Sven at 50

He rescued England from the chaos of the Keegan era but as Sven Goran Eriksson reaches his 50th game in charge, his management style appears increasingly flawed, says Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

In the infamous magazine interview two years ago in which Sir Alex Ferguson revealed that, in 2001, Sven Goran Eriksson had informally agreed to succeed him as Manchester United manager, the Scot was savagely critical of the England coach's public persona. Not only did he lampoon Eriksson's stock post-match answers but the 63-year-old took his bullying a step further. "He says," Ferguson mimicked, "'The first half we were good, second half we were not so good'," and, adapting his brittle Govan intonation, he even had a stab at imitating Eriksson's awkward, halting Scandinavian accent.

In the infamous magazine interview two years ago in which Sir Alex Ferguson revealed that, in 2001, Sven Goran Eriksson had informally agreed to succeed him as Manchester United manager, the Scot was savagely critical of the England coach's public persona. Not only did he lampoon Eriksson's stock post-match answers but the 63-year-old took his bullying a step further. "He says," Ferguson mimicked, "'The first half we were good, second half we were not so good'," and, adapting his brittle Govan intonation, he even had a stab at imitating Eriksson's awkward, halting Scandinavian accent.

It was an outrageous slur on a fellow manager but, as Eriksson takes charge of his 50th game as England coach today, Ferguson's take on him seems more prescient than ever. Four years and two tournaments into his time with the national team, and the Eriksson phenomena is still just as baffling, his true nature still as well-hidden as it has always been. At his press conference at Old Trafford yesterday he was the same as ever. Eyes flickering nervously behind rimless spectacles, giving the vague sense that he does not fully comprehend, or perhaps refuses to acknowledge, the nuances to questions. A man whose only defence seems to be his own ambivalence to criticism.

The Eriksson story can be broken down roughly into five phases. The resuscitation of England's 2002 World Cup qualification built on the glorious 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich in September 2001. Then the failure of England at that tournament to get past the quarter-finals and the dark days of the home draw with Macedonia (October 2002) and mass substitutions against Australia (February 2003). Third came deliverance into Euro 2004 with victory over Turkey at the Stadium of Light followed by a robust, well-planned draw in Istanbul (October 2003). Then the lingering sense of failure at that tournament and finally on to the present when, despite the near inevitability of World Cup qualification, there is the nagging doubt that the team still lacks the edge to win in Germany next summer.

This is the greatest pool of English talent in three decades, we are told, but, as the side prepare to swat away two weaklings of international football over the next five days, there is no certainty of what awaits in the 2006 finals. Rather, the reign of Eriksson can be characterised by the words of another unlikely middle-aged icon - also balding, also bespectacled - of post-war England. "Life is first boredom, then fear," wrote Philip Larkin, an apt description of the existence of most of Eriksson's players as they approach their defining moment in Germany.

Already the boredom has us in its grip. The meaninglessness of the 0-0 friendly draw with the Netherlands last month and now the ensuing World Cup qualifiers which represent even less of a test for our Premiership-honed players.

We have been here before, drifting through friendlies and group stage matches until suddenly, finding ourselves in the knock-out rounds of a major tournament, the fear kicks in. Fear that, for all the friendlies and different formations, there is an incompleteness to Eriksson's plan. Fear that despite the Football Association's careful preparation and the players' public pledges of loyalty to their coach, England are not quite good enough to win. Two tournaments under Eriksson have both ended with the desolation of defeat before there was even the sense that England were in the business end of the competition.

Where, for a while, Eriksson was lauded as a prophet who had come to release English football from its dark era of failure as an international force, he is now derided as a fraud and a phoney on a big contract lucky to have such a strong group of players. The reality, of course, is somewhere between those two extremes. His laissez-faire style of management did benefit a group of experienced internationals like David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen who craved continuity after Kevin Keegan and warmed to a manager who gave them complete loyalty.

It should not be forgotten that Eriksson gave us a night in Munich that changed the attitude of every Englishman too young to remember 1966. He fielded a team uninhibited and confident enough to scuttle a decent Germany side 5-1 and - with their 2002 World Cup run excepted - precipitate the decline of our most loathed football foe. With such a poor current Germany team it is easy to forget that English football had, with the exception of victory over them at Euro 2000, laboured under a debilitating inferiority complex for over 30 years.

For a while, it could be argued, Eriksson's style of management was successful, but it lasted only so long as those who could remember what Neville once referred to as "the dark days" still had that past fresh in their memory and could sigh with relief at the contrast.

Consensus management is a difficult concept to drive forward. English football rewards the strong manager, from Sir Alf Ramsey to Bill Shankly and on to Bob Paisley, Brian Clough, Sir Alex Ferguson and now Jose Mourinho. The Eriksson age of co-operation has been a great salve to the chaos of the Glenn Hoddle and Keegan eras but not a long-term solution.

England's squad now includes a group of young players such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole who are confident enough in their talent and relative youth not to need a coach who reassures them. Ask some younger members of the England squad in private what they like best about the Eriksson reign and they will tell you that it is the easy acquiescence to evening requests for leave to go to the cinema in the long build-up to games. Ask what else they like about Eriksson and apart from the obvious - "He always picks me for the squad" - there are blank looks.

Indeed, even in brief glimpses of England training sessions, Eriksson is the only manager who seems to have a talent for making himself look like an outsider among his own staff. He keeps to the very periphery, leaving all the coaching and the jocularity to Steve McClaren and Sammy Lee, with an air of isolation and aloofness that no longer seems mysterious and beguiling but just appears to be the natural reaction of an instinctively shy man.

Your mind goes back to his arrival at Heathrow airport when, after suddenly resigning from Lazio, he was led blinking and bemused through the waiting press by an FA official. It will be of no concern whatsoever to the average England fan, but Eriksson has no greater rapport with the English press now than he did when he arrived in January 2001. No name-checks, no angry settling of scores over critical pieces and no attempt to make tactical alliances. Understandably, that approach will be commended by many, but for an England manager without a trophy to his name, it is hardly a recipe for survival.

There is no greater familiarity with Arsène Wenger and Mourinho, and many of the last generation of reporters who had Ferguson's trust are now passing into retirement. Yet these three are at least prepared to take on the press, which means that issues can be settled and left behind. With Eriksson there is no closure and a lingering sense of unease has been allowed to settle over his reign. On Tuesday he was unusually forthright in defending May's American tour from Ferguson and Wenger's criticisms and, for a moment, we saw a spark of fight in him that was welcome and reassuring.

Strangely, Eriksson has few willing champions among Premiership managers, apart from McClaren. In his never-ending tour of top-flight grounds, Eriksson cuts a lonely figure. The cult status that accompanied his early success and the huge £4.5m salary mean that he has few equivalents among his peers. Managers do not respect and fear him as they do Ferguson, who has the influence to make or break a fledgling career, yet unlike Mourinho or Wenger he does not appear to have the sheer bloody-mindedness to stand alone.

Eriksson has all that to contend with before you even contemplate the fall-out from the Ulrika Jonsson and Faria Alam affairs, not to mention his very public relationship with partner Nancy Dell'Olio. The combined effect of these has been to make him look like the hapless middle-aged victim in an English bedroom farce. He is not an unpleasant man. He is courteous and he is patient but he has become extremely hard to take seriously.

But what is serious about Eriksson is that he has a contract that can keep him at Soho Square until July 2008. For some time it has been apparent that the FA is in no position to pay him off and only recently it has become obvious that Eriksson is in no position to resign and get another job that pays him a commensurate salary. English football and Eriksson are in this together, locked in a deadly embrace to the bitter end, or victory in Germany - whatever comes first. We have known boredom under him and we have known fear too. His chance for something else comes next summer.

His best match

1 September, 2001 (Munich) Germany 1 England 5

The then FA chief executive Adam Crozier spoke for every Englishman when, at the final whistle, he walked on to the running track of the Olympic Stadium in Munich and thanked Eriksson personally. A 5-1 vanquishing of Germany in a World Cup qualifier in their backyard and a Michael Owen hat-trick as well. Football nirvana.

His worst match

12 February, 2003 (Upton Park) England 1 Australia 3

It was bad enough to lose at home to Australia at the one sport they do not seem to understand, but the mass half-time substitutions were even worse. In the rain at West Ham, Eriksson made 11 changes and, in doing so, diminished the significance of the international friendly at a stroke. The B-team actually fared better in the second half.

Strangest selections

It was Eriksson's first England team but the inclusion of Gavin McCann, Chris Powell and Michael Ball for the squad against Spain in February 2001 suggested a real unfamiliarity with his new country's players. Equally, Alan Thompson's one cap against Sweden last year: if he was the answer to England's left-sided problems he would not be playing in Scotland.

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