Newcastle United have identified the Croatia coach Slaven Bilic as one of their top choices to succeed Kevin Keegan as manager of the club. Key figures at Newcastle are expected to meet this week to draw up a list of potential managers on which Bilic will figure prominently.
Preliminary enquiries were made by Newcastle over the weekend to those close to Bilic as to whether he would be interested in the job, with the club at that time fearful that West Ham were already closing in on a deal for the Croatia manager. However, it is now understood that West Ham regard Gianfranco Zola as their top target and that Bilic, who is preparing for Croatia's World Cup qualifying match against England on Wednesday, may yet be available.
With Bilic incommunicado as he trains with his team in Slovenia there have been difficulties in establishing exactly what he thinks about the potential merits of the two clubs. The Newcastle vice-president Tony Jimenez will play a key role in the recruitment of the new manager although it will require the approval of owner Mike Ashley. Needless to say the club's hierarchy would regard Bilic's straight-talking and his popularity as one way of easing their fraught relationship with the club's supporters.
Unlike West Ham, Newcastle have not placed themselves under any deadlines to appoint a successor to Keegan although the rebellious sentiment among the support means that they need an alternative sooner rather than later. That more relaxed approach to recruiting a new manager would suit Bilic who has refused to give any definitive answers on either club as to his future until after the match against England.
Bilic is, however, very mindful of his position within Croatian football and would not welcome a public approach before Wednesday's game that may upset the Croatian football federation. He refused to speak about his future following his side's 3-0 win over Kazakhstan on Saturday in the first of their 2010 World Cup qualifying games. The federation themselves have made it clear that they will not welcome either clubs making a direct approach over the next two days.
Another problematic aspect of Bilic taking the Newcastle job is the long-term issue of to whom the club are likely to belong. Newcastle fans hopeful that a swift takeover of the club would bring an end to the acrimonious battle for hearts and minds between the club's hierarchy and Keegan were disappointed yesterday with another denial of interest from Reliance Communications in India.
"We have denied this earlier and we have no plans to take over Newcastle United or any other English club. All these media reports are inaccurate," spokesman Gaurav Wahi said from Mumbai. Speculation connecting the company to Newcastle first surfaced on 3 August but two days later Reliance said: "The news report is completely false and baseless. There are no such plans."
As the club begins its search for Keegan's successor, the popularity of the hierarchy led by owner Ashley and his managing director Derek Llambias plummets. On Saturday the club released a statement spelling out step by step its view of the structure they say Keegan agreed to on joining Newcastle in January. Repeatedly using the clumsy linguistic device of "It's a fact" to begin sentences, Newcastle said, most importantly, that it was a "fact" that Keegan knew from the very start of his time as manager that he would be reporting "to a director of football".
This issue, key to the reasons for the breakdown in the relationship between the two sides, immediately provoked a response. Keegan responded: "At the time at which I joined Newcastle United Football Club it was made very clear to me that I would have the final say on player movement in and out of the club."
Presumably the reference to a director of football means the role of Dennis Wise – even though Wise's role has been hidden behind the title "Executive Director (football)". That is a nuance Keegan's lawyers will surely point to should this increasingly bitter dispute reach court.
Keegan will also be able to refer to the matchday programme of 3 February, the first home game after Wise's appointment. Under the headline: "I'm here to help Kevin – he has the final word", Wise said: "A lot of people have got mixed up with the reason why I'm here and we need to straighten that out quickly. I'm not here to be involved in the first team, I'm not here to manage.
"I'm here to help Kevin as much as possible with bringing young players through and also recommending certain players to him. He'll say 'Yes' or 'No'. He has the final word, no-one else. I'm not going to do things like bring players in behind his back – I'm not into that."
In the same programme, Keegan said of Wise's appointment: "I knew what was going on, it was something the owner wanted to do and it's exactly what was expected ... The deal is that whatever young players come in, we will see them first."
But in briefing certain Sunday newspapers the hierarchy not only confirmed that Keegan has a clause in his contract which means he owes them £2m for resigning, they also referred to their collective opinion of the players Keegan allegedly wanted to buy. Their view was mocking. The players referred to, including Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard and Ronaldinho, were not bought.