FOOTBALL: Eriksson's empire of incoherence in need of straight talking from FA

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The Independent Online
IF SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON was a US President he would be impeached. If he was a film director, shooting would be stopped and Steven Spielberg would be flown in. If he was a cardinal he would be ordered back to Rome: to a Vatican dungeon, that is, not his old club, Lazio.

But he is head coach of England so it appears he can lurch from one disaster to another without any hint of censure, still less any suggestion that he might have forfeited his right to office and a pounds 4.5m a year salary that seems a little more grotesquely inflated with each new piece of evidence that his England team are bereft of leadership or plan. This week's friendly fiasco against the Netherlands was an example of new depths of futility.

Once before, when the "Socceroos" of Australia beat another Eriksson chorus line at Upton Park almost precisely two years ago, the overwhelming instinct was to say that the end of the road had surely been reached. That was after the ultimate failure and incoherence of England in the World Cup of 2002 - and before a similar exit from last summer's European Championship.

Now, here is a challenge that should be presented to the FA's new chief executive, Brian Barwick, and his colleagues who purport to shape the English international game: try to find one point of encouragement in this week's dismal, infuriating and ultimately dishonest shambles, one reason to believe that England's fate in the World Cup of Germany next year will differ in any way to the ones that overtook them in Japan and Portugal.

The charge sheet against Eriksson was critically lengthened in the game with Marco van Basten's makeshift but skilful and scarcely troubled Dutch team. Here are the fresh cases to be taken into consideration when Eriksson's reign is judged...

Case No 1: Appalling negligence in the handling of Shaun Wright-Phillips, a player of thrilling promise, who, when he finally got his starting chance - as opposed to an ordeal by racism as a substitute at the Bernabeu - was played out of position for much of the time, then, after missing two chances but generally displaying more menace than any other England player on the field, yanked off after an hour. Did Eriksson know, or still more importantly care, how the youngster felt when dragging himself off the field with his great chance in ashes?

Case No 2: Having Andy Johnson, an exciting sharpshooter, toil as a workhorse, deep-lying wide player. Result: sickening waste of the opportunity to give an overachieving young player a chance to make a real case for himself.

Case No 3: Granting just half an hour to Stewart Downing, a natural left winger who all season has been suggesting that he might just be England's missing link along the left.

Case No 4: Still another shift in formation after four years on the job, this one, you are to bound to suspect, to justify the selection of his captain, David Beckham.

The wider indictment is that Eriksson, whatever his talent for manipulating the resources of a money-laden Lazio - they are now, like so much of Italian football, virtually on their uppers - hasn't a clue in the vital matter of developing an international team, of building certainties and smoothly dovetailing differing but complementary talents.

It was Eriksson's mind-numbing use of substitutes, which reached a peak around the time of the Upton Park debacle, that provoked Fifa into imposing a limit of six for friendly games. Showing amazing restraint, Eriksson merely used five on Wednesday night, against Van Basten's two, but if they lacked the usual volume they were as incomprehensible as ever.

Perhaps the FA might prick up its ears now that a few voices of dissent are being joined by a great tide of criticism from the television paymasters. Gary Lineker could scarcely have been more dismissive of Eriksson's usual post-game bromides, Alan Hansen worked himself into a mood of high indignation, and both Graeme Le Saux and Jamie Redknapp were persistently critical.

Some might say that Le Saux and Redknapp were speaking from their own agendas as older and maybe embittered pros never granted even a peek inside Eriksson's England club. But then nothing they said diverted from the central, basic point that here was another night of potential opportunity, of enquiry and development, thrown utterly into the wind.

Almost too much was the self-serving verdict of Beckham. He thought it was good to try different systems and he felt England could take something from the game. What precisely? Another bunch of cheapened English caps, another night of going through some excruciatingly wearisome motions. On the field Beckham had some more than useful moments, one or two beautifully flighted passes, but does his England captaincy truly amount to anything more than a long series of advertisements for himself? Maybe the football nation will one day sit down and sift through the evidence.

Even more urgently, this should be done in the case of Eriksson. It was astonishing that he should be given that pounds 1m pay rise after being caught in negotiation with Chelsea in the build-up to the European Championship. Less surprising in view of the now higher cost of ending his contract, but still regrettable, was the fact that the final chaos of England's failure in Portugal did not provoke any questions about his future at the FA.

It is as though Eriksson and his favourite son, Beckham, have been given the England team as their personal empire. Beckham explains improved form - he seems to be most convinced of this improvement - by the fact that he is much fitter now than when he made such a parody of himself in Portugal last summer. Should this not enrage his patron? How was it that he came to lead England in such admittedly poor condition? He explained that it was because of the training regime at Real Madrid, not his own failure to meet the demands of his position. That was a scandal. So, too, is what happened on Wednesday night.

If English football was properly run, the impeachment would already be under way.

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