Anyone listening to the radio last Sunday morning while reading the newspaper sports sections must have been rather bemused. While broadcasters were reporting that the Football Association was expected to announce that morning that Sven Goran Eriksson had signed an extended contract as England manager - which was confirmed at an 11am press conference - very different stories were appearing in the papers.
According to some, Eriksson would be leaving England in the summer to take over as manager of Chelsea. Others said that the FA had given him an ultimatum to make up his mind over Chelsea's supposed offer. There was even a report that Gérard Houllier, the beleaguered manager of Liverpool, had been lined up by the FA as a possible replacement for Eriksson. Only one newspaper reported from its first edition onwards that the England coach would definitely be staying.
The spark for this media frenzy had been the publication on Saturday of photographs showing Eriksson at the home of Peter Kenyon, the Chelsea chief executive. Ever since similar pictures had been published last summer showing Eriksson on a visit to Chelsea's new owner, Roman Abramovich, there had been a flow of stories suggesting that the Russian oil magnate wanted to replace Claudio Ranieri with the Swede. The speculation had been reinforced by briefings from the Chelsea hierarchy making it clear that Ranieri's days were indeed numbered.
So why did so many experienced sports journalists not nail down the weekend's big story? The reasons are twofold: Eriksson's inscrutability and the laudable even-handedness of the FA's media department.
There has never been a manager in English football as difficult to read as Eriksson. While some of the media moan that he rarely says anything of interest, you never hear complaints about Eriksson actively misleading journalists or leaking stories to favoured individuals. Some of his predecessors, for example, have blatantly lied about team selections and injuries. Eriksson simply gives very little away. The closest he has come to telling half-truths has been when discussing his long-term commitment to England - though even then he has chosen his words carefully, refusing to rule out possible future changes of direction.
Always cordial (even when privately upbraiding a reporter last week for his sister newspaper's story that his partner, Nancy Dell'Ollio, wanted him to go to Chelsea), Eriksson is never confrontational at his press conferences.
He appears to have been equally difficult for his employers to read. Even at 11pm last Saturday at least one senior figure at the FA was not sure whether Eriksson would be staying. The media department played it straight throughout the day, stressing that talks were continuing. So does what the newspapers say really matter? In this case, yes. It is the written press rather than broadcasters who tend to lead public opinion on England matters, and it was no coincidence that the FA went for a journalist with a print background, Colin Gibson, a former football reporter and sports editor of The Sunday Telegraph and Daily Mail, when appointing a new head of communications last year.
Eriksson also appreciates the power of the written word. When he was asked last week by one of the football writers how he thought his flirtation with Chelsea would affect his standing with the England football public, he replied, in his usual matter-of-fact tone: "I think that is up to you."
Paul Newman is sports editor of 'The Independent'
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