Owen scores own goal by stressing loyalty to Eriksson

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The Independent Football

It was plain Michael Owen came to praise Sven Goran Eriksson, not to bury him here on the eve of tonight's hugely pressurised World Cup qualifier with Poland but the effect was maybe not quite as intended.

It was plain Michael Owen came to praise Sven Goran Eriksson, not to bury him here on the eve of tonight's hugely pressurised World Cup qualifier with Poland but the effect was maybe not quite as intended.

The Mark Antony eulogy went wrong when Owen was asked to spell out the football qualities of the now fiercely embattled coach who is so publicly adored by his players.

What came out was not so much a portrait of a shrewd touchline warrior as a cross between everybody's favourite uncle and the amiable superintendent of a luxurious holiday camp.

"I know that everyone in the squad rates the manager highly," Owen said. "The job is different to the role of a club manager. When you go away with England you're not with your best buddies that you are with at your club, [but] there's a great atmosphere.

"Everyone gets on. In everyone's eyes he plays good formations and picks good teams and its enjoyable coming away with England. He's second to none in what I've been used to - he knows an awful lot, his tactics are good. He has what it takes to be a good manager."

But then what about the rage of Sir Alex Ferguson, the cold disdain of Sir Alf Ramsey, the blazing eyes of Arsène Wenger and the shrill diatribe of a Brian Clough? Are they not key ingredients of a winning dressing room and utterly vital in the creation of what is commonly known as a competitive edge - the element which has been so crucially missing in recent England performances that have trailed away at exactly the time when naturally winning teams go about their ultimately decisive work? Owen's picture of an Eriksson in the aftermath of a decline as desperate as the one that overtook England in Vienna last Saturday night - when a 2-0 coast against wretched opposition went into a vertiginous decline and the loss of two World Cup qualifying points - was predictably mild.

"There have been times when he has not been happy," was the best Owen could do in painting Eriksson's reaction to the night which brought a breaking of the ranks in the English football establishment - a biting attack from former England stalwart and captain Terry Butcher which focused most critically on the manager's under-achieving but apparently unbudgeable captain David Beckham.

"He [Eriksson] was far from happy," added Owen, "when we watched the video of the Austrian game. We compared the first hour of our performance to some of the things we did in the second half - and they were just totally opposite, tiny little things, and you can't understand why."

It didn't sound like an Armageddon of regret. Owen went on: "I don't think the manager is saying, 'please like me and then you'll play well'. He's a very good manager and we've got some very good players and if we don't produce the results we should do with the combination we have, then obviously everyone will be under pressure. But I do think that results by and large under his management have been very good."

Ironically, Owen, who admits to losing some of his pace since the first of his hamstring injuries, has always been Eriksson's best sword and shield in the team's most challenging situations.

Though far from full fitness, he scored the goal that gave England the lead in one of the most important games in the nation's football history in the World Cup quarter-final against Brazil in Japan two years ago. The teenaged hero of the 1998 World Cup in France, whose brilliant goal against Argentina sent his name racing around the world, did the same in Portugal at the same stage of the European Championship.

The young Owen would have been Eriksson's best chance of fighting his way out of the current tightening circle of criticism against the Poles tonight. That saviour's role could still emerge here but it would come after Owen felt the need to attack arguments that such as he, Beckham and Gary Neville are founder members of Eriksson's travelling private club.

"When you look at the England managers when I was coming through," said Owen, "Alan Shearer never got dropped, Tony Adams never got dropped. I don't think there is a comfort zone for top players - I think the top players are treated the same as everybody else and I think I'm playing in the team on merit - even in the last few games.

"I've performed well to justify my place. I'm pleased with my record. I'm not saying I was playing well 50 games ago, I'm still scoring goals and I still believe I should be in the team. I've developed my game a bit and I set up goals in Europe 2004."

It is odd, even painful, to some of the greatest admirers that the consummately professional Owen, the leading England player who, in the absence of Paul Scholes, has most consciously turned his back on the celebrity life, is now required to defend his professional values. Yesterday he argued passionately that England are still a major force in world football and he claimed that Eriksson was simply caught in the recurring cycle of crisis in English football. He talked us through the various controversies afflicting past England managers - the culture of gambling, the charge that leading players were drinking too much, and now there is the claim of a comfort zone.

Unfortunately, the more Owen defended his manager, the greater was a sense of a team that was in danger of losing its way. Owen insisted: "The beauty I get out of our situation is I see signs of us beating anyone on our day. Our game in Austria was probably a similar scenario to the one against Portugal and if we can continue playing like we do in periods of a game we can do well. It seems to be quite a similar trend in that we kick off and we're flying - and I don't know what is in our minds when we let teams off the hook. In quite a few games when we should have killed teams off, when we've been playing at our best, we are a match or better than anyone."

When Owen spoke of the reluctance of past English coaches to drop a Shearer or an Adams, it was pointed out that arguably the greatest pure finisher in the history of English football, Jimmy Greaves, was dropped from what would have been the most important game of his football life.

Owen smiled tightly and said he didn't remember that. Of course not. Not so many do. It was, after all, 38 years ago - when England won their one and only World Cup, a prize that these last few days has never seemed quite so far away.