The bookies have stopped taking bets on Chris Hughton, but West Bromwich Albion insisted yesterday "no decision" had been taken about who would succeed Roberto Di Matteo as manager – allowing Michael Appleton to audition for the role in tomorrow's relegation six-pointer at home to West Ham.
Appleton, who was named caretaker head coach after Di Matteo's sacking last Sunday, promised Avram Grant's team "a few surprises". First, though, he sat next to a club official who read out a statement before the pre-match press briefing. It read: "Contrary to widespread reports in the media, I can categorically state that no decision has yet been made by the football club regarding the appointment of a new head coach."
Hughton – fired by Newcastle after a 3-1 defeat at Albion in December – held talks with Albion on Wednesday. Discussions were reportedly due to resume yesterday, but it is thought there may have been hitches over back-room staff. Albion want to retain the services of Appleton, a member of the coaching team for eight years since injury forced the ex-Manchester United midfielder's retirement as a player.
Another sticking point could be that Albion operate a European-style hierarchy, with the head coach answerable to a sporting and technical director, Dan Ashworth, who has the final say on transfers. Hughton would have to accept an unfamiliar system, in which the caretaker is steeped.
Appleton tried to focus on what he billed an "enormous" match between 17th-placed Albion and a West Ham side propping up the Premier League. "This is not the Michael Appleton show," he said. "This is about getting three points against your biggest rivals."
Inevitably, he was steered back to the vacancy. "I've never hid from wanting to be a manager. I've taken all the necessary badges. The way I had to finish [playing] gave me plenty of thinking time; whether I wanted to stay in the game, did I want to coach?
"My personality meant that was always a likely step. Now I find myself taking over a side until told differently and I'm going to try and grasp the opportunity. I've learnt from some good managers. I started my playing career under Sir Alex Ferguson and there's no better tutor to learn from. I played under David Moyes at Preston and then Gary Megson signed me here."
Appleton is highly respected by the players and claimed a "fantastic response" on the training ground. "Different people have subtly different ways they like to do things, and the players embraced that from day one. They're coming off with smiles on their faces, which is very important. I like to think we've got a few surprises up our sleeves come Saturday."
If he is still in charge, the 35-year-old will become the Premier League's youngest-ever manager. "You don't choose these things; they just happen. All I'd say is that for the past eight years I've been working ever so hard. I've done my time in the trenches. I remember taking over the Under-14s so I've worked my way up. I had to deal with millionaire superstar players from the age of 15 myself and travelled the world for three years with the best team in the world in United."
And as Appleton explained, one sage of the sport is likely to have a knowing smile if and when he pits himself against Grant. "I'll always remember Eric Harrison, the coach famous for bringing up the 'dream team' at Old Trafford, telling me, 'You'll have a good career as a footballer, but an even better one as a manager'."