The English football beast claims latest victim in Eriksson

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The Independent Online

Hope then humiliation. Boundless optimism and crushing disappointment. On Wednesday night, the banality of the Linfield supporters' club bar was a fittingly mediocre venue for Eriksson to take his place in the great uncontrollable history of our national football team. This institution that has grown into a beast without reason, one that has resisted taming save for one summer 39 years ago and has tarnished the reputations and assaulted the sanity of every manager who has taken it on. The scope of defeat to Northern Ireland means that Eriksson joins his predecessors as one more man who has had a perfectly good career broken on the anvil of English football's toughest job.

We are at the end of the empire with Eriksson: the story has run its course, the options have been exhausted, the tale has been told. What remains is nine months of purdah, the anguish of watching a manager bereft of ideas take charge of a team devoid of cohesion as they both hurtle towards what we had previously imagined to be the most crucial international tournament for a generation. Even assuming they take enough points from Austria and Poland to qualify for the World Cup next summer, England seem locked into a failure from which they cannot escape.

It is painful to watch, even more so because Eriksson is no insufferable egotist. He accepted his fate meekly and without bitterness at Windsor Park on Wednesday despite the brainless intervention of one England fan who had made it into the bar and an equally ungracious line of questioning from the pundit Rodney Marsh. What the England manager does not require now are the attacks of bullies and curmudgeons but rather an assertion of his own personality and beliefs upon this team.

It is important to acknowledge what this England team has become - since the last World Cup, at least, it has ceased to develop as a team in the way that every vibrant club side does. There is not the perpetual battle for status and preferment that exists at the most successful Premiership clubs of the last decade, there is no pressure on the hierarchy. This is not a team that is forced to justify itself with every match. Instead, it is one in which the parameters for the ambition of every player seem set for eternity.

In short, Eriksson has established the old British class system to govern a team that can only be run successfully as a meritocracy. Defeat to Northern Ireland was savage in so many ways but not least because their manager, Lawrie Sanchez, has refused to countenance the selection of any player who would not submit himself to the laws of the collective. Even if that meant picking players from Crewe Alexandra or Plymouth Argyle, from Motherwell or Hull City. Or Peterborough United.

There is a delicious irony in the victory of Sanchez's lower league players over the stars who serve Eriksson. But there is also an important distinction to make in the midst of the clamour to sneer at England's failure on Wednesday and exult those more humble men in the green shirts. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Beckham and Michael Owen have earned their status and rewards in club football, and one shocking defeat does not make them frauds - it simply means that they are part of an international team that is no longer functioning.

To fix that, Eriksson has to reconcile in his own mind that the 4-5-1 system is dead and Beckham cannot be allowed to emasculate Lampard and Gerrard by claiming every single pass that originates in midfield. His passes out to Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right may look brilliant but they consign Gerrard and Lampard to redundancy. Against Northern Ireland those two were the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of midfield - robbed of power to change the destiny of the match.

These two accomplished internationals were little more than a staging post for the passing game of Beckham who, impressive in his distribution none the less, stretched the play too quickly with 40-yard passes and gave Lampard and Gerrard no chance to support the attacks which Michael Owen and Wright-Phillips could not sustain alone. Beckham is not a bad holding midfielder but he is not good enough at it to justify the elimination of all Gerrard and Lampard's influence.

The suspicion is that Eriksson will not dispense with either Beckham, Lampard or Gerrard ahead of the match against Austria on 8 October but will instead switch back to 4-4-2 thus consigning the 4-5-1 formation to one of the most infamous sub-plots in this team's tactical history. In a briefing later on Wednesday night he talked about Peter Crouch as a possible replacement in that game for the suspended Wayne Rooney.

An unlikely messiah for this England team but then if Eriksson is to effect a complete return to the basics of 4-4-2 he may as well resume his love affair with the notion that every team should have a tall target man. This is, of course, far from the finessing of a side capable of conquering the world - it is too late to expect anything but the most superficial solutions now from the England manager.

"It's very simple," Eriksson said on Wednesday. "The responsibility always lies with the coach, always. What do I have to do? I have to turn it right." It has been the bland hope of all his predecessors, the notion that a simple answer lies just within their grasp, but in the saloon bar of the Linfield supporters' club, a familiar old problem looked as impenetrable as ever.

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