Wary O'Neill has Barwick's backing for England job

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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill might have been passed over once already for the England manager's job but this time he is understood to have the crucial backing of Brian Barwick, the chief executive of the Football Association charged with leading the search for Steve McClaren's successor. The Aston Villa manager's name was already doing the rounds among the FA hierarchy on Wednesday night, after England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008, before McClaren's official dismissal yesterday.

It is also understood that discreet approaches had been made to O'Neill, 55, about how well disposed he felt towards the job even before Saturday's shock victory for Israel over Russia that gave England a brief reprieve. The FA is aware that it will have to pay up to a year's salary in compensation for the Northern Irishman, but the finances are less of an issue in an organisation currently awash with money from the new television deals.

What will be a far greater issue is to persuade O'Neill to accept the post and, according to a source close to the Villa manager last night, the FA will have to work hard to get him to take over. At the same time, Villa's owner, Randy Lerner, is understood to be confident that O'Neill will resist any approach from the FA and is believed to have already spoken to the manager about the issue.

The former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho will also be considered, and his spokesman yesterday made all the right noises about being flattered with the link, but the feeling of those closest to the Portuguese is that he is still expecting to return to club management. The former Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello has put himself forward, with the Italian saying it would be a " beautiful test" to manage England. His representative is believed to have contacted the FA, as has a representative of Marcello Lippi, Italy's World Cup-winning coach. Newcastle United's Sam Allardyce, who once coveted the job, has ruled himself out as, once again, has Arsène Wenger.

The Arsenal manager insisted England should have an English manager. " The problem is that Steve McClaren was a competent guy, but he has never been completely accepted in England," he said, adding that sacking him, after England's defeat by Croatia had sealed their Euro 2008 fate, was the wrong decision. "He had the qualities he needed to be to do the job well. You could feel there was always a reluctance in England for him."

Having had their fingers burnt by insisting that an English coach was appointed last time round, Barwick said the FA would not be making a similar stipulation. "I don't think nationality will necessarily be an issue," he said. It is thought it may take some time before any appointment.

If he is persuaded, O'Neill will not come cheap and will also demand greater control than has been granted his predecessors, and the employment of his own back-room staff. He will also need to be convinced, having been passed over last time, that he will be given the authority he demands.

If that is agreed, it may run contrary to the pledge from Barwick and the FA board for a "root-and-branch reform" of the whole set-up surrounding the England team. The 12-strong FA board, made up of representatives from the professional and amateur game, met early yesterday to ratify McClaren's dismissal just 18 months into a four-year contract.

The 46-year-old will be paid one year's salary, £2.5m, in compensation as the FA exploits a "break clause" in his contract following the end of the qualification campaign, although that figure will be reduced if he makes a quick return to management. Also dismissed was McClaren's assistant, Terry Venables, who is now considering an offer to become the next manager of the Republic of Ireland.

In the aftermath of the 3-2 defeat at home to Croatia there was also a damning indictment of the England players by Lord Mawhinney, the chairman of the Football League and a member of the FA board, who said: "We've talked about the manager. We haven't talked about the players and the ability of the players to deliver and to deliver under pressure. It was Steve McClaren who said he'd be judged by the results. The results haven't been very impressive. Last night wasn't very impressive. I've been brought up over the last few years believing that this was the Golden Generation, but I have to tell you that, if this is the Golden Generation, the sooner we move away from the Gold Standard the better."

It will be Barwick's job to find the way forward, rather than a decision made by committee, although his choice will have to be voted on, and he said he would be "given the opportunity to lead from the front on this. It is my responsibility as the chief executive to drive the association forward, but I don't do that alone. It's one hell of a big job for one person, so I do look for support. And we know now we are in a situation when we'll need all our support. It is easy to take pot shots. By God, we probably deserve them today."

There have been calls for Barwick and the board to quit but they resisted them yesterday. However, Barwick, in particular, has little room for further mistakes, especially with an independent chairman expected to be selected next month to help to run the FA. Given the calibre of industrialists and businessman being considered, it is inconceivable that the new chairman will not be involved in the recruitment of a new head coach.

Barwick will have to show, according to an FA source, that he has "cast his net far and wide" in searching for McClaren's successor, although the organisation will be at pains not to repeat the ill-conceived interview process candidates underwent last time. In another admission of failure, and haunted by the jaunt to Portugal to talk to Luiz Felipe Scolari, Barwick added that how he goes about finding a new manager will be " significantly different to last time".

He acknowledged that he would be consulting with leading managers, such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Wenger. "I'd be stupid, wouldn't I, if I didn't go to the best football brains in this country," Barwick said.

David Gill, the Manchester United chief executive and another board member, added: "Brian's not going to go away and stick his head in the sand and not consult anyone. He'll come back with a recommendation."

The FA has put the price of failing to reach next summer's tournament at £5m, but Barwick knows that the real damage is much greater. "I understand just how important and powerful the England team is to the nation, " he said.

The failure to qualify has also heightened the debate about the state of English football – and the tension and differing agendas that exist between the FA and the clubs represented by the Premier League.

Dave Richards, the Premier League's chairman, tried to deflect the blame by saying: "There are 355 English players in the Premier League. That's the answer. Three hundred and fifty-five of them. The Premier League is the most successful league in the world. It employs the best stars in the world. Now, you can't just keep turning to the Premier League saying it's the Premier League's fault that we haven't got loads and loads of fantastic players."

12 Angry Men The FA board

* Sir Geoff Thompson (chairman, no vote) Low profile, not a strong leader.

* Brian Barwick (chief executive, no vote) Oversaw Wembley delivery, but an uninspiring figure.

* Sir David Richards (Premier League) Serial collector of top posts.

* Phil Gartside (Premier League) Bolton chairman.

* David Gill (Premier League) Manchester United's chief executive.

* Lord Mawhinney (Football League) Ex-Tory minister shook up League.

* David Sheepshanks (Football League) Took Ips-wich into administration.

* Dave Henson (National Game) Devon FA. Council member since 1986.

* Michael Game (National Game) Essex FA representative.

* Roger Burden (National Game) Represents Gloucestershire FA.

* John Ward (National Game) Hampshire FA chairman.

* Barry Bright (Kent FA). Head of the disciplinary board.

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