England players back Eriksson

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The Independent Football

David James last night summed up the England team's relief at Sven Goran Eriksson's decision to sign a new contract with the national team but warned the coach that, if England fail in Euro 2004, his flirtation with Chelsea would be blamed.

"He is the best manager I have had for England," James said. The Manchester City goalkeeper added: "He is the right guy for the job, you need to be with the best players, the best coaches. If he is not there, it makes the job that much more difficult. In competitive matches he has a very good record. When we need to do things properly, we do. When we go into a tournament with him there, we are confident of getting the right results. It is very important we know he is going to be there.

"You don't win tournaments simply because of the XI on the field. It is the whole package: harmony, coaching staff, managers, even catering. The manager is just as important as the players. The one thing you look for in a manager is authority. Sven does not say too many words, and what he wants is enforced by Sammy [Lee] and the other coaches, but he has that authority.

"He has established a great harmony in the squad. This is a group of players who all know each other. There could be late inclusions but they will fit into an organisation in which everyone knows what they are doing. It is a family unit.

"In most set-ups there is an unruly element. There is a unique understanding in our group that everyone does everything right. We don't all wear halos, there is the odd fine for over-sleeping, but no unruly element." So bonded is the squad that James suggested some players would have walked away had Eriksson left. If true, this scenario, which seems highly improbable on the eve of a major championship, indicates the strike threat over Rio Ferdinand was not an isolated example of players losing their sense of perspective, however touching the sense of unity.

James defended this prospect. "At the moment we all understand each other. We know where we want to go and what we have to do to get there. If Sven left, you may have older players who have seen a lot of different things who, if they think they are going to have to go through more change, will think 'do I need to do this?'. If this harmonious group is split up, it is an easy option to leave."

One would imagine the players would thus feel let down that Eriksson, who supported them during the Ferdinand affair, had considered walking out. Not so. "The players are not worried about him talking to Chelsea and others, as a human being you have to have options," James said.

"It is a pressure job being a manager. It is his right to look at other things. You do it for the love of the game. It is easy to understand if the pressure is destroying your love for the game you would seek another option." James admitted, though, that not everyone would see it this way. "It is a performance industry," he said. "The only way people will be happy is if we are successful. He could talk to every chairman in the country and if we are successful, it is acceptable. If we are not, I'm sure people will look at it as the reason why."

Eriksson, James said, had greeted the team with the words: "You've got me for another couple of years," then laughed, which, James said, was "a rarity". No player, it seems, pointed out the contract was supposed to be for another four years.

Eriksson's first decision, post-contract-signing, is to choose a new captain. While a host of improbable characters have worn the armband under him during the second halves of friendlies, only two men have led the team out, David Beckham and Michael Owen. With Beckham pulling out with a calf injury yesterday, neither is with the squad.

The contenders are Gareth Southgate, the squad's most experienced player, and one who has often taken over command, John Terry, who has proved a natural leader at Chelsea, and Steven Gerrard. The 23-year-old midfielder is the obvious candidate. He has long been the heir apparent and has responded impressively to his elevation to the captaincy of Liverpool.

The withdrawals and omissions mean this is one of the most inexperienced England squads to leave these shores. Six of the players are uncapped, only seven have started more than seven internationals, and Emile Heskey, with five goals, is the leading scorer. Though the Swedes have also suffered withdrawals, Freddie Ljungberg being the predictable latest one, they have not lost to England in 36 years and will not expect to do so tomorrow.

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