Eriksson and England exposed by comparison

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The Independent Football

A year from now, the mood may have swung more than a Flintoff delivery; and the Swede may have been offered a further advance on his £4m-a-year salary to "defend England's trophy". But that appears a distant fantasy. For the moment, judgement is harsh, because it is made through the same expectant eyes of those who have witnessed cricket and rugby union causing their most avowed rivals to question that sporting offshoot of Darwin's theory of evolution: the southern hemisphere's natural domination of those sports.

Sir Clive Woodward's good works may be receding in our memories, but England are still rugby union world champions. Three-fifths of the way through the Ashes series, and England stand locked in combat with the world's finest, albeit the last encounter was, lest we forget, a draw. A compelling, emotionally charged, sweaty-palmed kind of draw, but a draw nonetheless. Yet it was an occasion to laud England's performers almost without exception, 48 hours before the footballers languished.

After Copenhagen, the apparent limitations of Eriksson and his lieutenants in the command centre were placed in harsh perspective by Michael Vaughan's captaincy, his defiant response to his batting deficiencies earlier in the series, and Duncan Fletcher's expertise behind the scenes.

Such an environment placed Eriksson under particular scrutiny. The week began for the Swede with Robbie Fowler's excoriation of him as "a long-ball merchant", "bankrupt" of ideas. Now, there are worse things than being savaged by a man whose only admiration is reserved for Eriksson's womanising - "he's obviously a bit of a rascal, so he can't be all bad". Nevertheless, once the boards have begun to creak with turning worms, it's surprising how fragile the floor becomes. The spectacle of Eriksson's girlfriend, the lawyer Nancy Dell'Olio, in photographs doing limbering-up exercises clad in an England football shirt, hardly enhanced his profile, any more than yesterday's tabloid reports of continued phone calls to the former FA secretary Faria Alam.

In truth, though, those are just tacky incidentals, as was the refusenik Alan Smith's failure to travel, in the context of the 4-1 defeat. But that needn't trouble him, because, regardless of events now, or, indeed, in Germany next year, his stewardship is secure until 2008, according to the FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick.

You have to question whether that is credible. Victory would almost certainly precede Eriksson's return to club football. Why stay? Failure - a third time - would suggest the Swede was unable to propel England to the zenith of their ambitions, and one would expect him to resign. Better club-land, where his reputation was born, than never-land.

For the moment, though, he remains untouchable. England will qualify, as they always should have. He is blessed with a core of world-class players, if with lack of substance beneath, and he may proceed to make fools of us sceptics next June. But until that time, doubts will persist about a man who takes reticence to respond, even under the supreme provocation - whether irreverent questioning or his players' paucity of performance - to extraordinary lengths.

In truth, this time he did come over as Mr Slightly Angry, but you cannot imagine that his men suffered a Fergie fusillade, and isn't that how we prefer our managers? Isn't it far better that differences are aired rather than endured in a simmering silence? Contrast the Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho's reaction to the whingeing of a "dropped" Ricardo Carvalho, for example. "He seems to have difficulty in understanding things," Mourinho retorted, suggesting that the Portuguese centre-back is taken to a specialist. "They can give him an IQ test."

Can you imagine Mourinho managing England? Unfortunately, neither he nor Arsène Wenger, nor Sir Alex Ferguson, would entertain the position. Which means unless FA tentacles capture foreign prey again, they will go for a home-reared product. Steve McClaren is clear favourite, followed in the bookmakers' lists by Martin O'Neill, Alan Curbishley, Steve Bruce, Bryan Robson, Peter Taylor, Stuart Pearce and Sam Allardyce.

One name stands out: Stuart Pearce. From Sven the restrained to the man they call "Psycho". At the very least there could be no complaints about an absence of motivational fervour...

No winners in that captivating denouement at Old Trafford on Monday evening, only the viewers among a peak 7.7 million on Channel 4, but according to a plethora of assorted observers, many losers once Sky get their grasping hands on the game.

Some with vested interests, like Luke Johnson, the chairman of Channel 4, who opined: "They went for the money and they will find they have made a terrible mistake." Some well-meaning, like Kate Hoey, the former sports minister, who asks rhetorically: "How many of these [the 7.7m] were youngsters on their school holidays, enjoying the discovery of how exciting cricket can be?" Who knows precisely? A third, I thought. A quarter maybe. In fact, those watching at peak and average times who were aged between four and 14 numbered a mere 7 per cent.

It is one of a number of misconceptions which, as a cricket-loving acquaintance suggested, have been responsible for a "fair amount of emotionally laden tosh" since Old Trafford.

Financially, it's a complex issue, with Channel 4 reportedly wanting less cricket for 2006-09 at a lower price in a joint C4/Sky deal. Ultimately, Sky's bid of £52m a year for the entire summer's cricket won the day, the England and Wales Cricket Board claiming that failure to conclude that deal would have meant, apart from the effect on academies and coaching initiatives, cuts in the England budget.

But are the fears of opponents of the four-year agreement justified? Statistics abound, but there is a distinct impression that the landscape of Britain is changing as the analogue switch-off looms. It's impossible to estimate how many homes with sports-loving youngsters have access to satellite and cable. However, the predictions that by next summer, 90 per cent of children will live in "multi-channel" (with more than the basic four or five terrestrial channels) homes give us an idea.

The arguments echo those voiced against the live football agreement- except we are 15 years down the line. It was feared then that people would not attend live games and sponsors would desert the sport. Neither has been true.

Not that this is likely to persuade the ECB deal's detractors. But then you will never convince those whose beliefs are based primarily on historic prejudice.

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