England shake-up: Martin must be mad to manage

Ashton has been treated shamefully and Andrew is losing respect so World Cup winner should decline Red Rose role
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Martin Johnson, the most successful and imposing captain in England history, usually gets what he wants, and if he wants the Red Rose manager's job it is his for the taking. It has often been said of Johnson, the World Cup-winning captain of 2003, that he rarely makes a bad decision. If he takes a Twickenham role – and he has influential support – he needs his head read.

Johnson only needs to look at the shameful treatment of the head coach, Brian Ashton, to realise he would be joining a club that has misplaced its moral compass. Ashton was not opposed to the idea of appointing a team manager, and last December he was assured by Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director, that the coach would have the casting vote. Not only that but the candidate would be answerable to Ashton, not the other way around.

Ashton was happy in the knowledge that Phil de Glanville, a former Bath and England captain, ticked all the right boxes.It seemed a done deal until Andrew's clandestine meeting with Johnson last week. Ashton, for one, knew nothing about it. But then neither did the England captain, Phil Vickery.

The impression is that if Johnson accepted the post he would do so under his own terms, and that would almost certainly mean more bad news for Ashton. There are members of the 14-man RFU management board– it meets on Wednesday to discuss Andrew's review of the Six Nations and consequent recommendations – who are dismayed that Wales, with far fewer resources and a brand-new coaching team, walked away with the championship.

They claim that Ashton, like his predecessor, Andy Robinson, made mistakes on selection and that his team management has not been great either. "The present system isn't working and England have shown no improvement since the World Cup," said one insider. "All the problems are still there. We have a very disjointed management, the legacy of several regimes. We need a big-boss figure and no more wishy-washy decisions."

If Ashton is under pressure then so is Andrew, who has been conspicuous by his silence since endorsing the coach following England's appearance in last year's World Cup final. Ashton has been attacked, if not from all sides then most, and if Andrew rode to his rescue it was not on Denman but a donkey from Blackpool beach.

In the latest development, there has been an alarming lack of communication at Twickenham and nobody is quite sure what exactly it is that Andrew is supposed to have offered Johnson. What is known is that the former Leicester Tiger and British Lion, who made a fortune after England lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney five years ago, wants to return to the game in some capacity.

Yes, Johnson was a great and successful captain and the Red Rose faithful idolise and lionise him, but the problem is he has no coaching experience, no management skills. On the other hand, it was generally felt that when he worked with Clive Wood- ward, whatever Woodward said went in one of Johnson's cauliflower ears and out the other. The captain was his own man.

Andrew – there has been a loss of respect for his performance in recent months – might have felt he needed to deliver a bold gesture, hence the meeting with Johnson, whom he had been reluctant to approach in the past. It is distinctly possible, of course, that what Andrew has proposed is not only unacceptable to the former lock forward but to the majority of the management board, not to mention Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU. There have been occasions when Johnson has been critical of Baron's stewardship and the two did not exactly see eye to eye when the captain led a players' strike over contractual matters on the eve of a Test against Argen-tina at Twickenham in 2000.

There is also the matter of Johnson being a member of the Guinness Premiership clubs' four-man team on the new Professional Game Board. It will take over the running of the elite game when the agreement between the RFU and the Premiership clubs comes into force in July. Johnson could not work for both parties.

England play two Tests in New Zealand in June and it will be a nightmare. Johnson has been there and done it as a player but maybe he wants a new challenge. There are only so many after-dinner speeches you can make. The mission, should he choose to accept it, would be time-consuming. If he fails, his reputation could go the way of Sir Clive's after he led a disastrous Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005.

There has even been a suggestion that Austin Healey, Johnson's former club-mate at Leicester, could take over as England's backs coach. From the subliminal to the ridiculous. Ashton is not of a mind to resign, but nobody could blame him if he did.