Expensive Eriksson on borrowed time

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The Independent Football

This week Sven Goran Eriksson ­ his job saved by "a legal loophole" according to "exclusive" tabloid extacts today ­ will once more be preoccupied by what he said, or did not say, to David Davies. But this time it really is, thankfully, just about football and not affairs. Davies, the Football Association's executive director, is still far from in the clear over his role in Eriksson's relationship with secretary Faria Alam and the conversations he had with the England coach. As it stands, Davies's contract is unlikely to be renewed, and his post may well be abolished in a shake-up of the FA later this week.

But Davies may also, inadvertently, have raised the pressure on Eriksson, his friend, through his negotiations over the sequence of fixtures England face in the qualification campaign for the 2006 World Cup. A bad start and the calls for Eriksson to go ­ multi-million pound payoff or not ­ would be deafening.

Davies's brief when he sat down last spring with the representatives of the other nations in Group Six was clear: no fixture in June next year, avoiding away games towards the end of the season; and no potentially explosive final game against either Wales or Northern Ireland.

Consequently, that meant an away double-header next month against Austria, on 4 September, and Poland just four days later, followed by a home match against Wales on 9 October and then a trip into the unknown ­ away to Azerbaijan, again four days later.

Having implored to be judged by results alone ­ a message that was restated by his assistant, Tord Grip, yesterday ­ Eriksson will suddenly view these games with a greater sense of trepidation than he did when the fixtures were drawn up.

More than that, he also knows that England, first of all, have to face Ukraine at St James' Park, Newcastle, on 18 August, and he will announce his squad for that encounter a week today.

If Eriksson has already watched the tape of how the Ukrainians smothered France prior to Euro 2004, with their sweeper and two man-markers, he will know that it could be a deeply frustrating evening. And the crowd won't like that.

Now is the time for a confident, winning display, not a sterile draw, but having been shorn of his two most creative players, the newly retired Paul Scholes and the injured Wayne Rooney, Eriksson is in need of inspiration from somewhere. It may be that he turns to the man who missed out in Portugal, Tottenham's Jermain Defoe, with Kieron Dyer, on his home ground, in midfield.

Eriksson will also be without Sol Campbell through injury, and still Rio Ferdinand through suspension, although Ledley King should deputise ­ and, it is hoped, shackle Europe's most lethal striker, Andriy Shevchenko. If he doesn't, a defeat would leave Eriksson dramatically on the back foot once more as he flies to Vienna, especially if Rooney remains absent.

It is a fixture England should win, but the Austrian coach, Hans Krankl, has already spoken of his relish for the encounter, while the match became the fastest sell-out in Austrian football history. The atmosphere, for Krankl, should crackle. England will then go on to Katowice knowing they have an impressive record on Polish soil ­ but also aware that their opponents are on an upswing again having recently put together seven straight wins, including a defeat of Italy. Two losses would be unthinkable, but not impossible, and suddenly, Eriksson knows, his position would be untenable.

He has to get it right. On his coaching staff he may well bring back Brian Kidd, who missed Euro 2004 as he recov-ered from prostate cancer, in place of Middlesbrough's Steve McClaren ­ ironically the bookmakers, and the FA's, favourite to replace Eriksson.

The scenarios are being played in the heads of everyone at the FA, as are the off-the-field possibilities. High among those is the eventual removal of Davies, especially, as some board members have suggested, if a new chief executive is appointed with a slimmed-down management team. There will also be discussions as to whether the FA should cede more power to the Premier League and Football League and simply become an administrative body.

Many believe now is the time for a "root-and-branch" reform and it could be the big clubs who seize more power. The albeit temporary promotion of the Premier League's Dave Richards ­ to help beleaguered FA chairman Geoff Thompson ­ is significant.

Eriksson knows he has his enemies among those powerbrokers who will be scouring today's newspapers. Faria Alam's revelations are kind to Eriksson whom she calls "a master of love", but she is scathing of her other lover, the now departed chief executive, Mark Palios. "He wanted the FA to be like the Vatican and stand for the highest principles," she tells the Mail on Sunday. "He felt Sven was more trouble than he was worth. I don't think he trusted Sven and he was very concerned that his interest in women would detract from his job as England coach."

Suggestions that Faria was flown out to meet Eriksson in Portugal will not have gone unnoticed. But the Swede's enemies will need something solid to depose him right now. And that may come from football results and nothing else. "I believe we will answer any criticism on the pitch," Grip said yesterday. Eriksson does indeed have a superb record in qualifying campaigns. He will have to maintain it and, more than ever, earn that exorbitant £4m-a-year salary.

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