James Lawton: Eriksson self-interest betrays English cause
Monday 29 March 2004
We don't know as a matter of fact what Sven Goran Eriksson's job status would have been this morning if a door-stepping photographer had not caught him going into the flat of the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon, last week. But maybe we are permitted a guess. Perhaps we can assume that he would still be locked in the old game of fending off speculation that he was toying with moves to Chelsea, or Real Madrid, or Internazionale or maybe even the Ikea works team.
There is no doubt a danger of naïveté in any assessment of Eriksson's behaviour - and that of his suitors Chelsea. Yes, we have to live in the real world - we have to understand that football has developed the working ethics of a tank full of piranha. But allowing for that, and the older truth than any man is entitled to seek out the best for himself - it is still hard to celebrate Eriksson's decision to extend his contract to 2008.
This is partly because of his apparently enthusiastic acceptance of the view that loyalty to a commitment, rather than a set of financially binding legalities, is hopelessly old hat.
It has also been less than beguiling to see the Football Association pay him such slavering court. They signed him, they paid him £3.5m a year and their reward - apart from some pathetically inflated assessments of the benefits brought by his reign as England coach - has been to be treated with as much public loyalty as some tottering sugar daddy living in daily fear of betrayal.
The FA has paid the money and played the game, while Sven, flickering his eyelids, has, and now by his own admission, played the field. It is what happens in football, he tells us, with that bland delivery which was first taken as the style of a common man of uncommon understanding of the realities of the game in which he had racked up some considerable achievements. In fact what we had, we know now well enough, is a man of slide-rule calculation in the number one priority of self-interest.
His sharp eye for commercial exploitation of his position on the build up to the 2002 World Cup was a surprise, and a disappointment, to those who fancied he had brought a style of impressive detachment to the pressures of the England job. His affair with a TV girl was his own business, but then again it was another blow to the idea that England had invested in a figure of urbanity and shrewd judgement.
His football achievements with England? Of course they are considerable, but they have been subject to some gross exaggerations. Yes, he picked up the baton impressively after the first hapless World Cup qualifying attempt of Kevin Keegan, and the 5-1 victory in Munich, albeit over a Germany that were completely unrecognisable as the World Cup finalists of less than a year later, seemed to be a landmark of the English game - a desperately flawed interpretation, it was revealed quickly enough. Subsequent qualifying performances against Albania and, particularly, Greece were among the most arid ever produced by an England team.
In the World Cup there was the notable victory over Argentina, one significantly helped by the injury to Owen Hargreaves which meant that the team operated for the rest of the game with a balance that was plainly lacking at the start, and the quarter-final defeat by Brazil revealed absolute bankruptcy in the matter of tactical adjustment. It is also true that he made the disastrous decision to take a half-fit David Beckham and Michael Owen to the world's greatest football tournament, something that would have shocked the only manager of England to win the World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsey.
As a football coach, Eriksson has his virtues. He has a pair of relatively safe hands. He isn't going to dismay us with crackpot religious theories. He isn't going to make tactical howlers, well not for most of the time. But the idea that he is some kind of Svengali of winning football, with just one defeat in competitive football with England, needs some caution. Most of the victories, and draws, have come against second class football nations, including, can anyone forget, Macedonia and Slovakia. His timorous approach to the club-and-country issue - Sven certainly doesn't like to make enemies - has turned England's programme of friendly games into meaningless farce and a stream of cheap caps.
These, anyway, are some of the reasons why the urge to reach for the champagne yesterday was easy enough to contain. Eriksson's style was plainly visible. The man who did not utter a public squeak when his players were threatening to strike before one of the most important games he had faced as England coach, said only what he had to yesterday - but that was infinitely more than England supporters could have expected without the work of the watchful cameraman.
It does not matter that Sven Goran Eriksson is a foreigner, at least not to those of us who welcomed his appointment as one of some considerable imagination. The problem is that we fancied - partly because he told us it was so - that he would bring to the England job the force of his great experience and a considerable amount of pride. When he arrived, he suggested he was embarking on a crusade - not some wretchedly prolonged advertisement for himself.
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