The FA Cup quarter-finals made it a difficult week for those who insist on choosing England's next head coach on a flavour-of- the-month basis. Manchester City lose at home to West Ham United, largely because they have two principal strikers injured, so Stuart Pearce is down three places; Steve Bruce, an up-and-coming English manager on the verge of good things a few months ago, is suddenly a laughing stock after a 7-0 home defeat; Alan Curbishley and Steve McClaren are condemned on the basis of a dull second half at The Valley.
McClaren's case is an even more awkward one if judgement is to be made on the lottery of random results. Is he a technically accomplished international specialist offering unfashionable Middlesbrough the promise of a European final? Or a buffoon who spent tens of millions taking them into the bottom six of the Premiership?
What can be said is that for much of last Thursday's game Middlesbrough (one shot in 90 minutes) were second best to a Charlton side who cost about £8 million - the same as Ugo Ehiogu, who was outstanding in keeping them at bay. That is the true measure of what Curbishley has achieved, while his team have averaged 11th place over the past four seasons to Middlesbrough's 10th under McClaren.
Middlesbrough, of course, have already made it into Europe, but before a Uefa Cup quarter-final on Thursday away to Basle they must take on Bolton in another game that will be billed and reported as a head-to-head against a fellow England contender in Sam Allardyce. "It's a very difficult game and we know what they're all about," said McClaren, who has regularly deflected all talk about England. "They'll be fresher than us but we need to start collecting points. We'll try to win the game and entertain as well."
It was difficult to ascertain the proximity of tongue to cheek for the last remark, with its echoes of his unfortunate comment when on England duty a year ago: "I don't like that word 'entertainment'."
Charlton and Curbishley have been criticised by their own supporters for a lack of excitement - last season they had by far the fewest number of shots on goal in the Premiership, and even with Darren Bent enlivening the current campaign, only four teams have scored fewer goals at home - but the priority with limited resources has always been simply to survive. Curbishley continues to insist with the Cup run still alive this could be his most successful season yet, today's home game against Newcastle United being crucial to their hopes.
The difference in spending power between the clubs is even greater than with Middlesbrough, yet a win today would make Charlton confident of finishing above Newcastle for the second season running. "If we beat Middlesbrough in the replay, and progress past West Ham, we're suddenly in the Cup final, and with a couple more League wins we're into the top 10, which will have been a fantastic season," Curbishley said. "Or it could all go the other way."
He has also appealed to home supporters to give a good recep-tion today to Scott Parker, whom Charlton had to sell to Chelsea two years ago. "Whenever he played for us he gave everything, the fans know that, the players know that. He's now playing regular football and he seems to be enjoying it. He's such a young man still that it's all there for him. And if he doesn't go to this World Cup, he's got to fight for the next one."
But who would his manager be there?