Ken Jones: Eriksson forgets that England are historical chokers

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The Independent Football

While we sing the music and muse over the madness of this sporting life, we must, as they say, keep our eye on the ball: people. For me the fun of games is the opportunity to observe the splendour and the absurdity of people as they truly are, revealed in their unconscious actions and utterances.

While we sing the music and muse over the madness of this sporting life, we must, as they say, keep our eye on the ball: people. For me the fun of games is the opportunity to observe the splendour and the absurdity of people as they truly are, revealed in their unconscious actions and utterances.

These thoughts returned to me earlier this week when watching on television an interview given by Sven Goran Eriksson in which he played down the quite understandable notion that the late destruction of England's commendable effort against France in Lisbon last Sunday would eat into their confidence.

Eriksson stated emphatically that his team's failure to protect the slender lead that was overturned by Zinedine Zidane's dramatic interventions was completely out of character and would not happen again. This left me with the impression that Eriksson has never taken the trouble to examine the lessons of England's football history as set out by a friend who once toiled in this trade.

We got around to recalling events that had caused him, as an English patriot, to suffer more anguish that is good for the soul. Even in 1966 when England achieved their only success in a major football tournament. On the brink of victory, England were taken into extra time by Wolfgang Weber's equaliser.

If emotions were put through the ringer that day it was nothing to what happened in Leon, Mexico four years later. Leading West Germany 2-0 in the quarter-finals with 20 minutes left to play, England conceded two goals and were beaten in extra-time after which Sir Alf Ramsey was called to account for bringing off Bobby Charlton in the confident assumption the game was safe.

Of course, elimination from the 1970 World Cup caused much greater pain than the loss in Lisbon, which will take on no more than the proportions of a temporary setback if England regain their nerve and qualify for the knock-out stages. Nevertheless, there are enough painful memories to cause anxiety in England's supporters.

If they have acquired a sense of reality, which I doubt, it is no less than a rather fearful awareness of England's past failures to consolidate status as one of the game's great powers. Both in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship they were put out by West Germany in penalty shoot-outs. In Euro 2000 they surrendered a two-goal lead against Portugal and went out at the group stage when Phil Neville conceded an 89th-minute penalty that brought about a 3-2 defeat by Romania.

By way of thoughtful reacting, and from long experience, I can only say that England's record should be much better. That it isn't cannot be traced to lack of resolve, misplaced arrogance or lack of talent. Luck comes into the success of any sports team but it comes second to a winning habit. It is a habit England have failed to build on since 1966.

The loss in Lisbon was made more painful for England because of how close they came to thwarting the tournament favourites with flawless defensive play and devotion to a game plan that held up until Emile Heskey foolishly gave away the free-kick from which Zinedine Zidane equalised in injury time. Where Zidane, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet were expected to be a constant threat they were kept at bay by cohesive covering.

As I sat watching the game unfold, and having taken the generous 3-1 against England, it began to look as though England had the measure of the European Champions and that it would take exceptional skill to break them down. Frank Lampard's goal and Wayne Rooney's muscular persistence strengthened this belief until Fabien Barthez saved David Beckham's penalty kick.

Shortly afterwards, some 10 minutes or so, I picked up the telephone to hear the voice of an old international whose custom is to call me on these occasions. "England could give this away," he said. "They've given up too much of the pitch and the ball keeps coming back at them." It was valid criticism, which is more than can be said about the efforts of newspaper critics who still regard Eriksson with deep suspicion.

According to one strident member of that unhappy breed England's defeat was entirely down to their coach. But how could Eriksson be blamed for Heskey's lack of concentration and the aberration of Steven Gerrard's back-pass? These are crosses every coach has to bear.

Eriksson's only mistake was to propose confidently that the circumstances of England's disappointment will not be repeated. History, however, tells us that England, more than any other football power, have ended up with nothing to show from critical games they were in position to win.

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