the public believe England can triumph in South Africa in 2010. That is no bad thing. Many people's disappointment following the events at Wembley 11 days ago will be mollified by the fact that this hiatus will enable English football to adjust to its rightful place in the order of things.

In the meantime, some humility, and realism, would not go amiss among our leadingplayers and, yes, we do specifically refer to you, Michael ("I don't think any of the Croatian team would get into ours") Owen, and our administrators, who should be asking themselves how the old enemy continues to operate such a conveyor-belt of managerial excellence.

Odds job men

21 Nov: After England lost to Croatia, the odds on the next national manager were: 5-2 Martin O'Neill; 3-1 Jose Mourinho; 4-1 Luiz Felipe Scolari; 5-1 Guus Hiddink; 10-1 Fabio Capello; 12-1 Terry Venables.

22 Nov: After Steve McClaren was sacked, the odds were: 2-1 O'Neill; 3-1 Mourinho; 5-1 Capello; 8-1 Scolari; 9-1 Hiddink, 12-1 Alan Shearer.

23 Nov: After O'Neill said he was "not keen": 2-1 Capello; 4-1 Mourinho; 8-1 Harry Redknapp; 10-1 Scolari, O'Neill, Rafa Benitez.

28 nov: After claims Mourinho was "interested": 7-4 Mourinho; 9-4 Capello; 9-2 Redknapp; 6-1 O'Neill; 14-1 Scolari; 16-1 Steve Coppell.

30 Nov: After Redknapp's arrest: 6-4 Mourinho; 9-4 Capello; 6-1 O'Neill; 10-1 Redknapp; 14-1 Scolari; 16-1 Coppell. And you can bet there's more to come. (Odds from Ladbrokes).

Ohuruogu leaves in her wake yet another shadow over athletics

The British Olympic Association, as expected, displayed the quality of mercy that would ensure that Christine Ohuruogu is able to contribute to Britain's medal tally in Beijing.

There is precedent, and it was inevitable. She was guilty only of absent-mindedness, albeit three times over, and the UK Athletics chairman, Ed Warner,dismissed her missed tests as merely the failing of "just a busy, forgetful athlete", even though it is, of course, an absurd excuse especially when your whole career depends on adherence to a relatively straightforward set of rules and your sport can only suffer in the fallout from your failure to abide by them.

Oversights can happen, of course. Reportedly, more than 70 British competitors missed one or more tests last year. But Ohuruogu's irrespons-ibility has done nothing but besmirch her sport's already damaged reputation.

The decision will be deemed common sense, as there is no evidence of the 400m world champion having taken drugs; though a little more contrition and a little less of an attitude that she has been the victim in all this would have helped persuade many. She should also be aware that scepticism is not just the preserve of those of us in the media who will continue to believe that anything she wins in the Olympics will be tainted.

But this is about more than just her. Dick Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said at the time of Ohuruogu's suspension that it was the responsibility of every athlete to adhere to the system, because it is a "very important part of making the sport fair not only for you, but for everyone else".

The system was rightly introduced to stop "forgetfulness" being used as a shield of experience. They may as well scrap it. While a sport which desperately needs to be seen to be taking a hard line on drug-taking celebrated a kind of victory last week, and Great Britain's gold potential is enhanced, many will believe Ohuruogu's arrival at the start line in Beijing next year also represents a retrograde step.

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