'Honest man' whose best was just not good enough

Comparison with predecessors - but not with peers - smiles on Sven
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The Independent Online

So how will history judge Sven Goran Eriksson's five years as England coach? Unfavourably, given the resources at his disposal, especially when compared with leading contemporaries who have once again extracted more than expected from their teams at a major tournament, while Eriksson achieved the opposite. What might redeem him a little in the fullness of time, especially if Steve McClaren's regime turns out to be as grim as some are already predicting, are the statistics of his reign, which stack up surprisingly well. In that respect, the country's first foreign coach has enhanced the reputation he earned during 14 seasons in Italy as the ironically entitled "successful loser".

There have now been 10 full-time managers of England, dating back to Sir Walter Winterbottom, who was nominally in charge (though forced to accept responsibility without power) for 15 years from the end of the Second World War. Any analysis of results, whether based on percentages of victories or of theoretical points gained, comes to the same conclusion: the four most successful managers were Sir Alf Ramsey, Glenn Hoddle, Ron Greenwood and Eriksson, and the three least successful, reading from the bottom, were Kevin Keegan, Graham Taylor and Don Revie.

It is perhaps unexpected that Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables should both be in the bottom half of this league table. But Robson, remembered for glorious failures at the World Cups of 1986 and 1990, performed badly in European Championships, and had he been sacked, as many critics were demanding, after England lost all three games at Euro '88, he would be much less revered today.

Nor, almost certainly, would he have been sounded out as Keegan's successor in 2000, before David Dein's influence and Adam Crozier's enthusiasm persuaded their Football Association colleagues that a foreign coach could do for England what Arsène Wenger had done for Arsenal. Venables had an advantage denied to all the others of playing almost every game at home (21 out of 23), and although losing only one match in his two seasons, drew as many as he won.

Ramsey, of course, was the only one of the 10 to win anything, though Robson in 1990 and Venables at Euro '96 would almost certainly have done so had they managed to beat the Germans in their respective semi-finals, whether from the penalty spot or not. Eriksson, not normally given to critical self-examination, admitted in his final interviews that at this World Cup "with the squad we had, we should have gone to the semi-finals at least". Since he also insisted, however, that he had not made any mistakes, above all in his squad selection, the implication was that England's generally horrible performances and inability to progress beyond the quarter-finals once more were due to a combination of misfortune and underachievement by the players rather than the coach.

In some instances (notably David Beckham, Frank Lampard and, sadly, Wayne Rooney) this was true. It is also the case, as was pointed out in later editions of these pages last Sunday, that Eriksson had developed the World Cup team he wanted more than a year in advance of the tournament, only to suffer injuries to his two best strikers and to make a mess of devising a Plan B (five years after first picking Owen Hargreaves).

But it is in comparison with other leading coaches working at the finals that Eriksson suffers. There was Guus Hiddink, who took Australia a step further than might have been expected, mostly playing passing football of a quality that shamed England. Were it not for a bad refereeing decision in the last minute against Italy, the Socceroos would almost certainly have gone on to win in extra time against a side reduced to 10 men who will be competing in today's final.

Eriksson would hardly have got away with commuting from the other side of the Atlantic, or even from his house on the Portuguese coast (just imagine!), and Jürgen Klinsmann almost did not either following poor results in friendlies. Yet what the German coach brought to the nationwide party was an imaginative, innovative approach including rigorous fitness training, sports psychology (something Steve McClaren endorses, but England continue to ignore) and traditionally thorough preparation. When Jens Lehmann saved two penalties against Argentina to earn a place in the semi-final, he was assisted by notes on all the opposition penalty-takers, gleaned from the Deutsche Fussball Bund's database. It seems unlikely that Paul Robinson, who did not lay a glove on any of Portugal's spot-kicks, had the same sort of back-up.

Then there was Luiz Felipe Scolari, thwarting Eriksson for a third time after quite rightly declining to become his successor while giving his all for a rival team and demanding that his players do the same. Like Germany, Australia, Marcello Lippi's Italy and Raymond Dom-enech's France, Portugal achieved more than was generally expected. Others, like Argentina's Jose Pekerman in suddenly losing his nerve against the Germans, Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira and Spain's Luis Aragones, flew home earlier than predicted, but only after their teams had contributed positively to one of the best World Cups of the modern era - which could hardly be claimed of England.

Eriksson's verdict on himself was a modest: "An honest man who tried to do his best". A more candid and detailed assessment will have to wait until lucrative contracts are signed for his autobiography. In the meantime, not too much enlightenment should be expected of the crop of players' books due for Christmas. Anyone wishing to stay in the squad would be unwise to offer serious criticism that could be construed as reflecting in any way on Eriksson's senior coach, McClaren; around whom the great irony is that just as the country would like a clean break with the immediate past, the FA have, for the first time in history, opted for some continuity.

And officialdom's verdict on the past five years? According to the FA's chief executive Brian Barwick: "Sven's done fantastically well. He's been a very good coach for England."

ENGLAND SUCCESSION: THE NEXT GENERATION

"England is almost there... England is not number two to anyone." Sven Goran Eriksson's words early last week, just before he decamped to his adopted land, en route for Sweden, were those of desperate self-justification, not those of critical self-analysis. For all the distractions of the pantomime villain Cristiano Ronaldo, and what might have been had those penalty kicks enjoyed nerveless proficiency, Eriksson's assessment could be seen for what it was as the week progressed: mere delusion.

It would have been difficult to conceive of such a poorly organised side overcoming France, let alone an Italy beautifully orchestrated by Marcello Lippi, who you trust were not appearing at their zenith for one performance only. Yet for all the plaudits bestowed on England in the prelude to these finals, can some wretched performances here, leaving them a scolded generation, be said to be purely the result of Eriksson's mismanagement?

Certain reputations will require urgent repair once Premiership football begins again on 19 August. By then, Steve McClaren's England (sounds odd that, doesn't it?) will have already played a friendly originally scheduled against Greece, who have now been banned by Fifa. That game, against whoever fill the void, is swiftly followed by two Euro 2008 qualifiers in September. David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole (after one fine game against Sweden) and even Steven Gerrard, judged at these levels, will have to have recovered the momentum they took into the finals. But then we are probably all guilty of making assessments and issuing judgements based on the frenetic play of the Premiership, in which an instant, often careless, release of the ball is so prevalent. That demand is simply not consistent with the more measured possession football required in international championships.

The outgoing head coach reminded us of England's youth. It is true that, of the outfield players, only Gary Neville and David Beckham are over 30 now. Only Lampard and Jamie Carragher will have joined them by the next European Championship finals. It could be argued that this crop will ripen. Indeed, there may even be an improved one in the soil, with the winger Aaron Lennon, scintillating in his substitute appearances (left), and that great unknown, Theo Walcott, emerging.

The pair will need to justify the extravagant claims issued on their behalf. So will Michael Carrick, who ended up not even holding his own position, let alone an ailing midfield, under the competition of one conspicuous success, Owen Hargreaves. Could he become the visionary midfield playmaker, a man approaching Michael Ballack's stature in time? Unlikely. McClaren can only wait and hope.

What other names are there to inspire on the periphery? Ledley King, perhaps, in defence or as a defensive midfielder? West Ham's assertive Nigel Reo-Coker? A fit Jonathan Woodgate to reinforce an already decent rearguard?

The reality, despite Eriksson's protestations to the contrary, is that England are profoundly deficient in attack and in goal, and this World Cup has demonstrated doubts about elements of the midfield. If there are truly reasons to be optimistic for the future, as the Swede contends, they are, for the moment, well concealed.

Nick Townsend

Four for 2010: Big chance for Scott - and time is right for Theo

SCOTT CARSON Liverpool

Paul Robinson's initially shaky performances in Germany have offered every incentive to the younger generation of goalkeepers. With Chris Kirkland, hitherto considered the best of the bunch, continually dogged by injury, Liverpool's Carson, who already has Champions' League experience, is best placed to take advantage.

NIGEL REO-COKER West Ham United

On the standby list and given a week's R & R (sorry, acclimatisation) in Portugal before succumbing to injury, the south Londoner is a modern midfielder who can tackle, pass and shoot. Maturity prompted Alan Pardew to make him West Ham's captain at an early age and he has already led England Under-21s.

THEO WALCOTT Arsenal

The first leak from the Steve McClaren camp was that the new coach had been opposed to taking an untried 17-year-old to the World Cup. That suggests a learning period with the Under-21s, but it will be a disappointment if Walcott's pace and shooting ability are not gracing the senior side within four years.

PHIL BARDSLEY Manchester United

With Glen Johnson having lost his way and showing immaturity, Gary Neville's long-term replacement could be a youngster who has shadowed him at Manchester United. Bardsley, like his mentor, is an aggressive competitor who has already played Premiership and European football.

Steve Tongue

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