Ken Jones: Doubts linger, but no team in Europe can boast Eriksson's riches
Friday 14 October 2005
Some colleagues in this dubious trade, have been, understandably, more guarded. Their reaction sprang not from tribal prejudice but the thought that while England put in a vastly improved performance - raising their energy level, their confidence growing - can Sven Goran Eriksson be relied upon to move things even further forward? Eriksson, who claims to be deaf to criticism, is entitled to argue that qualifying England for the World Cup finals in Germany, had been his main objective. The recent past, however, cannot be entirely washed away by the defeat of a Polish team who, on the evidence of their efforts at Old Trafford, will struggle to get beyond the group stage in next year's tournament.
Most of the criticism levelled at Eriksson has been valid. His hands came off the wheel when England surrendered to Brazil in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2002. In Euro 2004 he was equally culpable. Recent events - the 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland, who struggle to get a team together, and the lack of inspiration against Austria last Saturday - were fresh reasons to consider again the possibility that his bland personality was not in the team's best interests.
I put this to the former Chelsea and Manchester United manager Dave Sexton, who was on Eriksson's staff until his retirement earlier this year. "Sven is so calm that it would be easy for people to get the wrong impression," Sexton said. "He has made mistakes, but which manager hasn't? When you are dealing with big players, some of the biggest in the world, shouting doesn't work. But Sven can be as firm as anyone. One of the things that stood out on Wednesday was the effect of that."
Eriksson's relations with the media, particularly with people in the employ of newspapers, have always been, and probably will remain, subject to emotional disturbance, much depending on how England go about their work in the five friendlies scheduled before setting up camp in the Bavarian mountains next May. Anyway, this week has brought a renewal of belief. The England fans, some of whom shouted "Sack the Swede" following the defeat in Belfast, were in buoyant mood at Old Trafford.
In this space last week, I said England will win the World Cup. Plenty happened at Old Trafford to justify that opinion. Eriksson has been charged with confusing his men but here, at last, there was a clarity of purpose. Gone was the lethargy evident in Copenhagen, Cardiff and Belfast. Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips were busily effective on the flanks. Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard sped into open space and moved the ball quickly. England pressed the ball so well that the Poles were restricted to isolated attacks.
Look elsewhere in Europe and you won't find a team so blessed with talent as England, no team capable of reaching the heights now within reach of Eriksson's assembly. The hosts Germany are rebuilding. Spain are still struggling to qualify. Greece, the Euro 2004 champions failed to reach the finals on Wednesday. France haven't had an easy passage to Germany.
I'm not much interested in what Eriksson (£4.2m a year) or any other sportsperson earns. A good reporter can find out the salary of any professional athlete and the last few years have given us a frenzy of money stories on sports pages. Stock market tables disguised as sports stories.
I am interested in how players and managers perform. If the criticism levelled at Eriksson before this week's match was deserved, often it overlooked the sorry state of the England team before he took over four and a half years ago. His biggest blessing has been the emergence of Rooney. Still short of his 20th birthday, he can think confidently of himself as one of the world's leading players. "Sensational," the BBC pundit Alan Hansen said of him.
Jack Charlton once said of the great John Charles that he won matches on his own. Rooney falls into that category: thrusting past defenders, twisting, turning, feinting, shooting, his awareness quite exceptional. No team in the world will be safe from him.
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