The Nick Townsend column: How can we reach the top with our head in clouds?

The level of incompetence in the FA's hierarchy makes it hard to believe they can pick the right man – or that he will want the job
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Steve McClaren has departed us as he arrived 18 games ago. Except now he is found guilty of identity fraud; of purporting to be England's number one.

Over-promoted and underwhelming, he was still protesting by Thursday morning that "the margins between success and failure can be inches". It was not quite how he meant it but perhaps, after all, you mused, it would have done the now former England coach a considerable service if Russia's Dmitri Sychev had dispatched that late attempt in Tel Aviv last Saturday night inches to the right, rather than against Israel's post and England's fate would have been decided there and then.

What ensued at Wembley would still have been an uncomfortable ride for all those on board the stricken flight FA 2008. But at least it would have offered some alternatives to McClaren and his employers. He could have considered his position and bailed out with some honour before, or immediately after, the final qualifying fixture, and made the heroic Kevin Keegan gesture: one of resignation, with the accompanying concession that he was not up to the task.

Or just conceivable, if the McC-ometer hadn't registered too negatively at Wembley, his advocates on English football's governing body would have retreated with him into a bunker at Soho Square.

What he could not have imagined was how his career, and those of a few others, both in England shirts, tracksuits – and, yes, those suited Football Association representatives, looking on – would have plummeted in a fireball of ignominy as England not only became the only major European football nation not participating in Austria-Switzerland next year, but did so in such a ludicrous manner and, of all things, looking in vain for Andorra to rescue them.

Inevitably, that was not to be. At the moment Guus Hiddink, coach of Russia, 1-0 victors over the principality, was being hurled in the air by his players, the FA board were hurriedly preparing to throw their man to the wolves.

In his final words, in the Wembley programme, McClaren articulated the pre-match desire that England should "make it a night we'll never forget". And by heavens, we won't. It was a night in which comparisons with his glint-eyed counterpart Slaven Bilic could not have been more vivid. From the moment Scott Carson failed so grotesquely and McClaren began his Gene Kelly impersonation – by the way, wasn't this the man who began his stewardship by surrounding himself with spin doctors and image consultants? – it turned into a surreal night; one on which even we perennial cynics were struck dumb by the sheer ineptitude of so much before us.

It would be easy to pile more opprobrium on McClaren, and his players, and his hirers. It would be a simple matter to lampoon the poor sap who cut such a pathetic figure on a night when his first thought was to protect those thinning ginger locks from the incessant rain as he witnessed his negative 4-5-1 deployment treated with contempt by Bilic's men, and which afterwards brought this observation from Vedran Corluka, the Croatia and Manchester City defender, when asked about the sheer poverty of England's performance: "I was surprised, because the long ball to Crouch... that is from the Sixties, Seventies, not this year. You cannot play, in modern football, with a back line putting long balls on Crouch's head. That is not football."

It isn't, and should never have been. It was tactical folly; as was McClaren's tardiness in addressing that formation at 2-0 down, and his failure to attempt to shore things up (with Owen Hargreaves) at 2-2, although one suspects that ultimately Croatia would still have prevailed, such was their superiority.

But in reality, it was far preferable that England should be exposed for what they are, rather than their ultimate capitulation being regarded as a similar kind of heroic failure to that we had witnessed of Scotland's attempt to qualify at Hampden Park on the previous Saturday.

At least it created the opportunity for some candid debate within and outside the game, though it was dispiriting, listening to the mandarins, the FA board, as they are called, on Thursday morning. Like too many government figures, they were full of platitudes and particularly big on "responsibility", though not on the implication of the word.

You wouldn't entrust this coterie to order correctly from the tea trolley; let alone atone for the events of 18 months ago and appoint a suitable successor to McClaren. With the exception of Manchester United's chief executive David Gill and a former Tory cabinet minister, now chairman of the Football League, Brian Mawhinney, the Board aren't what in politics you would refer to as "Goats" (government of all the talents). That's what is required.

What is at issue here is not purely to agree on a new head coach, once he has been identified by chief executive Brian Barwick – in whom one has no great faith following the last debacle – and that is a daunting responsibility; not only to identify the right man in terms of both talent and temperament for what is a part-time job (someone suggested that Arsène Wenger should do it on an occasional basis); but also to have the persuasive qualities to pursue your quarry surreptitiously.

Yet, these men are also guardians of the sport's future and its values, overseeing the prosperity of the game, from international football, right down to youngsters taking their first kick. It requires men, and indeed women, who are visionary and innovative in their thinking, who are not mere time-servers; who possess influence that is far-reaching and who demand a culture of quality among young players.

Whatever the merits – or otherwise – of this so-called "golden generation", and whether they have temporarily lost their lustre under McClaren's coaching set-up or never truly possessed it in the first place, there is widespread concern at the dearth of young players of real ability emerging.

Didn't Wednesday night actually confirm that profound deficiency of quality at international level, once the diamond mine that has produced Rooney, Owen, Terry, Ferdinand, Gerrard and Lampard, and perhaps the Coles, Ashley and Joe, has been exhausted?

Some will continue to attribute England's ills to Beelzebub and all his works, in the form of the Premier League, which has brought about a proliferation of foreign players. But that argument carries little weight.

Football generates one of the purest markets. Excellence will flourish, provided the coaching is proficient and good habits are encouraged. And, let us not forget, Croatia, with a population of a touch over four million, has produced a squad of technically gifted players who play throughout Europe. Indeed, Bilic has nurtured three of them, Corluka, Eduardo (both already with English clubs) and Luka Modric (who appears to be Chelsea-bound), from the days when he was their Under-21 coach.

What do you imagine England's kingmakers would make of Bilic's coaching prowess? He's already declared himself "not interested", but somehow you imagine that he wouldn't get past the infernal interview stage.

Apparently, there's to be a different routine this time. Perhaps Barwick and Co could consider making a reality show out of it, along the lines of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's initiative on the BBC, How do you solve a problem like Maria? That was to find the star for the stage show of A Sound of Music.

Considering that McClaren's job at one time was balanced on the level of abuse that he received at Wembley, nothing would totally surprise you as England's chiefs consider and try to tempt the likes of Martin O'Neill, Jose Mourinho – or maybe even Alan Shearer.

It shouldn't be difficult. Wanted: a man who can have England Singin' in the Rain. Preferably without needing an umbrella.