Sven Goran Eriksson will return to the land of his fathers this week apologising for the number of absent friends and, one hopes, the embarrassment he has caused his employers.
Sven Goran Eriksson will return to the land of his fathers this week apologising for the number of absent friends and, one hopes, the embarrassment he has caused his employers. Gary Neville, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole - his first-choice defence - will be among those missing, together with Wayne Bridge, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes, Kieron Dyer, Michael Owen and probably David Beckham. What he cannot leave behind is the baggage in the speculation about his future that will continue to rumble until he finally informs the country of his intentions.
The Football Association, who have been trying to second-guess him for the whole season, had hoped to flush him out by leaking the proposal of a new contract, to run until the 2008 European Championship. Instead, Eriksson has kept his options open, effectively inviting invitations from all quarters while chanting the mantra: "I have a contract until 2006."
A briefing with Sunday newspapers last month before the friendly in Portugal was the closest he has previously come to being pinned down. He replied in the affirmative to the question, "Can you say hand on heart that you will not be Chelsea manager after the European Championship?" but he quickly added: "If I lose three games in Portugal what will your opinion be about the Swedish manager then? And at the same time you want me to sign until 2008."
The honest thing to do now would be to tell the FA about all discussions that have taken place, direct or indirect, adding that he will wish to return to club football at some point and suggesting that they should have a contingency plan in place for next season if Chelsea, Real Madrid, Internazionale or FC Regents Park make an irresistible offer.
His employers, however disappointed they may be, should take a pragmatic line rather than listening to demands for an immediate sacking or resignation. The world has moved on since 1977, when a previous regime attempted to ban Don Revie for 10 years after he lied to them about his whereabouts and went off to a job interview in the Middle East. Furthermore, the eve of England's final friendly before a squad has to be named for Euro 2004 is not the time to change a coach who has been in charge for three and a half years.
It might profitably be noted that the only occasions in the past 35 years in which England have come close to winning a major tournament were when it had been announced that the manager was leaving. Bobby Robson at the 1990 World Cup and Terry Venables at Euro 96 both led their teams to semi-final shoot-outs after the FA declined to offer them new contracts. The players responded, just as Chelsea's are doing at the moment for Claudio Ranieri. The current squad are supportive of Eriksson, appreciating in particular his backing for them - however misjudged - at the time of the Rio Ferdinand affair.
This weekend he said that the FA has learnt from that episode, which did not enhance relations between them. Having the FA Cup Committee block his plans for a winter break and now having to travel without half a team for a match in his homeland this week have done nothing either for the Swede's enjoyment of international football, and nor will the current round of publicity. The FA's dilemna is that they have no obvious replacement either in place or in prospect and were desperate to avoid the whole palaver of seeking one. Hence the desire to offer even more lucrative new terms for as long as the present incumbent will sign up. It is an undignified spectacle all round, likely sooner or later to end with the announcement that a new manager will be appointed this summer.
In the meantime there is a match to be played, and an unfamiliar squad assembling for it. Almost two-thirds of the team Eriksson would like to start with against France on 13 June will be missing, mostly as a result of what he calls the "jungle" of fixture congestion. Rather than openly confronting the kings of that jungle, he has opted to risk losing a friendly match rather than a friendly manager, keeping Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Ranieri onside in order to win their co-operation for the real battle in June. In allowing that trio the option to rest players ahead of Saturday's FA Cup semi-final and the Champions' League return between Arsenal and Chelsea three days later, he also risks accusations about who exactly is picking the England team these days.
"I gave the possibility to the managers to take out players if they needed," Eriksson admitted. "I think it's fair. My job is important and it's important that we have the best team, but I understand them." In the meantime he is trying to make the best of a mad job by challenging Tottenham's Jermain Defoe and Manchester City's Shaun Wright-Phillips to prove in their first international opportunity that they are ready to take advantage of the sort of injury problems that often afflict teams - especially England - at the time of major tournaments. They had mixed news last night, with Wright-Phillips doubtful because of a calf injury, while Defoe's chances were improved by back and ankle injuries that threaten Wayne Rooney's place in the squad.
"I have to see the positive side and see new players," Eriksson said, admitting that he had already changed the squad of 24 "about 10 times". If he was able to name a full-strength party for the summer, the above hopefuls would not be in it. But it is already known that Ferdinand will not be available and past experience suggests he will not be the only one: "Before the World Cup we had Gary Neville out and Steven Gerrard out. If we have all the players fit this summer, we can do very well.
"A big worry is Sol Campbell, who has had a groin problem for a long time and is practising very little, just playing games. The two best centre-halves in the World Cup - one is out, one has a problem. It's a worry."
But not the main worry for Mark Palios and his troops this weekend.Reuse content