It is 31 years and seven games since England last defeated the Swedes. Graham Taylor-bashing became a national sport after the debacle in Stockholm in 1992, and six years on Glenn Hoddle was similarly berated after his team capitulated at the Rasunda stadium.
On Wednesday, four days after feasting on the fatted calf had begun, following the defeat of an abject Poland, along came the Swedes to sprinkle arsenic on the banquet by disposing of Janusz Wojcik's men with similar disdain in Chorzow. As the towering frame of Kennet Andersson and his team-mates garnered another three Group Five points, it became increasingly evident that it would require a tale something like that penned by Hans Christian Andersen if Kevin Keegan were to oversee the automatic qualification of England for Euro 2000. The most points England can accumulate is 19, and their nemesis Sweden, already on 12, will hardly be stretched to beat Bulgaria and Poland at home and Luxembourg away.
Keegan may well have the aid of a kilted version of Eileen Drewery and can produce his own version of Henry V at Agincourt at the drop of an inspirational phrase. But he would need to metamorphise into Merlin to frustrate the Swedes, with the likelihood that, whether their 100 per cent record is diminished at Wembley or not on 5 June, England will have to proceed via the November play-offs. Then, who knows? The anxious wait until the draw throws up whom? Scotland maybe? Cyprus, Norway, Turkey, or more ominously, France or Ukraine? The corollary of this sequence of events, with the clarion cry of "Carry on, Kevin" from the KK Clan reverberating in his ears, is that he will continue until England's fate is known. It is inconceivable that a new man will be introduced in June, particularly as no obvious candidates readily acceptable to public acclaim have revealed their hands.
Instead of four games - including Hungary in a friendly - his command is likely to extend to eight. Far from being unsatisfactory, as some have suggested, it actually makes a lot of sense. Thus far, Keegan has succeeded in the impossible and managed to give timeshare a good name. My understanding is that, despite the response of his Fulham players and his chairman Mohamed Al Fayed, circumstances will persuade Keegan to accept the England job full-time. There is nothing disingenuous in his desire to remain with Fulham, whom he aims to take into the Premiership.
Should England prosper with Keegan there is no reason why he cannot continue on the current basis. If a vibrant spring should become transformed into a summer of discontent, it does not prevent the FA discreetly determining an alternative from the few candidates available and willing.
The fact is that Keegan would not enjoy overseeing only a handful of games a season. Indeed, it may be beneficial for the coach to regard the naming of each squad with a certain detachment, rather than being constantly immersed in international football. Keegan relishes a freshness of approach to a job. Significantly, he viewed his first two years at Newcastle as the best. "My ideas were new and my thinking different," he said. "Once you get entrenched in the job, there's a danger that you will become a clone of everyone else."
As his close friend and former England team-mate, Mick Channon, explained: "Kevin needs to be working with players all the time. It's good that he can be with Fulham in between England games. The England coach needs to be stimulated all the time and playing six or eight games a year won't do that."
The arrangement will work because Keegan is prepared to delegate; to Arthur Cox and Derek Fazackerley to analyse opponents, and to the FA technical director Howard Wilkinson to oversee the squad's preparation. He is not unduly concerned with empire-building, an issue which caused conflict between Wilkinson and Glenn Hoddle, specifically over who had responsibility of the Under-21 team, and could possibly be a bone of contention with another man. Peter Taylor, who was not everyone's idea of England's Under-21 coach when he was appointed, had become somewhat more successful than Hoddle, the man who recruited him. Hence the raised eyebrows when he agreed to leave the FA in June, having become a victim of Wilkinson's reorganisation. It will remain a moot point whether that squad should be an adjunct of the senior set-up or, as Wilkinson believes, fall under the technical department's umbrella.
Meanwhile, Sweden recognise they owe a debt of gratitude to an English FA who backed Hoddle, despite questions over his man-management after the World Cup, before reacting belatedly to a non-footballing issue three games into the qualifying campaign. It allowed a team who initially could only have ambitions of making the play-offs to slip the field. Uncompromising, durable and not without flair, they will prove a genuine test of Keegan's character and that of his team come June. Once again, those accursed Swedes will crucially influence England's future, and that of their coach. This time your money might just be on the turnips to root out a victory.Reuse content