James Lawton: Up for sale: an England manager's aloofness

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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson, who likes to play Garbo, stepped out of character yesterday. In effect he put on a sandwich board on behalf of a computer company while still wearing the clothes of England manager. For once, they didn't begin to fit.

It was, when you looked at all the circumstances, his first false step since he coolly walked through a wall of high-pitched chauvinism early last year.

Eriksson is paid around £2m a year by the Football Association, a figure which was only deemed inflationary for as long as it took him to show the "impossible job" was perhaps a little less so when attacked with a degree of style and common sense. But there was not much style apparent yesterday when a bunch of disgruntled football writers, drawn to a west London press conference in the hope that he might give a few rare insights into his World Cup strategy, were told that he was willing only to talk about the wonders of a computer game built around the demands of his job.

The deal was that access was available only to those journalists whose newspapers agreed to publish a "branded official image" – and launch details – of the World Cup-based game software whose producers hold a promotional contract with the England manager.

There it was, as bold as the brass now being plundered from all sides in the game which used to think the last word in largesse was Sir Stanley Matthews' advertising deal with the Co-op.

Plug the product, press the tape recorder button. Nothing to get too worked up about, you might say – especially when you recall that Eriksson's immediate predecessors, Kevin Keegan and Glenn Hoddle, respectively held a directorship in an on-line betting company and a book publication and newspaper serialisation deal for, among other properties, a fly-on-the-wall account of how a sobriety-challenged Paul Gascoigne reacted to the news that his international career was dead.

By comparison it might be said that Sven has merely copped a misdemeanour. But it is one which unfortunately strikes at the very heart of his strength. Eriksson's gift to English football has been a brilliant aloofness. He would do his job. He would not be drawn into the maelstrom of controversy which engulfed so many previous England coaches. He would step with beautiful judgement through the minefield. Now he does a selling gig in the garb of the national football manager, a task with ludicrous potential for loss of dignity – and worse.

It is sure to recall for some the occasion when the Everton striker Duncan Ferguson, whose detestation of the media dates back to the time in Scotland when it had the temerity to report that he had been sent to prison for assault, convened a press conference to discuss solely the quality of his football boots. His sponsors, like Eriksson's, had specified that the thrust of the questioning would concern the wonders of their product rather than items of more immediate interest, but naturally his interrogators tried it on. After he said for the umpteenth time that he was only there to discuss his boots, the inevitable question duly arrived. "Will they help you to forge an effective partnership with Kevin Campbell?"

For the urbane Eriksson, owner of a palatial home near Regent's Park and desirable addresses in places such as Rome and Lisbon, to have his duties as England coach linked so closely with naked salesmanship on the pretext of news is surely a strange lapse of judgement in a man who plainly knows the value of keeping his own counsel.

Keegan, Hoddle and Graham Taylor did themselves heavy damage with their willingness to say more or less anything that popped into their heads. Keegan made himself a hostage to his own quotes almost every time he opened his mouth. Hoddle literally talked himself out of the job. Taylor signed up for a documentary which turned into something close to a professional suicide note.

Eriksson is surely too sophisticated to make such blunders, but yesterday he was part of something which seemed to make a vice out of what some of us thought might be a virtue. There was a strong, clear value to his decision not to perform for the media circus. If he had the confidence of the players, if he could walk blindfold through media traps that had so fatally ensnared some of his predecessors, and if he could do something as remarkable as beat Germany 5-1 away from home without a hint of triumphalism, we could go without his stream of consciousness. Eriksson was his own man, and so be it as he worked to wipe away the doubts about England's ability to qualify for the World Cup. But yesterday he was not his own man. He was the England coach owned by a computer outfit. His status and his function was annexed in the cause of selling a toy.

There is nothing wrong with a celebrity helping to sell a product. Eriksson could eat Shredded Wheat for the cameras, as Hoddle did before the break-up of his marriage. But that did not involve a cynical exploitation of his role as England manager. It did not have journalists attending a press conference in the hope that they would hear more from Eriksson than the endorsement of a product at a time when the nation is aglow with interest in the build-up to a World Cup. It was not a crude crossing of the line which naturally separates journalists from advertising copywriters.

His principal employers were certainly not eager to talk about yesterday's arrangement. Paul Newman, the FA's official spokesman, said simply: "What Sven does privately is entirely a matter for him." Sam Hughes, the account manager of Proactive Sports Management Ltd, which laid down the terms of yesterday's gathering, was equally succinct. She explained: "We have paid for a certain amount of his time, and this is part of it."

The problem is that Eriksson did not accept payment for his time "privately" as just another celebrity. He did it as the manager of England, the guardian of the country's highest football hopes. It means that his time, and his aloofness, is not quite as precious as we thought. Indeed, it is for sale.