Sunday, November 25, 2007

No rush for England's poisoned chalice

"There are not many candidates because it looks a bit like a crocodile that opens the mouth and says: 'Jump into that.' Once he's in there, he's eaten. And once you have eaten four, five says: 'No, maybe I don't jump in there.'"
So went the words of Arsene Wenger, the best coach working in England at present.

In the old days, before the savaging of Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor by the tabloids and the realization that the real money and chances of success were to be found in the Premier League and not the international game, the nation’s best coach would have leapt at the chance of managing England.

Not any more. In the aftermath of Steve McClaren’s quick exit from Soho Square, the candidates for the top job have been scurrying into the shadows. Like schoolkids desperate for the teacher not to pick them to answer a tricky question, the candidates are doing their best to look at their shoes instead.

Aston Villa coach Martin O’Neill could probably have signed a contract the day after the Croatia fiasco had he wanted to, but yesterday appeared to shut the door. “It’s gone for me. It’s absolutely gone,” he said.

Reading’s Steve Coppell would appear to be the best English candidate working in the Premier League, but also realises his nationality counts against him this time.

If the next leader of the Three Lions must be English, the options are fast disappearing beyond Coppell. Alan Curbishley now says he is no longer interested, Harry Redknapp’s colourful reputation surely precludes him and the FA are unlikely to go crawling back to the doors of two men they have previously fired – Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables.

Almost certainly, the FA will pick another foreigner, following the appointment of Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2001.

Jurgen Klinsmann is believed to be interested and would have little trouble adapting once again to London. Indeed, ‘Klinsi’’s articulate and popular persona would probably pull the fans and media onside from the start, in a way few recent England coaches have succeeding in doing.

But the German legend still lives in Santa Barbara, California, which entails a day’s commuting and eight hours’ jet lag to reach England. His refusal to accept the USA job is still clouded in mystery and a flood of criticism will be inevitable as soon as results get sticky with England. The risk that it could all end in tears just looks too great for FA chief executive Brian Barwick to approach him in the first place.

Fabio Capello is the only man to so far declare his candidacy. The 61 year-old has long had an eye on English football, perhaps since scoring for Italy at Wembley in 1973, and had expressed an interest in replacing Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford back in 2002.

No rush for England's poisoned chalice.


Capello has fallen out with a number of high-profile players over the years, including David Beckham, Alessandro Del Piero and Ronaldo, but boasts a stunning coaching CV including seven Serie A shields (four with Milan, two with Juventus and one with Roma) and two La Liga titles with Real Madrid.

Milan’s unforgettable 4-0 demolition of Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League Final in Athens remains perhaps the apex of Capello’s coaching history.

The other big name still in the frame is Jose Mourinho. The recently-departed Chelsea coach is surely a little tempted, or else he would have publicly ruled himself out this week.

Instead, the mercurial Portuguese is playing a game of brinkmanship, aware that vacancies may pop up before the end of the year at Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid.

While Mourinho’s family allegedly are keen to resume their London life, one cannot help but wonder how coaching a discredited national team without competitive fixtures for another year can compare to leading one of the European club heavyweights.

It is hard to see how maverick personalities like Mourinho could enjoy the amount of down time this position entails, when a man of his calibre could surely walk into one of the top jobs on the continent over the next few months and before long cross swords again with the best in the UEFA Champions League.

A team booed off by its own fans as it lost embarassingly on a bleak and rainy winter’s night was no advert for the manager’s job.

And perhaps all speculation on on this issue is pointless as the fault lines in English football run too deep for any magician to swan in and wave a magic wand in the first place.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the outstanding English club coach, Brian Clough, winner of two European Cups, longed to be picked as England manager.

But in 2007, for coaches of real talent from whatever country, the chance of supping nectar at the helm of a top European club outshines the poisoned chalice of the England manager’s job by some distance.

Can you blame them for avoiding the telephone after all they have seen recently?
The top job has now become “the impossible job”, as a previous victim Graham Taylor memorably noted, adding that his advice to any future encumbent of the cursed throne would be this:

“Win every game!”

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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