Student of the game takes on professor's role

Glenn Moore on the route that led to Lancaster Gate for the new technical director of the Football Association
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For such a traditionally conservative organisation, the Football Association appears to be developing a gambler's mentality. First Glenn Hoddle, now Howard Wilkinson.

But while the gamble with Hoddle was about timing, with Wilkinson it is about the man himself. It could prove an inspired decision, or it could be a wasted opportunity.

What gives this appointment a real "last throw of the dice" feel is that, not a year ago, Graham Kelly told me that Wilkinson's widely reported decision to withdraw himself from consideration for the job was superfluous because he was unlikely to be offered it. He had, goes the grapevine, interviewed poorly, which will surprise no one who has heard one of his more rambling press conferences. Even yesterday he began with a reference about eating kippers and ended with one about ironing.

Even more so than with Hoddle, his eventual appointment has come about as much by default as choice. More obvious candidates, like Gerard Houllier, Andy Roxburgh and Arsene Wenger, turned it down.

The obvious question mark concerns Wilkinson's football beliefs. After a promising start managing Notts County (to 15th in the old First Division), he became seduced by the "direct-football" philosophy of Wing Commander Charles Reep, as also espoused by Graham Taylor. His training regimes became infamous. Sheffield Wednesday were sent hill-running in the snow while set-pieces were rehearsed for hours. His teams began to resemble the cast of Land of the Giants.

Yet, as John Barnwell said yesterday, it is important not to "confuse the style of play he was earmarked with and the development of players. They are totally different."

Wilkinson asked people to "reserve judgement and forget their preconceptions, or at least reconceive them". He added: "I hope the young England teams [for which he will be responsible] will play good football."

Wilkinson does not fit the original brief. When the FA began its hunt for a technical director Graham Kelly said they were looking for "a man with inspirational qualities who has played the game at the highest level and can influence by reputation".

Wilkinson's managerial reputation is higher among his peers than the wider public. His playing reputation is largely forgotten with the promise of England youth selection not being fulfilled. He played 22 times in four seasons for Sheffield Wednesday in the old First Division, then spent four seasons with Brighton in the Third. By the time he was 27 he was out of the professional game.

Even then, however, he had been exposed to some of its most progressive thinkers. His managers at Hillsborough were Vic Buckingham, who was fresh from discovering Johan Cruyff and developing the "Ajax way", and Alan Brown, who had been at the forefront of youth development at Burnley. At Brighton he was under the innovative Archie Macaulay, arguably the first manager to use 4-3-3, and Freddie Goodwin, whose methods extended to yoga and psychology.

Wilkinson's inquiring mind will have absorbed much from these men. He also learned from taking a physical education degree at Sheffield University and spending some time working as a teacher. He managed Boston United before he was 30, later qualifying as a regional FA coach and becoming manager of the England semi-professional side. In 1982 Bobby Robson asked him to combine coaching England under-21s with, he said yesterday, "taking the football side of coaching at Lancaster Gate". Yesterday he finally accepted the updated version of that job.

While his Leeds teams have not always been attractive, he has been heavily involved in the wider development of the club. A pounds 3m youth training centre has been built and a second, more promising wave of young players are coming through.

Wilkinson's breadth of experience, with the school system, club administration, youth development and top level management, is probably unrivalled. He is strong on ideas, no respector of reputation (his first act at Leeds was to remove the pictures of the Revie years), and not a man to suffer fools gladly.

He will need to avoid becoming bogged down in the minutiae and concentrate on the wider picture. He will need to combine charm and diplomacy in breaking down the many mini-empires. And he will need Glenn Hoddle to keep winning. This is such a wide-ranging, long-term job his progress cannot be fairly assessed for at least three years but, if England hit a crisis before then, there is now another target to aim at.