Wilkinson alights on Hoddle's shoulder

FA takes gamble on ex-Leeds manager
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The Independent Online
The final member of the Football Association's team to take English football into the new millennium at last joined up yesterday. Howard Wilkinson, the former Leeds United manager, accepted the post of technical director to end a search that began in November 1994.

He joins Graham Kelly, the FA's chief executive, Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, and Keith Wiseman, the FA chairman. Together they aspire to lift the English game to the level of that in Germany and Italy. There are those who believe the FA is yet to enter this century, let alone the next, but this appointment is the last and most important step in the organisation's renewal.

Wilkinson's brief is enormous. Superficially it is, in Wiseman's words, "to direct the production of a structure in England that will raise playing standards in our young players to world-class levels". In effect this means breaking down decades of self-interest and bad practice in the development of young players and forming a human bridge between the FA and the professional game, and between players, coaches, and administrators at all levels.

Wilkinson, 53, starts with two advantages. A wide range of experience from teaching schoolchildren to managing a title-winning side, and a fund of goodwill. The esteem in which he is held in the professional game was obvious from the guest list when he conducted his first press conference at Lancaster Gate yesterday.

As well as Kelly, Wiseman, the FA's special advisor Jimmy Armfield, and Hoddle and his team (Peter Taylor, Ray Clemence and John Gorman) there were current managers Alex Ferguson and Dave Bassett; and the chief executives of the Premiership (Rick Parry), the Football League (David Dent), the players' union (Gordon Taylor) and the League Manager's Association (John Barnwell) - which Wilkinson will continue to chair.

Conspicuous by his absence was Malcolm Berry of the English Schools FA. He is recovering from a hip operation but it seemed significant that the ESFA, which stands to lose most from the planned re-organisation, could not find a substitute.

Wilkinson was first interviewed for the job more than a year ago but only became a real candidate when he was sacked by Leeds United in September. It was, he said, still a difficult decision to trade the day-to-day involvement of running a football club for an essentially administrative role. "But," he added, "once the crack of gunfire had gone from my ears and the smell of war from my nose I found myself watching games from a different perspective. I was no longer thinking `how can we beat them?' Or `could he do a good job for Leeds?'

"The more games I watched the more attractive this job became. As a manager of a football club the prime function is to win football matches. It can reduce the scope in which you operate. I was no longer developing my strengths."

His strengths were, he felt, coaching and he intends to be a "track-suited technical director". There will, inevitably, also be plenty to do suited- and-booted. One of these tasks will be to wrest control of England Under- 15 side from the ESFA and complete what is hoped to be a smooth progression for a talented nine-year-old from joining a local school of excellence to playing for the full national side.

Hoddle will retain full control of the national team, and Taylor the Under-21 side. Wilkinson is likely to help Hoddle with scouting and as someone he can bounce ideas off. Wilkinson's role encompasses the National School of Excellence at Lilleshall (he said he supported "the concept" but did not seem keen on its elitism) and the education of prospective managers. He is also expected to continue to press for a winter break and a general reduction in fixtures for both internationals and promising schoolboys.

Ferguson spoke of a central data base to help clubs drawn in Europe know where to train and stay. Bassett talked of a similar register of medical men so he knew where to turn to if his centre-forward had a back injury. Such tasks will be for Wilkinson to delegate, and the FA accepts he may want to establish a staff, which is likely to include a Director of Youth Football.

A priority for Wilkinson, who has signed a four-year deal on an estimated pounds 175,000 a year, is to raise the profile of coaching. Without training coaches properly, and persuading clubs to pay them decent wages, better players will still not be produced in numbers. The game is now rich enough to do this, but only if it can overcome its endemic self-interest. That will be Wilkinson's biggest task.

Wilkinson's appointment spells the end for the legendary FA guru Charles Hughes, who famously criticised Brazilian sides for passing the ball too often. After 33 years, Kelly indicated Hughes would be retiring "soon" rather than hanging on for his 65th birthday early next year.