Robson bears the burden of the Old England Club

There are enough of them now to form a club with their own tie, the motif to be discussed at the inaugural get-together (in Lancaster Gate rather than modish Soho Square). Graham Taylor might suggest a root vegetable, and Glenn Hoddle a bible, or perhaps a lamp as smashed by Paul Gascoigne when told of his exclusion from the 1998 World Cup. Sir Bobby Robson, seconded by Terry Venables, could propose a missed penalty. Kevin Keegan? How about a toilet, scene of his resignation at Wembley three years ago?

After a week that left Hoddle in the limbo inhabited by Taylor and Venables, with Robson aware of suggestions that he might soon join them, founder members of football's version of the Ex-Wives Club need their sense of humour - black or otherwise - to remain intact. Only Keegan can currently claim to be enjoying the sort of success that once enabled his predecessors as England's manager to attain the highest position their profession has to offer; and even he heard his excitingly unpredictable Manchester City booed off at half-time last Wednesday.

For a long time, there was effectively no life after Lancaster Gate. Sir Walter Winterbottom, who had done the job from shortly after the war until 1962, was passed over for the job of Football Association secretary and joined the Central Council for Physical Recreation. Sir Alf Ramsey, bitter about his sacking in 1974, briefly returned to club football with Birmingham City three years later, but soon retired due to ill health. Don Revie, having defected to the United Arab Emirates in 1977, overturned the FA's 10-year ban on him but only worked in this country on a consultancy basis, and Ron Greenwood was already 60 when he stepped down after the 1982 World Cup.

It was Robson who broke the mould; 57 when the FA showed a lack of enthus-iasm for renewing his contract in 1990, he responded by leading the team to within a penalty shoot-out of the World Cup final, then embarked on a second career with PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona, reluctantly turning down Arsenal and Newcastle among others along the way.

And on Friday night, there he was at Highbury, 70 years and seven months young, still living every minute. Not necessarily loving every minute, because Robson's fifth season at St James' has been an unexpectedly hard one. Failing to qualify for the lucrative group stage of the Champions' League last month because of another shoot-out failure was the heaviest blow in what Robson dramatically called "my worst week in football".

There have been better ones, too, than the subsequent eight-day period that dropped the team to 19th in the Premiership. Wednesday night's 5-0 win over a feeble NAC Breda offered renewed hope, but on Friday there was more frustration as a 3-2 defeat by Arsenal rooted his team one place above the bottom of the table. Standing on the touchline soaking wet, cursing slack defending by Titus Bramble and the impetuosity of Jermaine Jenas, he might - just briefly - have wondered if there was not a more dignified way for a knight of the realm to be spending his autumn days.

"If I didn't say we were concerned, I'd be silly," he admitted, before the optimism essential to becoming one of football's great survivors reasserted itself. "We're just having a bit of bad luck at the moment. With a team like that, we shouldn't be in trouble."

Adamant that it takes two years to come to terms with the England job, he believes club managers must be granted time, and is shocked that a vocal minority of Newcastle supportershave lost faith: "The game's gone bloody mad if you're telling me that people who send faxes and texts know more about it than me."

Keegan, who once had to stand up to doubting Geordies on the steps of St James', is equally passionate, but will he still be going at 70? Aged 52 now, he has yet to prove after the Newcastle and England experiences that he is mentally strong enough to withstand the bad times that inevitably await a Manchester City manager, and might still fancy one crack at his beloved Liverpool if the timing was right. But if our putative Ex-England Club were to meet tomorrow, he would have a smile for everyone.

The superficially irrepressible Venables, arriving fit and tanned at the meeting from his Spanish holiday home, would doubtless be tempted to do his own version of George Best's "where did it all go wrong?" joke. But sipping his pina colada in more reflective moments, he must feel that he might have achieved so much more if circumstances had been different at Tottenham and Leeds United (the latter a ghastly mistake), or if stubborn pride had not prompted him to insist "I don't do auditions" when asked by the FA to wait until after Euro 96 before discussing a new contract.

There are regrets too for Taylor, who is unlikely to take up another management job, and Hoddle, who probably will. The former, having taken a two-year sabbatical after leaving the England post at the end of 1993, made a sensible move in returning to Watford as general manager but could not resist taking over the team again, winning promotion to the Premiership, only to confirm that it was no longer possible for a club of that size - as it had been 10 years earlier - to survive at the highest level on minimal resources. Like Venables, he then took on one challenge too many, at Aston Villa, before retiring last May.

For Hoddle, even managing England might have been regarded as preparation for taking over the one job he desperately wanted, at White Hart Lane, where it really did all go wrong. He had quietly rehabilitated himself (at Southampton) but was unable at either club to achieve anything like the 68 per cent record that makes him statistically England's second most successful manager, only one per cent behind Ramsey.

Theoretically, management should be much the same at any level; find the best players and make them into a team. But readjustment after the madness of the national side can prove unexpectedly tricky. However soon Sven Goran Eriksson finds himself qualified for England Old Boys, there may be few fellow-members still in direct competition.

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