England prove point with show of solidarity on and off pitch

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The Independent Football

According to that internationally acclaimed military strategist, Sir Alex Ferguson, nothing motivates a group of men like a siege mentality. Whatever the strength of the perceived enemy, pulling up the drawbridge and avoiding hand-to-hand combat with those you believe are seeking to bring you down can be guaranteed to foster a fighting spirit.

England's players did not like much of the media coverage after Saturday's 2-2 draw away to Austria in the first game of their World Cup qualifying campaign and decided before Wednesday night's match here against Poland that they would not give any post-match interviews. The end result? A battling and disciplined performance, a 2-1 victory and, in the players' eyes, a point proved.

Central to the players' complaints was the treatment of David James by some newspapers and broadcasters in the wake of the goalkeeper's erratic display in Vienna, when his mistake for the second goal cost England two points. One tabloid newspaper waged a campaign to drop the "donkey" from the next match, which the players considered to be beyond reasonable criticism.

The England camp were also upset by what they viewed as unfair "spinning" of press interviews, particularly Steven Gerrard's comment that the team had to improve if they were to progress beyond the quarter-finals of major tournaments.

The players did not appreciate receiving telephone calls from home alerting them to the media coverage, including reports that some of them were playing table tennis during one of Sven Goran Eriksson's press conferences and that others had refused to sign autographs. The end result was Wednesday night's refusal to talk, though the players will resume co-operation before next month's qualifiers against Wales and Azerbaijan.

The players feel that the media are abusing the access they have both before and after internationals. The Football Association sets up a series of interviews and briefings with players for all sections of the media, and while the system is more controlled than some other national teams, who will organise press days where almost everyone is available for comment, there are other countries who refuse to conduct separate interviews for different outlets and will simply hold a single press conference.

Considering some of the press coverage in the past, the players' reaction this week has been extreme. Eriksson has always said that he accepts the media's right to criticise performances on the pitch - he more than anyone knows what it is like to be the subject of press coverage of his private life - and the fact is that the vast majority of the recent coverage has been based on football matters.

There may be questions of taste, but the players must accept that performances like the second half against Austria will draw criticism from press and public alike. Eriksson, after all, clearly agreed that it was time to drop James, who was replaced by Paul Robinson.

There will be elements within the FA's hierarchy who might view this as another worrying example of growing player power, which was most evident in the Rio Ferdinand affair last year. Withdrawing media co-operation is one of the most visible protests the players can take - and one which is likely to win some public sympathy - and was a course of action David Beckham threatened to take before Euro 2004 following media coverage of his private life.

One of the ironies is that the majority of the press criticism - with the notable exception of the campaign against James - has been directed not at the players but at Eriksson. The coach is considered by some to be too soft on his big-name players, particularly Beckham, who once again performed poorly here.

"We've motivated his team for him," one arch critic complained after Wednesday's match. Some within the press might even take the view that they deserve some of the credit for forcing Eriksson to make changes, particularly as his other switch on Wednesday, bringing in Jermain Defoe for Alan Smith, was such a resounding success.

While he might not actively encourage a siege mentality, Eriksson knows from Ferguson's example at Manchester United - one that Jose Mourinho is threatening to follow at Chelsea - that it can have a galvanising effect on a team.

The England coach publicly took the side of the players during their protests about the exclusion of Ferdinand from the England squad last year because of a missed drugs test and he said he was not surprised by their actions here. He felt that the treatment of the players had gone beyond acceptable criticism of what they do on the pitch and complained that "there are no limits at all over what you can call people in this country".

He added: "But I try to do my job and that's it. I understand the players. They try to defend all the individual players in the squad and I think there should be some limits."

Not that Eriksson himself is concerned about criticism of the team. "I've always told you that I really don't care," he said. "If I should care about what you as sports writers and other journalists write about me then I should bury myself down in a hole."

One result of the media boycott was that attention was deflected from a mature performance against Poland. Eriksson was particularly pleased with the team's ability to hold on to the ball and was thrilled by Defoe's display. The England coach is rubbing his hands at the thought of having to choose between the Tottenham striker, who scored an excellent goal and looked lively throughout, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen.

Eriksson may also have finally solved the perennial problem on the left of midfield as Wayne Bridge and Ashley Cole again provided more of a threat than Beckham on the right. "They are both attacking left-backs," Eriksson said. "You don't know who is playing at left back and who is playing on the left of midfield. I think they trust each other. They both know if that they go the other one will cover for them."

As is becoming customary, Eriksson rallied to Beckham's defence, pointing out that his captain had played in pain from his rib injury sustained on Saturday. "I'm not concerned about him," Eriksson said. "If I thought we had a better player than Beckham on the right I would change, but I don't think that is the case."