Neville rallies to the defence of Eriksson

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The Independent Online

Gary Neville launched an impassioned defence of Sven Goran Eriksson last night as the England coach prepared to take his team into Europe for the first round of World Cup qualifiers.

Gary Neville launched an impassioned defence of Sven Goran Eriksson last night as the England coach prepared to take his team into Europe for the first round of World Cup qualifiers.

Eriksson knows he will be subjected to renewed criticism of his personal style and professional methods if England do not take maximum points from ties in Austria, on Saturday, and Poland, on Wednesday. Such criticism, said Neville, would be misguided and without foundation.

The Manchester United defender, England's longest-serving current international with 68 caps to his name since his debut in 1995, recalled as evidence a rainswept afternoon in north London four years ago. "I remember that day at Wembley when we walked off the pitch after losing to Germany and Kevin Keegan resigned," he said. "That was a dark day and not just because of the weather. We can't keep going back to swapping our manager every one or two years.

"In my early England career I had four or five managers in my first five or six years. You don't know whether you are coming or going, you are changing systems, tactics, squads, ideals. You don't have a chance. We need stability. We have got to keep a manager for five, six, seven years. It's unrealistic to think that whoever takes a manager's job, whether it be a Sunday league job or England, that there are not going to be losses and disappointing performances. That is always going to happen but we've only lost two competitive games in 90 minutes under him. Let's stick with what we've got because it's worked quite well. In terms of actual results you have to say we have progressed a lot under him in the last three years.

"Sacking the manager is not an option. We have to keep this manager. He is one of the best in the world. I think we have as good a manager as England could possibly have. I genuinely believe that. We should be delighted to have him. He's admired around the world. The players believe in him and I think the fans believe in him.

"I go back to that day at Wembley and think of the feeling within the squad now compared to then. There's a calmness about the squad now. Gone are the days when you are expecting four or five new call-ups every time and you're wondering who will be in the squad. He picks these players because they are the best. I don't think anyone would pick different teams or different squads.

"That's what the people in the press who are putting him under pressure should think about. Why are you doing it? For football reasons? Or for other reasons? Do you not accept that we should have a football manager for England for a long time? One who can provide continuity and stability? That's the way success is bred."

All very valid points, which this correspondent would broadly agree with. Neville, though, was less prepared to go on the record when it was pointed out that factions within the Football Association had undermined Eriksson as much as within the media.

Initially prepared to answer, Neville, the players' union man, then turned to the FA official alongside and asked: "Do you want me to go there?" "No" was the inevitable and understandable reply. Neville, though tempted, kept his counsel.

Not that he needed to say anything. The players were already at odds with the FA over the Rio Ferdinand issue, during which Eriksson backed the players. By putting Eriksson into the same boat, the Faria Alam affair has only drawn the players and their coach closer together.

That sense of unity will be invaluable during the forthcoming qualification campaign. "Euro 2004 was a disappointment," said Neville, "because for the first time in a long time we actually had a team that everyone really believed in. We now have to start again and that's the biggest disappointment of it all. You feel as though you're closing in on the top of the mountain and then you fall back down to the bottom."

England begin the ascent with Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Jonathan Woodgate and Nicky Butt absent, but Shaun Wright-Phillips, the only other doubt, is expected to train this morning and be on the afternoon flight to Vienna.

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