Eriksson undermined by Premiership's greed

Today's friendly against Sweden at Old Trafford offers England's coach a rare chance to experiment before the World Cup.
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The Independent Football

Premiership spin doctors may be excited by the bald line of Sven Goran Eriksson that a strike would be bad for English football, but as with so many of the coach's public statements it is also necessary to read closely what he did not quite say.

For example, Eriksson did not say that the greed of the Premiership chairmen has put his England team at a serious disadvantage going into the World Cup next summer. He merely pointed out that his key players, having fought through a programme of domestic league and cup and European action more demanding than any other in world football, will see the end of their club commitments on 11 May, a week later than their Italian counterparts, which would leave the most successful of them with just four days' break before travelling to the Far East for the finals.

It is one reason why Eriksson has resisted the idea of getting his players together at some point before the friendly with the Netherlands in February. "You want as much contact with your players as possible," said Eriksson on the eve of today's emotionally tricky friendly against his native Sweden at Old Trafford, "but you cannot ask too much of them. I know there will be problems in February and March [when England are scheduled to meet Italy and the demands of the clubs are moving towards their decisive phase]. It is the situation we have in English football, where the players face more physical pressure than in Italy. But that is how it is. I cannot complain. Despite the problems, the players have done very well. A few years ago it was the Italian clubs who were always in the semi-finals and finals. Now it is English and Spanish clubs. All this, I think, is a discussion for the future."

Eriksson's point on possible industrial action by the Professional Footballers' Association was that strikes, both in football and the real world, represent a failure of discussion and, perhaps, rationality; whose, if it came to picket lines in football, Eriksson certainly was not prepared to say. As anyone keen to stoke the ancient club-and-country argument was reminded yesterday at the team's training headquarters outside Manchester, Eriksson of course eschews the inflammatory. He does the old professional thing of operating as best he can in the conditions he finds.

Those conditions might have been sharply improved if the Premiership chairmen had accepted the Football Association's proposal to start the season two weeks earlier, which would have given the players that vital time to recoup after the the time-honoured trek down the domestic treadmill. But, of course, the chairmen said no. Why? Because of the tyrant, money, which is the reason why the Premiership has repeatedly failed to make good its promise to reduce the league to 18 clubs for the benefit of the national team. On this latest issue it was argued that starting the season while some fans were still on their summer holiday could adversely affect season-ticket sales.

No recognition here, of course, of the value of a successful run in the World Cup. No hint of the memory that league football in England never had such a charge of interest, outside of the ending of the Second World War, as in the wake of Sir Alf Ramsey's nation-riveting campaign in 1966. No, Eriksson did not stoke the club-and-country fire yesterday. He simply reminded us of why it might have been that his appointment was nothing so much as recognition by the FA that on the international football stage England were a bankrupt nation.

Now, having performed the feat of automatic qualification to the finals which seemed so far beyond the realms of possibility at the end of last year, Eriksson was issuing another reminder that the way English football is organised, the physical pressure it puts on its players, remains a huge self-imposed handicap at the dawn of the great tournament.

It is one which will permit no easy removal as long as the Premiership remains locked in to its pattern of mixing thoroughbred wages and pit-pony work schedules. It is a relative matter, of course, but the point is that it does not matter how much you pay a player to perform at the highest level of the game, he is still subject to fatigue of both the body and the mind. The French, the Italians and the Germans (assuming they win the play-off challenge into which they were so imperiously swept by England) will all finish their domestic season earlier than England. They will have a little respite, a little chance to follow the injunction of the golfer Walter Hagen to smell the flowers, however briefly.

No doubt the England player in least need of such recuperation, assuming he avoids another bout of serious injury, is Michael Owen. While his Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard was sent home to recover fully from injury, Owen was flying through a test on his hamstring problem at Manchester United's training ground. His appetite for the action has always been remarkable even in a football land where sheer physical durability has always been as vital as more delicate assets, but Eriksson remains philosophical about the fact that such important players as Owen and Gerrard have to run injury hazards that would be so much less intense in the slimmer playing programmes of Europe.

"It is always a possibility that you lose important players," said the coach, "so it is vital to see what others can do. I can watch all the players with their clubs, but there is not so much time to work with them. It is the one thing I do not like about my job."

Today the striker Kevin Phillips will get the chance at some point to show that he can do for England what he does so regularly for his club Sunderland. So, it seems equally certain, will Liverpool's leading over-achiever Danny Murphy. "He can play anywhere," said Eriksson approvingly.

If the Liverpool midfielder does make it to the World Cup, it will be a supremely English football triumph of will and industry and a dogged refusal to submit to any kind of fatigue. He cannot dwell, no more than Eriksson, on the fact that elsewhere they do it rather differently.