James Lawton: Eriksson finally starts acting like the boss in effort to master art of self-preservation

The truth is that the dropping of Ferdinand was what Americans call a 'no brainer'
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The Independent Football

Perhaps it came to Sven, while reading his own horrendous notices, that in real life this stuff happens all the time. It's called various things from decisiveness to self-preservation, and it is underpinned by one very sound premise. It is that, sooner or later, competitive life will always revoke a free ticket and perhaps even £100,000-a-week wages. You have to pay the freight, you have to justify yourself. If you don't, it's the same in any language - sayonara, adios, bon voyage, cheerio, pip pip.

In reacting to the recently catastrophic dichotomy of Ferdinand's elegance on the ball and his light-headedness off it, and by earlier telling David James that he had dragged England into one pantomime too many, Eriksson has not overnight become the Oliver Cromwell of English football. Indeed, the Lord Protector of stern values and instant accountability he may never be, but then we should give him some credit for standing and fighting, finally, the most consistent and self-inflicted curse of a reign that has become so discredited. He has grasped the fact that he is charge. He has at a very late hour of a World Cup qualifying campaign that, given his playing resources, should always have been a formality, maybe remembered what leadership is supposed to be. One of its greatest demands is strength in both your decisions and your presence.

The unavoidable truth is that the dropping of Ferdinand was what the Americans call a "no brainer", and this status could only have been confirmed by reports that the player has been less than a monument to zeal in training over the last few days. Earlier in the week he had been droning on about always setting himself the highest standards, but, like everyone else, occasionally slipping a notch or two, which wasn't a calamity, just something to be rectified, presumably somewhere between the lunch counter at Harvey Nichols and some late-night, fancy watering hole.

When the censure of the Ice Man this week at last fell upon a member of the exclusive section of the England club, it was appropriate that the victim should be Ferdinand and not just because he has been playing recently for both England and Manchester United with something not much short of suicidal nonchalance. It is also true that no one, albeit indirectly, had been quite such a factor in the sense that the coach had surrendered all effective control of the team.

This denouement came in Istanbul two years ago, when Ferdinand was left out of the squad, by order of the Football Association, after he had failed to take a drugs test. While Eriksson tried to prepare the team for a vital European Championship qualifier, Gary Neville, one of his senior players, was talking about a strike protest in support of Ferdinand. From Eriksson there was no ringing statement of command, no suggestion that certain players had lost all reasonable understanding of their role, and his abdication of responsibility was particularly disturbing in the light of an incident at the team's headquarters in England before the flight to Turkey.

While England players were furiously debating their stance on the Ferdinand "injustice", Eriksson and his fellow coaches were having dinner. Then the captain, David Beckham, in the dining room and from some distance summoned Eriksson to a players' meeting. His meal unfinished, Eriksson duly went along. Eyewitnesses were stunned.

Another ludicrous example of the slippage of Eriksson's leadership came in Azerbaijan last year when Beckham claimed Machiavellian subtlety after receiving a yellow card for a petulant tackle on Welsh full-back Ben Thatcher. Beckham rang up a reporter to say that it was all a device to serve out a suspension while he was injured, the practical move of a cool-headed pro.

No matter that the tackle had looked like something out of a playpen for disturbed children, Beckham's story was only challenged seriously by Sir Geoff Hurst, who was dismayed by Eriksson's bland, uncritical reaction. Hurst made the point that should have carried some resonance for a coach who claimed to have studied the fate of all his predecessors before taking the England job. He said that the nation's only World Cup-winning manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, would probably have stripped the captaincy from Bobby Moore had he publicly attempted to make a virtue of cheating.

That episode, as much as any other, gave credence to the idea that the inmates had taken control of the asylum, a belief that was only strengthened by the contortions Eriksson made to keep Beckham, out of position, in the team that laboured so leadenly against Wales and crumbled so alarmingly in Belfast last month.

Now there are at least intimations of genuine leadership, though the dropping of Ferdinand is only bold when set against the previously well-grounded notion that the likes of Ferdinand, Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were utterly fireproof whatever their form in an England shirt. But it does speak of a certain awareness by Eriksson that it is he who in the end will carry the biggest cost, at least in terms of reputation, for another substandard performance in a major tournament.

It would be another nudge towards this conclusion if it turns out that Beckham's announcement that he will no longer take penalties for England wasn't entirely his own decision. Certainly, he was emphatic that he still wanted the job after his third successive miss from the spot as England trailed out of Euro 2004, and this, he said, would remain the case if the barren run reached six or seven.

Why the change of mind? It is encouraging to imagine it might just have something to do with the fact that one morning this week Sven Goran Eriksson woke up with a novel idea. Maybe he would start acting like the boss.

You can groom a horse, but not a coach...

Whatever the fate of his bid for World Cup glory, Sven Goran Eriksson should quietly shelve his other assignment from the Football Association. Maybe the FA was looking for a bit of value for money from their £4m-plus coach when they asked to him work on grooming his successor, but the request was utterly misguided.

You cannot groom a winning coach. It hasn't happened yet, and it never will. The great coaches and managers groom themselves. They are born to the job and they prepare themselves with a mixture of passion and intelligence. They are appointed not because of the quality of their grounding but the strength of their body of work. No doubt, Jose Mourinho learnt a lot from Sir Bobby Robson, and Martin O'Neill from Brian Clough, but they didn't swallow a set of rules, they picked out all that they could use of a master's art. Then they went their own way.

Did anyone groom Bill Shankly, Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein? Of course not. They grew up in football, they saw the good and the bad and the indifferent, and they followed their own vision.

The grooming idea was spawned at the FA by Howard Wilkinson, the former technical director. When Kevin Keegan was hired, part of the criteria for the job was whether he could work with Wilkinson, and at one point that was going to be the question facing his successor. However, Eriksson had his own big reputation at the time and the obligation was dropped around about the time Wilkinson left the FA. Now the absurdity has returned but what so far, after two major tournaments and an erratic qualifying campaign in a group of life rather than death, has the regime of Eriksson inspired in any of the three candidates mentioned: Steve McClaren, Peter Taylor and Sammy Lee?

In fairness to them, they have to be judged in their own right. And how do they make their case? By the strength they show in their own commands. It is the classic way. It is the only way.