Eriksson's expectation game

England v France: History and the favourites are against him, but the dreams linger
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As the St George's flag-sellers rub their hands with glee and the talk is of glory, glory, the job of the objective critic a week before England play a major tournament is, as usual, to diffuse hyperbole. That is most easily done not just with reference to Tuesday night's 30-minute performance against Japan, but with a history lesson, the gist of which is: England's record at European Championships is wretched.

As the St George's flag-sellers rub their hands with glee and the talk is of glory, glory, the job of the objective critic a week before England play a major tournament is, as usual, to diffuse hyperbole. That is most easily done not just with reference to Tuesday night's 30-minute performance against Japan, but with a history lesson, the gist of which is: England's record at European Championships is wretched.

In six tournaments under the modern system, qualifying five times, they have won a mere four matches out of 17 (penalty shoot-outs excluded), of which half were achieved in the home tournament of 1996 and none came in an opening match. After all the build-up and bold predictions, the first game has always ended in either a deflating draw (Belgium 1980, Denmark '92, Switzerland '96) or dispiriting defeat (Ireland 1988, Portugal 2000).

With fewer minnows to recover points against than in a typical group at the World Cup finals, a poor start in this competition is invariably the precursor of elimination before the knockout stage, as suffered in all four of those tournaments played abroad. Only in 1996 did the football fever sweeping the land take on epidemic proportions, Terry Venables' team responding to the opening day's anti-climax by lifting their game against Scotland and then, gloriously, Holland. Even then, a semi-final defeat meant that it was the Germans who finished up standing on a balcony waving the trophy and singing, "Football's coming home".

So to be facing the holders and favourites first this time should, in theory, douse some of the traditional great expectations. In practice, it appears that anticipation may instead be all the more heady, a feeling that will inevitably be transmitted to a team already quite tense enough. Sven Goran Eriksson, not one of nature's tub-thumpers, is playing it all sensibly. Asked to name the teams most likely to win the tournament, he reels off a list of familiar suspects ("France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal being hosts") before gently adding the name of his own team, usually with the rider that everyone must stay fit, unlike the 2002 World Cup. England, he suggests, "could" win, the use of the conditional tense showing footballing sensibility as much as growing confidence in a foreign language.

There are times for beating the drum and rousing the troops, such as immediately after conceding an equalising goal in a World Cup quarter-final. Eriksson may have to rely on a fervently patriotic Sammy Lee or Ray Clemence at that stage, candidly admitting: "I won't be a Winston Churchill in the dressing room, that wouldn't be me." For now, playing things down rather than hyping them up, he has already suggested that a draw against the French would be "acceptable", while making the illogical prediction: "I don't see a draw because there are too many good players out there."

Eriksson was not afraid to show his hand in last week's two friendly matches, declaring the personnel and tactical formation used against Japan to be his first choice before hedging his bets against Iceland. He believes it to be almost impossible to keep secrets in modern football ("If you're Thierry Henry, what secrets can you keep from [Arsenal team-mate] Sol Campbell? The most important thing is that your own players know what they are doing." But he did not learn a lot from next Sunday's opponents in their recent draw against Brazil, which they followed with an initially laboured 4-0 win over Andorra. "It is interesting to see their organisation," he said, adding in what constitutes an uproarious Eriksson joke: "They're not bad!"

They are not, so avoiding defeat would be a good start, as long as Switzerland (who lost at home to Germany last week) and Croatia are beaten. After that the path would be strewn with footballing minefields, in the shape of either the host country or Spain, and, if successful, a possible semi-final against Italy. At that stage Eriksson and the Football Association could at least relax in the knowledge that reasonable expectations had been met. An opening defeat followed by some jitters reminiscent of previous tournaments, however, and Eriksson's own words from a few months ago will resonate again: "What will you think of the Swedish manager then?"

Looking further ahead (though not, perhaps, that much further if everything were to go disastrously over the next three games), the current search for a new Under-21 coach and a technical director is a reminder of the failure to put in place a structure that will facilitate the appoint-ment of a successor once the manager leaves. As far back as Ron Greenwood's time (1977-82), the country's leading English coaches - such as Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, Don Howe, Dave Sexton and even, briefly, Brian Clough - became involved with under-age sides and the senior B team, all with a view to broadening their experience while giving Lancaster Gate an idea of their capabilities at closer quarters.

But since then the succession has been much more haphazard. It is a matter that the new regime under Mark Palios want to address, and part of Trevor Brooking's wide-ranging responsibility as director of football development is to suggest the best possible structure. Peter Taylor's decision to stay with Hull City rather than return as Under-21 coach was therefore a blow and could even cost him, in the long-term, the chance of the top job.

As with Steve McClaren's decision to opt for Middlesbrough, however, it is impractical to combine international duty with club football. Ideally, the manager's assistant would always be at least a contender, which is not the case this time either, given Eriksson's decision to employ his loyal old retainer Tord Grip.

Meanwhile, it is unclear exactly how Brooking's job will dovetail with that of a technical director, the role vacated by Howard Wilkinson 20 months ago. Discussions are continuing on that score and on a successor to David Platt as Under-21 coach, in the hope that results this month do not necessitate any serious thought about who might replace Eriksson. Despite some worrying signs this week, it should not come to that.

ENGLAND'S RECORD IN EUROPE

1980 (in Italy)

1-1 v Belgium; 0-1 v Italy; 2-1 v Spain

1988 (Germany)

0-1 v Republic of Ireland; 1-3 v Holland; 1-3 v Soviet Union

1992 (Sweden)

0-0 v Denmark; 0-0 v France; 1-2 v Sweden

1996 (England)

1-1 v Switzerland; 2-0 v Scotland; 4-1 v Holland; 0-0 v Spain (won on pens); 1-1 v Germany (lost on pens)

2000 (Belgium)

2-3 v Portugal; 1-0 v Germany; 2-3 v Romania

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