Eriksson's hand of six aces for 2006

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The final countdown to Germany 2006 has begun - "if we qualify", as Eriksson is at pains to remind you. But even the notoriously circumspect Swede is starting to allow himself to contemplate a successful delivery after what will have been approaching six years' gestation; ones not without labour pains.

He is asked about the icons that previous tournaments had thrust into world consciousness - at the pinnacle, Pele, of course - and whether any England player could conceivably be talked about in those terms in a year's time.

"It's possible," Eriksson says. "If you have Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole, the big advantage in a team with them is that they can all score goals. I'm not saying that I'm going to play those players. It's up to all six to show that they have trained well, are fit and good enough to play.

"But to have six of them on the pitch at any time who can score a goal for you is a big advantage. Often it's difficult. You never know where a goal will come from. But we don't just have two strikers who can score goals. We have four midfielders who can score as well."

He smiles: "A new Pele? I hope that one will become that - you never know."

What is particularly significant is that a year ago Joe Cole would have been a peripheral figure. Bracketing him with the other named players would have been like adding an improvisational jazz player to a classically trained quintet.

Pressed on this promotion in Eriksson's thinking, the England coach enthuses: "The player who improved most last season was Joe Cole. He suddenly became what we all hoped for. Suddenly, he became an important football player. Before he was a talent, doing a lot of tricks. Now he's hard-working; he's defending. He's still doing his tricks, when it's the right time to do them. For me, he made the biggest step." And has he progressed to world-class level? "If he plays as he did at the end of last season, yes."

Eriksson offers his opinions after a training session at the Douglas Eyre Sports Centre in Walthamstow, east London. The "players", if we can loosely describe them thus, are not England's élite, but members of the media, who range from the never-made-its to the never-woulds; not under any circumstances.

We have been invited to what is described as "McDonald's FA coaching master class with Sven", which rather suggested the presence of the great man out there, breaking sweat along with you. In truth, few football coaches have a real penchant for media interrogation. Eriksson is not alone in that. Yet while the majority of his peers claim that their only desire is "being out on the training pitch with their players", the England coach appears to have no great fondness for being a paid-up member of the tracksuited, woolly-hatted brigade either.

He makes no attempt to counter this commonly held assumption, turning up in a suit and maintaining an amused, watching brief from the sidelines as we attempt - with the assistance of Alan Brown, the grass-roots coach of the year, and others among the game's 8,000 new community coaches who have come through a scheme supported by McDonald's, the FA's official community partner - to display skills that had never been fully developed, or in some cases never existed.

But will anybody really care about his coaching methods if he succeeds where no one has since Sir Alf Ramsey? Unlikely.

Eriksson is in the fortunate position of being able to name now his starting 11, not-withstanding injuries, loss of form and the usual quandaries over formations.

The Swede is asked whether, in the friendly against Denmark in Copenhagen a week on Wednesday, he will experiment with squad players or use the match as an opportunity to hone a settled side, with the qualifiers (starting with Wales on 3 September) in mind.

"The ideal situation would be to play the first team - the team I want to play against Wales - and give them at least 45 minutes," he says.

Though there remains an open invitation for the support cast, the likes of Michael Carrick and Chelsea's new recruit Shaun Wright-Phillips, to enhance their claims, Eriksson emphasises that he will not be easily persuaded. "He's a great player, he's young and can still improve," he says of Carrick when it is suggested that he would make a natural replacement, as a holding midfielder, for Nicky Butt. "But if Lampard and Gerrard are fit, I have no intention of moving them out of the team."

Which tends to confirm, if there were any lingering doubts, that he will fit the player to a role, not the converse. All very well, assuming those individuals are fit and in form. Or, to put it another way, assuming that the England coach has learnt the lesson yielded by his erroneous perseverance with his captain in Japan three years ago.

Comments