James Lawton: How did I get it so wrong on Sven and City? By ignoring the wisdom of Miljanic

Click to follow
The Independent Football

However frequently that sheer gut instinct for what is going to happen next cuts a coruscating passage through the vagaries of life, and in this case football, it is probably fair to say that Manchester City, so resilient and measured in everything they did when holding the Pompey who tore big Sam Allardyce's Newcastle to pieces a week earlier, are running somewhat ahead of expectations.

The need for such an admission is quite pressing here because, as some rather mocking, if not sneering, e-mails have reminded me, I had them down for relegation.

No, not some over-priced languishing in the mediocrity that had beset them almost without a break since the magical partnership of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison broke up 35 years ago, but the big drop, the great abyss. No, there could be no shilly-shallying around the fact that it was Sven's sayanora to the last of his credibility as a front rank football manager.

For anyone who knew anything about football the impending story was written boldly in the sky and there was simply a duty to pass it on.

You just can't pick up the phone to a few fancy priced agents, flick through a video or two, shell out £40m, and expect to compete with a team like Manchester United. Of course you can't.

Well, of course, Sven did. He beat United when there was still a breath of summer in the air – a few days after a stunning exposition of smoothly drilled teamwork for an opening day victory at West Ham.

Now, with more than a quarter of a season complete, City sit snugly in a Champions' League slot.

Elano, the Brazilian hardly anyone had heard of outside of Eriksson and his information network, is a folk hero of often dazzling skill, and even the defence buttressed by Micah Richards and Richard Dunne, has been sealed up after shipping six goals against Chelsea.

How could anyone – OK, if you insist, how could I – get it so wrong?

Two basic reasons. One was to forget that running a club, something Eriksson did with conspicuous success over many years in his native Sweden, Portugal and Italy, and a national team present two quite separate challenges. The other was to imagine that the old Eriksson who presented the scudetto to Lazio as his parting gift before taking up the England job, had become a burned-out case, softened by his forgiving bosses at the Football Association and lulled into the belief that he could ride any storm, however haplessly he had provoked it, and still finish up counting his fortune.

The most serious error was to imagine that the increasing feebleness of his England regime, his inability to make hard decisions, his appalling favouritism, and – in the quarter-finals of three major tournaments – his failure to adapt to highly pressurised situations would inevitably be transferred to his new assignment.

This assumption was to ignore the possibility that Eriksson's move to Manchester would re-ignite in him some of the qualities that initially made his selection as England's new coach so welcome in so many quarters, including this one. He came here as an erudite figure of easy charm, someone with an implicit understanding that football was a game which could only be made easy by hard work – and that there could be no greater antidote to the problems that wiped out so many of his predecessors than a touch of common sense.

But then the killing error in assessing his chances at the City of Manchester Stadium was to ignore the wisdom of Miljan Miljanic, the outstanding coach of Red Star Belgrade, Real Madrid and, for the World Cups of 1974 and 82, the old Yugoslav national team. Miljanic was a brilliant club manager who was once seen by Arsenal as a potential successor to the Bertie Mee-Don Howe combo which delivered the 1971 Double success. After winning 10 trophies with Red Star and back to back La Liga titles with Real, he concluded that there was a clear difference between shaping club and national teams.

At club level you applied a system that catered for the needs of your players. It was something that could be adapted and grooved according to your level of talent. At the national level it was quite different. You had a system that was just about immutable. There was very little time to experiment with new styles, new wrinkles. You didn't flirt with midfield diamonds from one match to the next, even in mid-tournament, you did as Sir Alf Ramsey did on the build up to England's one World Cup success in 1966. You had a system, in this case 4-3-3, into which players, who spent so little time in each other's playing company during the course of the year, were obliged to operate. You also made some quick decisions about who best fitted where. You wouldn't, for example, have Paul Scholes, your most naturally creative central midfielder by some distance, operating on the left wing. You wouldn't have David Beckham playing, on one bizarre occasion, in front of the back four.

But then it is not the time to bury Sven Goran Eriksson all over again. Whatever you think of his England record, however you gauge the level of disappointment, it is surely no hardship to admit that he has returned to the world of club football with an assurance – and a cool handling of an astoundingly successful start – that has brought him back to the front rank of football management. Yes, these are still relatively early days – City are not yet in Europe, but then they are, for the first time in so many years, a long way from that dull place where survival was an optimum condition.

Indeed, watching City is no longer to agonise over the time players like Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee and Colin Bell played football that had a brilliant urgency which has rarely been matched let alone surpassed by any English club in all the ensuing years. City play football again, not yet at the level the ferocious Allison inspired, but in a way that lights up the future with more than a touch of genuine excitement.

City are not going to be relegated. No, you didn't hear it here first. But then, if you didn't notice, there is a little blood on the page.

Harmison hernia is fixed – now what about his head?

Steve Harmison is showing some superb form for the Highveld Lions in South Africa as he attempts to remind England coach Peter Moores that with his hernia mended he still represents the most potent pace threat available for the coming tour of Sri Lanka.

It's good news about the Harmison hernia – but what about the Harmison head? That surely remains the crucial question mark over a talent that emerged from his former coach Duncan Fletcher's memoirs only slightly less shop-soiled than that of his friend and team-mate Andrew Flintoff. Fletcher's abject worry was that to discipline Flintoff would also disenchant Harmison.

This was after Harmison's catastrophic opening sally in the Ashes debacle – a delivery that sped directly to second slip.

Fletcher did not cement many friendships with his lacerating account of one of England's greatest sports disasters. But he did give a lucid picture of the team's most serious handicap. It was a shortfall in grown-up players. Harmison may be playing out of his skin in South Africa but then for Moores the most pressing question is what is happening inside it.

The best hope is that it is something of a late maturing process – before time is called in the last chance saloon.

Lewis' fine legacy should not be so easily forgotten

David Haye's impressive performance in winning two world cruiserweight titles in Paris earned him a tribute that is sure to linger in the mind. He was described as the champion who looked like Audley Harrison but fought like Lennox Lewis.

In the new age of the nation's boxing, when men like Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and now Haye, are proving both their talent and their self-belief, the mention of Lewis is maybe a little overdue.

Two knock-outs, by Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, though both avenged, and with considerable interest in the Rahman case, threaten Lewis's place in the roll call of great native fighters. However, he should not be too easily forgotten in the renaissance of British boxing. Before the heavyweight division became a wasteland, Lewis carried the flag – the British one, that is – against anyone who had the nerve to stand against him. It is a fine legacy.