Bereft of leadership, Eriksson is surely nearing end of road

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The terrible truth which has been stalking Sven Goran Eriksson's England for so long cannot be evaded any longer. It is one that runs so deeply it cannot be obscured for a moment by the chronic unreliability of David James. Goalkeepers of James's flashily erratic type will, sooner or later, make killing mistakes. But you can always change a goalkeeper. You cannot make a team without enough character, enough leadership.

Eriksson, it is painfully clear now, is incapable of supplying those qualities. He has survived amorous misadventure. He has turned a profit on acts of the coldest disloyalty. But a coach cannot ride football bankruptcy where the real accounting is done - out on the field.

No, the reality of England's greatest weakness was like the howl of a wolf in the Viennese woods here on Saturday night when an Austrian team so inadequate it was the despair of its coach, the fine old player Hans Krankl, for most of the game, was allowed to fight back for a share of the World Cup qualifying points.

England, whatever their other deficiencies, are simply dwindling before our eyes. It is what happens when a team goes too long without genuine leadership on and off the field; when celebrity is confused with greatness and when somebody like David Beckham is allowed to supply his own desperately flawed version of what goes into authentic captaincy.

The result here was shocking. It was a team that couldn't play, and couldn't even fight.

If that is a conclusion you would hope, out of the most basic patriotism, to avoid in any foreign city but especially this one, where the brave centre-forward Nat Lofthouse won the undying accolade of "Lion of Vienna", it was made impossible yesterday by Eriksson's reaction to the central questions which leaped out of his team's pitiful performance.

At times he looked and sounded so rattled it was hard to know whether he should be interrogated or handed a blanket and a glass of water.

How disappointed was he with the performance of Beckham, both as a player and a leader, and would he be speaking to him about the mindlessly gratuitous foul he made on Austria's Dietmar Kühbauer that earned a yellow card which could easily have been red, and would there ever be a point when players such as the captain and Michael Owen could no longer take their places in the England team for granted? Eriksson said that Beckham played well, though maybe he had played better in the past, and no, he hadn't spoken to him about the foul. He would do that eventually, but it was not a big problem, and as far as the comfort zone known as the England dressing-room was concerned, there would be no panic, no revolution before Wednesday's game in Katowice against a Polish team encouraged by their 3-0 win in Belfast.

Here is the final damnation of Eriksson's work. More than ever before, he is enmeshed in the complacency created by his own hand.

Beckham was a disgrace. Owen was the palest shadow of one of the most consistent predators in the history of English football. Yet Eriksson sits, bemused and awash with platitudes.

His eyes glaze over when you mention the possible effect of injecting some new blood like Jermain Defoe who, in his 16 minutes on the field, did supply some flashes of penetration and hit a post, or Shaun Wright-Phillips, who could not have failed to have produced more impact than the anonymous captain. But of course we are not making statements on rival talent here. We are talking about the most basic element in a successful team. We are discussing the vital edge of genuine competition, of a sense that no one, and least of all someone underperforming to the currently shocking extent of Beckham, can assume that his place is sacrosanct.

When Eriksson faced the media yesterday he was supported by the presence of the FA's head of football, Trevor Brooking, and coaches Steve McClaren and Ray Clemence. England were presenting a united front, but of course we know they are united - like members of a decaying men's club.

England should not have to announce their unity, as they do so relentlessly, and particularly through their senior player Gary Neville, who reacted with predictable waspishness when invited to comment on the performance of a coach who, when required to for victory against a clearly inferior side, sent on defender Jamie Carragher to replace the team's main source of aggression, Steven Gerrard, with eight minutes to go - a change that anyway came from the misapprehension that the Liverpool midfielder was asking to be replaced. A matter of detail, perhaps, but a telling one which admits the wider chaos. Unity is implicit in a side that is going somewhere, and what does most to create this vital quality? It is proper leadership.

On the eve of Saturday's match Beckham told us that responsibility brings the best out of him. He said that his mentality was to fight back when he is criticised. He said he was going to emulate the style of such England captains as Bryan Robson and Alan Shearer. That Beckham has the potential or the instinct to lead in the way of a Robson or a Shearer - and it is a context in which invoking the name of Bobby Moore would amount to nothing less than an insult - is an illusion he cannot indulge any longer. Not if England are ever to acquire the kind of gravitas which, given the balance of talent, should have made the loss of a 2-0 lead in the Ernst Happel Stadium quite unthinkable.

Eriksson says that he will avoid panic in Katowice. It is his way of saying he will do as he always does. He will invest in the shopworn belief that England have within their squad a quorum of world-beating footballers, and that all that is needed is a comforting hand on the shoulder.

Twice this belief has been desperately betrayed. In the quarter-finals of the World Cup and the European Championships against Brazil and Portugal England didn't lose. They subsided. They ran out of both belief and ideas. Against Brazil, Beckham leaped out of a tackle immediately before Brazil swept away to equalise. Against Portugal, his performance was feeble. On Saturday he gave the ball away as frequently as he did in the European Championships.

Yet he has the neck to talk lightly of emulating Robson and Shearer, and Eriksson endorses him. The coach says that it was no great problem that Beckham performed a petulant little stamp on Kühbauer that recalled the waste of his dismissal in the 1998 World Cup in France. Six years on, and Beckham, a captain of four years experience now, shows the same lack of control and basic professionalism.

What happens if the Poles, who will no doubt watch the video of Saturday's game, work on Beckham's weakness of temperament when the game is flowing against him? He is one yellow card away from suspension - a fate he suffered in the European qualifying campaign. That was commercially fortuitous. It enabled him to embark on his world-wide promotion campaign, while England scraped through against Slovakia.

But Eriksson is relentless in his support. He has created in Beckham a figure that swirls way beyond the significance of the football sum of all his parts. When the team seethed with rebellion during the Rio Ferdinand affair, and Eriksson implicitly supported the players even when they talked of the possibility of a strike, the coach was summoned by the team captain for a meeting with the players. Eriksson was in the middle of his dinner at the time. Eriksson went along. A small incident, perhaps, but one of profound implication.

It said that true power was residing in the wrong place. Nothing that has happened here the wake of a truly dreadful performance - and an act of dismaying irresponsibility by Beckham - has dislodged that deeply troubling conviction.

Maybe Eriksson is right not to try to shake up the team in the next few days. Maybe it is true that if you go down a certain road there is a point where you cannot turn back. So what you do? You run out the string. You hope that something will turn up. Wayne Rooney turned up in the European Championships and for a little while he suspended the reality that England were a team without a plan - and a moving spirit.

In Rooney's absence, that truth was again inescapable. Indeed, it howled like a wolf - one that was very sure about the weakness of its prey. Eriksson, as England coach, is surely near the end of his road.