The honeymoon is over, but the divorce is not yet imminent. That was the pledge from the Football Association yesterday as England digested the implications of their failure to defeat Macedonia.
Paul Barber, the director of marketing and communications and one of the closest confidantes of chief executive Adam Crozier, insisted: "We are hugely supportive of Sven [Goran Eriksson]. He has done a great job. England have had one defeat in 13 competitive matches and that was to Brazil, who became world champions. Sven got us to the World Cup and we've made a solid start in the European Championships."
A vote of confidence is usually the prelude to the dispatch of a P45 but not this time. Apart from the £10m cost of paying up Eriksson's contract the FA does not see any obvious alternatives. Steve McClaren is identified with the current set-up. Terry Venables has taken Leeds, who have finished in the top five for five seasons, to ninth in the Premiership. Alan Curbishley's Charlton are in the relegation zone. Peter Taylor is at Hull. Having employed five managers in nine years the FA does not intend to rush to judgement.
The media have been less reticent which may ultimately force the FA's hand. The xenophobes who didn't want a foreign manager gleefully seized upon Wednesday's result. That will not concern the FA, but the shift in position by several pundits who welcomed Eriksson will. When the print media turn against an England manager the electronic branch usually follows. Together they can create an irresistible momentum.
Eriksson did not help matters by misleading the press on team selection. Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan did the same as their reigns turned sour. Not that criticism will affect him. While the Swede has been disturbed by tabloid intrusion into his private life, working in Italy left him inured to criticism of his professional judgement.
Then there are the financial implications. In the long-term, failure to reach Euro 2004 will cost millions. In the short, those fans handed the FA's Christmas marketing brochure on the way into St Mary's are likely to have left it there.
Eriksson insists England will still automatically qualify. But, as he relaxes on the beach – he left for an undisclosed location yesterday – his mind will return to Wednesday and the knowledge that without significant improvement Portugal will only be reached via the play-offs.
Although he will hold a get-together next month, the next match, a friendly against either Australia or Denmark, is not until February. It is a long time for manager and players to stew in Wednesday's bad odour.
"I have never had to wait four months after a bad result before," he said. "It is very strange. I am disappointed, but I am not going down on my knees. We deserved to win. I agree we should have scored more goals, we should not have conceded those goals, and we should have defended better on counter-attacks, but the rest we did rather well."
When Eriksson returns he will be seeking a successor to David Seaman (not that he admits this), evidence that Steven Gerrard can concentrate for 90 minutes, and a left-footed flank player. Since the last may be the most elusive he also needs to reconsider his reliance on a flat 4-4-2. Having found a flexible alternative in Slovakia his reversal to type beggared belief.Reuse content