James Lawton: Neville's belief in Eriksson is filled with complacency

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The Independent Football

Forgive me if I'm labouring under some giant misapprehension, but I could have sworn England had an ultimately failed campaign in the European Championship in Portugal.

Forgive me if I'm labouring under some giant misapprehension, but I could have sworn England had an ultimately failed campaign in the European Championship in Portugal.

Somehow the iron chains of memory must have broken down because I also remember that despite the importing of a fitness specialist from Italy, the team looked as knackered as old dray horses in the second half of their important games, most of which were preceded by tactical debates that might have been housed in the Oxford Union rather than in the brain of a coach who had some clear ideas of what he was doing.

It is also recalled, no doubt bizarrely in the opinion of the team's senior statesman, Gary Neville, that the completion of successive successful passes was by the end of the tournament something that had acquired miracle status.

None of this is countenanced by Neville, the man who argued so fiercely for strike action when his Manchester United team-mate Rio Ferdinand was dropped from the England team on the triviality of failing to take a drugs test.

This week Neville rounded angrily, as is his habit, on anyone who questioned the current basis of the England team operation and, most of all, hinted that the tactical and motivational impoverishment of the team in the vital games against Brazil in the World Cup and Portugal in the European Championship might just suggest that Sven Goran Eriksson is not after all the man the Football Association thought he was when they paid him the ludicrously inflated salary of £4m a year.

Neville declared that Eriksson is the best manager that England could possibly have. And why was this? "He's created a calm and the players believe in him." Naturally they do and perhaps it is because he believes in them so fervently, to the extent of allowing them to carry on playing like drones while the coach who knocked England out, Luis Filipe Scolari, was showing the nerve to bring off the iconic Luis Figo. At the time, Figo's opposite number, David Beckham, couldn't have been more anonymous had he swapped places with a ball boy.

The point, as England flew off for their World Cup qualifying games here tomorrow and in Poland next week, is that the team's mindset, as expressed by Neville certainly, is that nothing has changed. But of course it has, and to a degree that in the other failed superpowers of Europe, Italy, Germany, Spain and France, brought change that was both swift and inevitable.

Neville says that a parting with Eriksson would bring in the old dark days of constant change, but the only benefit of continuity is that it might produce progress. What progress did we see in Portugal? Apart from the superb emergence of Wayne Rooney on the international field, and the impressive development of Ashley Cole, there was none.

Even Michael Owen, so often one of English football's more rational and professional voices, lost some of his lustre, although in his autobiography he makes similar noises to Neville, referring to the abject World Cup performance against Brazil in these terms: "We could have played so much better. If we played Brazil now, there wouldn't be a single trace of fear. Sven Goran Eriksson was accused of being too calm and not conveying a sense of urgency to the team. If you're going to find fault, don't manufacture one just because we lose one match."

What we lost, as we did in Portugal, was the chance to show that Eriksson's work had brought the team to a new competitive level, that when the big games came, the confidence and tactical facility he had been working on for 18 months and two and a half years respectively, would inevitably emerge. Unfortunately in both cases, what we had was the image of a coach transfixed by doubt and an absolute failure to supply adjustment when everything depended upon it.

Fears that this pattern will continue through a World Cup qualifying campaign which could have been far more demanding can only be heightened by the noises coming from the England dressing-room. You have to wonder if, at some point, if ever, there will be some end to that sense of complacency which accompanied our journey home from the tournament eventually won by lightly, but perfectly, prepared Greece.

That desperate speculation could only have been intensified by the ridiculous sight of the Prime Minister and Beckham introducing a firework display at the building site formerly known as the famous old Wembley Stadium.

Whoever heard of celebrating a project - the planning and organisation of which is already mired in as much dismay and disbelief as was that of the catastrophic Millennium Dome - halfway through? What was it, precisely, that Blair and Beckham were celebrating? The completion of an arch four years after England played their last international game in a national stadium? The mind has to recoil.

But not enough, perhaps, to raise one last question. Why, after his dismal performance in Portugal, was Beckham involved in such grotesque and silly hype when he should have been reintroducing himself to team-mates who so often might have been strangers on the fields of Portugal? Beckham left Euro 2004 with his competitive image in ghastly repair. He next appears on the English stage playing that worn-out celebrity game. It is time, surely, for England to get down to serious business. The reality of their performance demands nothing less.