THE HODDLE SACKING: The Caretaker - Teacher graduates to game's summit

Howard Wilkinson had an outstanding record at Notts County, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds.
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The Independent Online
"THERE IS no doubt in my mind," said Howard Wilkinson in his autobiography Managing To Succeed, "that international management in this country is blighted by difficulties that are virtually insurmountable."

A few pages on, Wilkinson states with characteristic Yorkshire bluntness: "Nobody in their right mind can go into football management with the clear- cut ambition of becoming England manager." Six and a half years later, however, fate has handed him the opportunity to test both beliefs as he prepares the national side for their friendly against the world champions, France, at Wembley a week tonight.

The irony is that Wilkinson, currently the FA's technical director, thought his chance to become part of the England set-up had gone long ago. In 1987, when in charge of the club who had launched his professional career, Sheffield Wednesday, he was appointed to take charge of England B for a match in Malta.

He had been steadily climbing the international ladder, having worked as coach to the Under-21s under Ron Greenwood and helped on occasion with the senior squad. But on the eve of the B team trip he decided his first duty was to Wednesday, who had slipped into the First Division relegation zone, and asked to be relieved of his duties.

Ironically, the FA asked Graham Taylor to step into the breach, and Wilkinson feared that he had burned his boats with the international committee. Instead, he also worked for Bobby Robson, scouting England's future opponents, and tells the story against himself that during the 1990 World Cup he reported back on Cameroon: "You'll have no problems with them. It'll be a walkover. It's as good as a bye."

By then, Wilkinson had been lured from Wednesday, the club he supported as a boy, by what he saw as the greater ambition of Leeds United. Since Leeds were fourth from bottom in the Second Division at the time it was a bold and, to some, baffling move, yet inside three and a half years he had led the Elland Road club to the League championship.

Wilkinson's appointment last night in a caretaker capacity with England caps a managerial career which began modestly in the non-League arena with Boston United and then Mossley.

A surprise invitation by Jimmy Sirrel took him to Notts County as team manager, and he guided them to the old First Division in 1982. He also took Wednesday to promotion during a five-year spell at Hillsborough before, in 1988, Leeds handed him the daunting task of emulating the legendary Don Revie in the job which had previously been occupied by seven men in 13 years.

Wilkinson took the club out of the Second Division and the doldrums - and they went on to beat Alex Ferguson's Manchester United to claim the title in 1992. That prize was secured after the introduction of Eric Cantona to English football - but Wilkinson and the mercurial Frenchman fell out after the European Cup defeat by Rangers later that year.

Cantona picked up three championship medals at Old Trafford after he was allowed to leave Leeds in December 1992 for the bargain fee of pounds 1.2m. Wilkinson was then widely criticised for signing a succession of substandard players in a desperate quest to improve his side's fortunes. Nevertheless, he left a youth policy that is now bearing dividends, while among his final signings were Nigel Martyn and Lee Bowyer.

Following the title win, he was unable to keep Leeds up with the elite, although they did reach the Coca-Cola Cup final in 1996 against Aston Villa. But the manner of their Wembley defeat signalled the beginning of the end for Wilkinson at Elland Road. The fans were incensed at Leeds' sterile tactics and rounded on the manager, who admitted he was stung by the abuse. A 4-0 home defeat at the hands of Manchester United and Cantona the following September hastened his departure from club football.

At the time of Graham Taylor's exit, disaffected Leeds supporters chanted "Wilko for England" - although he could not see himself taking the job. "I've worked for three England managers and seen what it did to them," he said. "I saw Ron Greenwood break out in sores, Bobby Robson go grey and poor Graham Taylor double up in anguish and stick his head between his legs so far that it nearly disappeared up his backside."

He added, in sentiments which now assume a fresh significance: "If I was single, with no kids, no problem, but I've a wife and three children and I've seen the effect the job can have on a family. It won't happen to mine."

THE WILKINSON

STORY

1943: Born November 13, Sheffield.

1964: Signs for Sheffield Wednesday (22 appearances, 3 goals).

1966: Joins Brighton (129, 19).

1971: Joins Boston United.

1972: Succeeds Jim Smith as manager of Boston United. Later takes charge of England semi-professional team.

1981: Appointed team manager under Jimmy Sirrel at Notts County.

1982: County win promotion to old First Division; takes sole control.

1982: Given coaching role with England Under-21 team.

1983: Named manager of Sheffield Wednesday.

1984: Steers Wednesday to promotion from Second Division.

1988: Succeeds Billy Bremner as Leeds manager.

1990: Takes Leeds to Second Division title.

1992: Takes Leeds to First Division championship.

1996: Leeds beaten 3-0 by Aston Villa in Coca-Cola Cup final; sacked as manager 48 hours after a 4-0 home defeat by Manchester United.

1997: Appointed technical director by the Football Association, with a wide-ranging brief to oversee the development of the game from grass- roots level to working with England coach Glenn Hoddle.

1999 (2 February): Named caretaker coach of England for the friendly against France on 10 February.

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