The shape of things to come


Seeking to bring some levity to what was a fairly serious situation, the man from the Mirror reached into the fruit bowl, pulled out a pear and laid it on the table at which the chief executive of the Football Association was about to sit.

We were in a small back-bar in the bowels of Wembley stadium, it was 6.30 p.m. on Saturday and, for about an hour, Kevin Keegan had been a former manager of England.

The FA had lost its manager; the manager who may have lost his players; the players who had lost to Germany. Yes, England's hopes of making an appearance in either South Korea or Japan the summer after next had indeed gone pear-shaped.

But it was no time for comedy fruit. England are in a pickle and their next appointment will have a defining role in whether this alleged golden crop of young players - Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gareth Barry, Jonathan Woodgate (if free) and Lee Bowyer (if free) - are to fulfil the expectation surrounding them.

Adam Crozier, the chief executive, at least made some sensible noises about who succeeds Keegan after Howard Wilkinson's temporary leadership on Wednesday in Finland.

Chief among these was Crozier's statement on nationality: "The only important thing is we get the right person for the job. If that's a foreign manager, that's who it will be."

The best foreign manager with English experience is Arsene Wenger, but the thought of Wenger wanting to leave Arsenal, or of Arsenal letting him go, are both odd enough to make the idea sound far-fetched.

Wenger, after all, has long been touted as a future World Cup manager of Japan. Yet Wenger has not gone for all the yen in the world. Arsenal, meanwhile, have just beaten Lazio and, as we sit in the second week of October, look as likely a contender for the European Cup as any team.

Of the other foreign coaches with domestic experience, Gerard Houllier is as yet unproven at Anfield - though he has managed France - Gianluca Vialli is soiled goods and Claudio Ranieri has just arrived. There's Jean Tigana at Fulham, but . . .

Yet, just as Crozier acknowledged the growing clamour for a foreigner, the FA must also not pick someone just because they are a foreigner. It's "the right man" remember.

Strictly speaking, and Crozier specifically mentioned, "Irish, Scottish and Welsh", Alex Ferguson is a foreigner. Anyone, though, whose mobile phone rings to "Scotland The Brave" is a dubious manager of England.

Interestingly, the German fans at Wembley had a large Scotland flag with which to taunt their rivals. Then again, Crozier is a Scot.

Similarly, David O'Leary would also make a curious England coach, while the fact that Crozier is a Parkhead season ticket holder and confessed Celtic fanatic should alert the Celtic board to Martin O'Neill's security.

And then there are the non-foreign options. It could be too early for Leicester City's Peter Taylor - and he could not work with Wilkinson after Wilkinson replaced Taylor as under-21 coach acrimoniously - but two others have managed abroad, notably at Barcelona: Bobby Robson and Terry Venables.

Both have been with England before, of course, the patriotic Robson leading his Beardsley-Gascoigne-Lineker side to 1990's World Cup semi-final - lost to the Germans - and Venables taking his Gascoigne-Sheringham-Shearer side to the same stage of Euro 96 before losing, you guessed it, to the Germans.

Robson is in work at his beloved Newcastle United. Venables, on the other hand, is out of work. He has so much time he appeared on Stars in Their Eyes.

Venables is also tainted by past financial episodes and his standing was not enhanced by his latest spells - at Crystal Palace and Portsmouth.

The FA are suspicious and on Saturday night Venables said he had received: "No come-on from the FA. Before they appointed Kevin Keegan they said they didn't want to go back. So I would think that rules me out."

What he did not say was: "No, I don't want the job." You can be sure that he does want it. And having spent a few hours in his company, it can be said with certainty that Venables thinks he could do the job again.

Venables even said then that England could win Euro 2000. So he's also a dreamer as well as an organiser, a realist and a schemer. England need them all now.