James Lawton: England gild remarkable record under Eriksson

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The Turks were so nervous it was clear almost instantly that far from visiting Hell, England were merely booking their tickets out of a brief and self-made purgatory.

In the end they did it so efficiently that their mass jitterbug of relief - it must be hoped it was that rather than some swift second growth of triumphalism - seemed wildly inappropriate.

It would have been better, at least as an earnest of future equilibrium in their view of the world and their place in it, if they had stuck to the old formula of shaking hands with their frustrated and overawed opponents. That was what another England team did here in 1984 after winning 8-0 in a World Cup qualifier under the captaincy of Bryan Robson. Gary Lineker scored a hat-trick and the Turkish fans provided a standing ovation. Only God knows what might have been the emotional reaction of the current team if they had entered even the foothills of such a performance.

On Saturday night England's players might also have offered a small prayer of thanks for deliverance from the need for a play-off and any fresh recriminations over their bizarre and disgraceful flirtation with industrial action.

Still, on the Richter scale of potential disaster this was a blip that scarcely registered, and on the ride back to the Golden Horn only an ingrate could have failed to notice a lining at least brushed by a bit of silver. With Michael Owen around, they would probably have cruised home. As it was, they had safe passage.

This had, after all, been a performance which, with the best of timing, spoke of some of the better values of English football at the international level. Combative, composed under pressure, England's persecution of Turkish football - 10 games, no defeats and a goal aggregate that remains at 39-0 - received scarcely a squeak of a challenge.

However, England, and particularly David Beckham, did have reason to be grateful for the latest superb example of why the Italian referee Pierluigi Collina is such an icon among big-match referees.

Collina, filling in for the Danish official who dismissed Beckham in the World Cup match in St-Etienne five years ago for his schoolboyish flash of petulance against Diego Simeone, hauled the England captain and his Keownesque tormentor, Alpay Ozalan, into his room at half-time and told them to start acting like men, Beckham's reaction to the Turk's baiting of him after his spectacular penalty miss having included at least the hint of a head-butt. The result was torrid action in the tunnel which also drew in Emre Belozoglu and, of all people, the normally mild Emile Heskey. But Collina acted decisively. Conclusion: peace and common sense in the volatile Fenerbahce Stadium.

You couldn't help wishing that the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, had shown some of the Italian's authority when the aborted rebellion of his players over the exclusion of Rio Ferdinand began to take shape.

Still, Eriksson is Eriksson, going from day to day with his emotional thermostat on zero, and here he was again with another big-tournament qualification in his pocket.

His post-game interrogators stopped short only of applying a blow torch in their efforts to persuade him to make a full-blooded statement that he would be in charge of the team for the European Championship finals in Portugal next summer, and in the end he said he would... if the situation stayed the same. It was not exactly Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, perhaps, but there was another battle ribbon on his extraordinary record of losing just one of 19 competitive games while in charge of England.

To his credit, he had applied the common sense that at the outset of his regime had always been such an encouraging contrast to the eccentricities and vulnerabilities of his predecessors, Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan. Unleashing Wayne Rooney at the uncertain Turks for 72 minutes, then bringing on an extra midfield presence in Dyer to complete the stifling of opposition who had plainly accepted that not even their best player, Nihat Kahveci, was likely to break down resistance offered most impressively by John Terry.

Here was the double irony of the night: Terry, who not so long ago was in the vanguard of English football's late-night boozing culture, performing with heroic professionalism... and with far more evident natural defensive instinct than recently displayed by Ferdinand, the man whose refusal to take a drug test had created the dressing-room convulsion. The Chelsea man, with an apparently psychologically rehabilitated Sol Campbell at his side, provided a defensive buttress against which Turkey's national hero, Hakan Sukur, dwindled by the minute.

There were some other performances of authority by England players. Paul Scholes again showed tremendous presence, though he snatched at the ball while it was at the feet of Rooney who had come alive to make a couple of chances and remind the Turks of why he terrified them so profoundly in Sunderland last year.

Nicky Butt was a busy, tidying element and Steve Gerrard had moments of penetration, notably when forcing the penalty which Beckham, so uncharacteristically, ballooned into the upper tiers. This provoked Alpay's gloating and brought the challenge which Collina met so masterfully. The referee was less impressive when he failed to book Sukur for a dive which surely even Robert Pires would have disowned and send off Rustu Recber for a challenge on Dyer which reminded us of the world's worst foul by a goalkeeper, the assault on France's Patrick Battiston by Germany's Thomas Schumacher in a World Cup game in Seville 21 years ago. By the end of the night, however, we had to be equally grateful to the referee's healing touch and the fact that the Turks, having failed to recreate Hell, could scarcely muster the echo of a rough night in Woking.

They had been surprisingly cowed in Sunderland. Here, they could scarcely complete a pass, which probably had as much to do with the vast expectation on their shoulders as the fact that England had come back to both their senses and the natural strength of their game.

Where will it lead? Not very far under Eriksson, you have to suspect. His commitment to the job cannot have been enhanced by last week's pantomime, one in which he displayed little more dignity or command than the rear end of a donkey, and he has scarcely attempted to deflect anyone from the view that his natural home is amid the machinations of big-time club football.

Eriksson, to be fair, knows how to qualify, knows how to play the law of tactical averages. But building a team to beat the world, moving from the mechanics of winning the bread-and-butter games to the banquets of world conquest, does not appear to be his natural terrain. Frankly, that jitterbug is also a bit of a worry.