James Lawton: Eriksson still has to learn the art of building an international team

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The Independent Online

If the irony was any heavier it might be mistaken for a hold-full of pig iron. No doubt calling Sven Goran Eriksson the Tinkerman - plainly, it was the only title that could easily be transferred from Claudio Ranieri to the man who was so recently negotiating to take his job - was meant as a mild, if rather belated, reproof after England's latest defeat by Sweden.

If the irony was any heavier it might be mistaken for a hold-full of pig iron. No doubt calling Sven Goran Eriksson the Tinkerman - plainly, it was the only title that could easily be transferred from Claudio Ranieri to the man who was so recently negotiating to take his job - was meant as a mild, if rather belated, reproof after England's latest defeat by Sweden.

The trouble was not that it didn't go far enough. Rather, it completely missed the point.

To a certain extent international managers are expected to tinker, at least in the sense of mending and fine-tuning. It's what they are paid to do. Though at £4m a year, the rate at which Eriksson is currently placated, the hope is surely that it will be accomplished with a little more coherence and point than was visible in Gothenburg this week.

National team coaches are not supposed to adopt the working style of organisers of instant pop fame shows. The real idea is to provide a proper test of the ability of young players who they suspect might just have the right stuff for the international stage. What Eriksson has produced on these "friendly" occasions, right from the start at Villa Park three years ago, is a passing parade. He says that he knows his key players, but then so do the rest of us: the basic talent of Michael Owen, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Sol Campbell is scarcely a challenge to any critical faculty. What has been missing, consistently, is the identity of sure-fire candidates for the chorus line.

In Sweden he produced the likely lad Jermain Defoe, though only after the 11th-minute injury of the much more familiar Darius Vassell, and implied that he was a distinct possibility for the European Championship squad in Portugal. Alan Thompson, however, received something suspiciously like a thumbs down. He was playing his first international. If this is team-building, so is sticking the tail on the stage donkey.

Another prime duty of a national team coach is to be jealous of every second of time he spends with the players on whom all his hopes depend. He needs that time not only to influence these players by more than a few platitudes, but to work with them closely and to understand properly how they can relate to each other.

The optimum circumstance is to play matches which have at least some of the form of serious competition, and for this Eriksson has never fought publicly. When he is given a leading player, it is deemed an act of charity by a generous club, and the response is to give the player no more than half a game. It is meaningless to the proper, classical development of a team. When players are not fit they should still join the England squad, if for nothing more than an objective inspection of the authenticity of the injuries.

Of course, the Premiership's power has never been more deeply entrenched, but that is even more reason to fight it - and remind the Football Association that when the league was formed one of the reasons advanced was that proper care and consideration could be given to the development of the national team.

That has become the most forlorn of jokes, though, refreshingly, Eriksson's Welsh counterpart, Mark Hughes, is currently threatening to make something of a public stand. He acknowledges the pressures and the difficulties which down the years have provoked club-and-country wars - and from which he suffered as a player - but is suggesting now that his job, for all his recent success, is becoming untenable. This is something Eriksson has signally failed to register.

The consequence for England continues to be a parody of how a team should be prepared and how talented young players should be given the chance to prove their worth. Eriksson may shrug off defeat in Gothenburg as meaningless, but surely he needs to ask himself who most contributed to the pointlessness of the exercise.

Certainly it was bewildering to see Alan Smith, one of the few unambiguous successes in a fleeting appearance in an Eriksson cast - when he looked every inch an authentic contender in a striking role at Villa Park against Portugal a few years ago - stranded on the right wing in Sweden. It is a role he reluctantly accepts at embattled Leeds, and one in which he mostly provides heart and energy. His true talent plainly lies at the front of attack.

Still a greater, and much longer-running, scandal is the continuous drip-drip of Joe Cole's England frustration. On Wednesday night he got 31 minutes to settle into a game which had already been shaped, if that's not too extravagant a word, before his arrival. His reward: careful notation of the fact that, not for the first time, he swung early and wildly at a good chance.

The point here is that Cole, unlike Smith, is a genuinely creative midfielder who cries out for a proper chance to display his ability. He happened to be sitting on the bench, nearly two years ago now, when England, without an original thought in their heads, faced 10 Brazilians. What was Cole doing in Japan if it wasn't to inject an element of flair when it was needed most? He was unproven, we were told, but what has changed now as he continues to operate on the fringe of the team just a few months before another major tournament? Now he is older than Alan Ball when the latter, having been grounded in a series of valuable friendlies, performed so phenomenally in the 1966 World Cup. These are profoundly different players, no doubt, but one obvious division is that one of them was nurtured and embraced, the other set loose in the breezes of chance.

That such an unsatisfactory smorgasbord should be presented by Eriksson so soon after the completion of the FA's extraordinary passion to persuade him to honour his contract, and to do it with blandishments about the value to his reputation quite apart from his bank account, is all the more depressing.

Some of the criticism of Eriksson's recent behaviour has been categorised as hysterical, if not worse. The point has been made that Eriksson is merely acting in his own best interests - and at the end of a long cycle of outrageous treatment for almost all of his predecessors. The fact is the FA has been as grossly indulgent of Eriksson as it was brutal, to use an extreme example, towards Sir Alf Ramsey.

When he left the England job, Ramsey, a man of unbreakable honour, returned to his modest home in Ipswich without the means to retire with dignity. He was obliged to return to club football, but not before rejecting an overture from Arsenal on the grounds that they already had a manager.

Not only did Ramsey win the World Cup, he utterly transformed the workings of the England team. Under him, no player took for granted his selection. Every game was important. There was no meritocracy within the team, however great the past achievements. There was a value to an England cap.

Eriksson, without displaying a fraction of either Ramsey's commitment or his capacity to shape both a team and a set of values, was already on more than £3m a year when he slipped into the flat of the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon. He was at the low end of the loyalty spectrum defined by Ramsey.

Eriksson the Tinkerman? England should be so lucky.

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