Sven Goran Eriksson spent yesterday making a series of delicate phone calls to senior players including David Beckham, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand to apologise for comments he had made about them to an undercover tabloid reporter.
But as the England manager began clearing up the mess from another disastrous error of judgement, he was told by the Football Association that his job was safe. The 57-year-old was described as being "distraught" after the News of the World published a series of deeply indiscreet disclosures Eriksson made to a reporter posing as a bogus sheikh with an interest in buying a Premiership football club and recruiting Beckham.
As well as speaking to his players yesterday, the Swede also reassured the FA chief executive Brian Barwick of his commitment to leading England to the World Cup finals despite telling the reporter that next season he would be interested in taking charge of a club - Aston Villa were proposed - should the "fake sheikh" take over and invest in players. The FA released a brief statement that said Eriksson had the "full support of the organisation" in his £4.2m-a-year post following discussions between Barwick, the chairman Geoff Thompson and the international committee chairman Noel White.
Eriksson said he had told the FA "that he was 100 per cent committed to the England job" and valued "the great support" they had given him. He added: "I have spoken with the players concerned and I have been very pleased with their reaction and am confident my relationship with them has not been damaged in any way." Deeply embarrassing but not a fatal blow to his relationship with the FA was the private reaction at Soho Square to Eriksson's latest attempt to secure employment for himself once this summer's tournament is finished. He is contracted to the FA until after the European Championships in 2008 but no one at the governing body really believes that Eriksson will want to stay, or will be held to the deal, once the World Cup is over. That he has been caught, again, in the act of speaking to future employers is not nearly as troubling as some of the disclosures he made about key players.
Among the excruciatingly embarrassing calls Eriksson was forced to make yesterday, the first was to Beckham who, he said, was "frustrated" at Real Madrid and would leave if an English club would buy him. Owen, he said, had agreed to go to Newcastle only because they had topped the wages he was earning at Real but was "not really" happy at St James' Park. Rio Ferdinand, he had said, was "lazy" and Shaun Wright-Phillips unworthy of the £24m fee Chelsea paid for him.
The meetings took place in Dubai where Eriksson was accompanied by his agent Athole Still and his lawyer Richard Des Voeux who were first approached over involvement in a bogus football academy. Permission was obtained from Barwick for the meeting but the FA are despairing of the manner in which Still failed to make any background checks on the "fake sheikh" and allowed Eriksson, over an expensive dinner and drinks, to discuss his job and the England players.
Still tried to defend his woeful performance yesterday when he protested that the "fake sheikh" - a common entrapment ploy used by the News of the World - and his accomplices had "seemed to be genuine". Still protested that Eriksson had made clear he was contracted to the FA but admitted that he was "in some respects guilty" for the appalling embarrassment Eriksson had brought upon himself. In a bizarre bid to claw back some credibility, Still claimed yesterday that Eriksson wanted to extend his contract with the FA until 2010.
It is the remarks about his players, rather than his willingness to discuss a career beyond next summer, that have caused Eriksson most pain. Although the England manager still attended last night's Football Writers' Association dinner to honour Bryan Robson at the Savoy Hotel, he is concerned that the close relationship he enjoys with his most famous players - he scarcely ever criticises them publicly - has been imperilled.
While on record as having gossiped about Owen, Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney - "he's coming from a poor family" - it is his comments about Beckham that could potentially cause the most damage. As well as making a provisional agreement to speak to Beckham about a move to Aston Villa - illegal under Premiership guidelines - Eriksson displayed a reverence for the England captain that does not fit the normal relationship between manager and player.
Promising that "I'll phone Beckham" when the question of how the bogus investors could go about acquiring the 30-year-old's services, Eriksson goes on to recount a story of how the arrival of the player and his wife Victoria at a gala in Portugal transfixed a room of celebrities. Clearly in awe of his captain, Eriksson said that Beckham was recognised "wherever you go in the world".
The England captain, due to begin negotiations on a new contract with Real, is understood to be unhappy that his relationship with Eriksson is perceived as one in which the Swede is dazzled by the status of the most famous footballer in the world. Beckham feels he deserves to be picked for England on the basis of his performances rather than out of a star-struck loyalty from Eriksson and is concerned these latest revelations will do nothing to dispel that perception.
Wearing a blue FA Umbro T-shirt at the meeting on the yacht, Eriksson confirmed his salary for the first time - £3m after tax plus bonuses. Still made life even more difficult for his client when he claimed that Owen, who is represented by the management company SFX, had become angry with his agent because, in the run-up to Euro 2004, they had failed to secure him more commercial work than Beckham.
The FA have also taken the precaution of smoothing relations with Aston Villa, who have been the subject of takeover speculation in the past 12 months, and the club have accepted an apology. The prospect of buying Villa was raised by Eriksson who pointed out that the club's 82-year-old chairman, Doug Ellis, was both "old" and "sick". The ire of Ellis is currently the least of the Swede's worries: once he has placated his players he still has to find a new job to go to after the World Cup finals.Reuse content