Eriksson continues to vote for democracy

England coach refuses to be drawn on the question of player power on eve of friendly
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The Independent Football

A novel, some might say breathtaking, solution, to the "disciplinary procedures" problem which has so exercised FA officials and the England players before tonight's friendly with Portugal here has been put to coach Sven Goran Eriksson.

It's with some sadness, though, that it has been reported the plan - partly inspired by the fact that England's rugby players managed to score 50 points against Italy in Rome at the weekend without running on to the terraces to whip up their more aggressive supporters, missing a requested drug test, drawing a single arrest for drunk driving, or tossing bottles into the crowd - that the initiative hasn't been too warmly embraced.

You may have already guessed the central point of the proposal. It was for the England footballers to behave themselves and get on with that for which they are so generously rewarded: playing for their country without giving too much of the impression that they are doing the nation a huge favour.

Eriksson is not bowled over by these old imperatives. He said: "I think it is good that the FA and the players are talking about these matters. The FA is working well on this matter. It is right that rules be established. I think the players should be involved in a lot of things, not just 4-4-2. It didn't used to be like that, not 20 years ago, and I think it is good that it is changing."

It certainly didn't used to be like that 38 years ago when when one of Sir Alf Ramsey's World Cup stars famously bid the boss a cheery farewell at Heathrow. "See you next game, Alf," said the world's best goalkeeper, Gordon Banks. And Ramsey delivered his chilling response: "If selected." It wasn't like that when such luminaries as Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton stayed out a little later than the official curfew one night before embarking on a foreign trip. When they returned to their rooms, they found their passports on their pillows. After sleepless nights, they were told that if their replacements could have been summoned in time they would have been sweating out the summer as well as the night.

Times change, of course, and Eriksson is emphatic about the need for democracy. This is true, his demeanour suggested at the time, even if it led all the way to the brink of a strike before the vital game which was to decide whether England would be automatically qualified for the European Championships back here in the summer.

Eriksson's passive role in that extraordinary affair in Istanbul last October was perhaps the supreme demonstration of a style which again here last night carried him through controversy so easily he might have been skating on a frozen pond back home in Sweden.

He was asked about the headlines which greeted his captain David Beckham's intrusion into the debate about whether the FA should have offered him an extension of his contract before the outcome of the European finals. "Tomorrow," he said, "we are playing an important football match. I am here to answer questions about that."

Though it is impossible to imagine England's rugby captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, voicing his thoughts on any negotiations his coach, Clive Woodward, might be having with the Rugby Football Union, it is also true that he has yet to be subjected to the media feeding frenzy which Beckham has learned to handle - and cultivate - so adroitly down the years. Eriksson has of course placed Beckham on a pedestal ... along with most of his key players. Critics may lambast his abandonment of the old dynamic between a hard-driving boss and players required to bend to his will. But in response Eriksson offers pragmatism - great streams of it.

There are unlikely to be too many clues about where it will lead after tonight's game. Again, he insists on his right to go beyond the five substitutions sternly recommended by Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter. Eriksson says he needs the scope for further experiments and those who espouse the classic methods of team-building can only groan. His defence is a superb qualifying record after being handed the apparent wreckage of England's drive to the last World Cup and though there were wretched performances along the way, his team, for all its patchwork quality and constantly shifting personnel, has arrived again at a major tournament.

Democracy has worked for Eriksson, at least to a degree; no one can argue with that. But what will it mean in the climactic phases of another great tournament? How much assurance will there be when the big questions are asked, as they were so bitingly in the second half of the World Cup quarter-final with Brazil? All we can say here is that Eriksson's hand has never been further away from the big stick. Or, the suspicion must be, the moulding of a team disciplined enough to win a major title.