Sven Goran Eriksson insisted last night that there is no offer on the table for him to return to club football - not even the table in Roman Abramovich's west London house where England's head coach inadvisedly took tea last summer soon after the Russian billionaire bought control of Chelsea. Equally, however, Eriksson is in less of a hurry than his employers at the Football Association to agree a contract extension from 2006 for two extra years. He would almost certainly rather see how this summer's European Championship finals go before committing himself further.
The FA have identified Eriksson as the man they want in charge of the national team for the forseeable future, which in the interests of security and stability could even stretch as far as 2010. They expect talks on an extension to take place as soon as possible, but may find the Swede as reluctant to discuss the subject as he was at a press conference called to preview England's friendly against Portugal in Faro on Wednesday.
"I'm amazed and surprised this comes up every time," he said, "because people seem to forget that I have a contract until June 2006 and nothing has changed. To commit myself for two more years is a great commitment, so let me think about that. One day it might be changed, but I haven't talked to Mark [Palios, the FA's chief executive] for a long time now."
Would he rather discuss it after Euro 2004? "Maybe. If I lose three games in Portugal what will your opinion be about the Swedish manager then? And at the same time you want me to sign until 2008." It is a fair point from a manager aware of being criticised for losing in the World Cup quarter-finals to the eventual winners two years ago (still his only defeat in 19 competitive games, albeit one inflicted by Wednesday's opposing manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari). He might also be aware of the reaction to Bobby Robson's team losing all three matches at the 1988 European Championship, which was along the lines of "In the name of God, go!" Robson, a stubborn fighter, chose to stay, and two years later almost won the World Cup, but it is doubtful that Eriksson would resist a return to club football in similar circumstances.
Pushed on the subject of continuing speculation that he will go to Chelsea, he interjected: "Because of a cup of tea?" Then he replied in the affirmative to the question: "Can you say hand on heart that you will not be Chelsea manager after the European Championship?" "I don't have any offer to go anywhere else, absolutely not, and that's the truth," he added.
Serious preparation for the tournament begins this week, when FA spies will be sent to report on the three group opponents, France (who have a friendly in Belgium), Croatia (against Germany) and Switzerland (in Morocco). Eriksson, meanwhile, intends to start the game in Faro with his strongest available line-up before introducing a raft of substitutes, partly in deference to club managers and partly as his only means of experimentation; after Wednesday there is only one more game, away to Sweden next month, before the championship squad has to be named in mid-May.
He strongly objects to plans by Fifa's chief executive, Sepp Blatter, to limit the number of substitutions in friendlies to five, and claims to have widespread support: "I've not found one manager from any country who agrees with that idea, and I've spoken to at least 12. One of the reasons I always like to do a lot of changes at half-time is because I understand the club managers. I've agreed with Scolari that we can do up to 11 if we want. Otherwise, when do you give me a chance to see new players? We can only do it in friendly games. I've always been very happy to have the best team for 45 minutes and then do some experiments."
That policy was taken to extremes exactly a year ago, when defeat by Australia at Upton Park earned widespread criticism - not least from Fifa - Eriksson having announced in advance that a completely different, younger team would play in the second half. In the most recent friendly, a defeat at home to Denmark in November, he made eight changes, and a tactically disorganised team with Danny Murphy finishing as a striker conceded three goals for the only other time in the manager's 34 games.
The match away to Turkey the previous month that guaranteed qualification for Euro 2004 offered a much better guide to Eriksson's thinking about personnel and tactics at this stage. "The team that played in Turkey did extremely well, so we have to go on from there," he said. "If I picked the squad today and everyone was fit, it wouldn't be that difficult." Or, one suspects, that different.
Fitness will be a key factor, just as it was in Japan when David Beckham and Michael Owen were well below 100 per cent and Steven Gerrard was absent. In the longer term, it is optimistically hoped that the winter break provisionally agreed to by the Premier League from next season onwards will be of some help, though players will have only seven days off, with the Premiership suspended for just one Saturday in January. "I can't even dream of more than that," Eriksson admitted. Whether he will benefit from it as a club or international manager is still, for all his protestations, not entirely clear.Reuse content