Nation stricken by bad case of Sven fever

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The Independent Football

It is a measure of the astonishing transformation that Sven Goran Eriksson has wrought in England's footballing fortunes over the past eight days that one newspaper has taken to moaning about the kick-off times in the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea next year.

Until a short time ago the nation feared that England would not be there at all – indeed, there is still the matter of a game against Greece at Old Trafford on 6 October – and now they find that the event doesn't suit us.

Apparently, the hosts have the temerity to be eight hours ahead of the UK and since, allegedly, they want afternoon kick-offs in the initial group matches it means games starting between 6.30 and 10am our time. Mass stayaways by workers, empty schools and broken-hearted publicans are among the calamities predicted. But even if those kick-off times apply, if would be only for the first round. For the second round, 12.30pm starts are more likely and that goes for the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final, which are at the weekend in any case.

Being able to complain about supposed inconveniences of that degree is a luxury that the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish would happily share.

Of greater importance is what needs to be done long before heading for the Far East. For a start, you would not let that defence loose on the World Cup or, more to the point, let the World Cup loose on that defence. This may be churlish to mention but since Eriksson's main, and most tiresome, task is to keep feet firmly planted on the ground we are entitled to apply a little perspective to recent events.

What Eriksson has achieved in a relatively short time is highly impressive. I was a Terry Venables man myself and I would still have liked to see how he fared. His methods would not have compared with the Swede's but he would have relished the younger players who have confirmed their class over the past week. Eriksson has not been unconnected with their progress but it was a fortuitous time to begin.

Without doubt, Eriksson is a highly gifted coach, organiser and motivator and his calm and intelligent approach has enabled him to deal imaginatively with the nation as well as its football team. I'm sure he'll even establish some sort of restraining rapport with the hooligans eventually but whether he will ever achieve any control over the tabloids is less certain.

Amid all the hat-throwing and mouth-foaming in the immediate aftermath of Munich he was busy attempting to dampen down the euphoria and urging everyone to apply the right perspective to the result.

A coach does not have to be a genius to realise that a great victory early in his reign can prove to be a burden and, additionally, Eriksson would know that the most dangerous demon his predecessors had to deal with was high expectation – and they had nothing like a 5-1 victory over Germany to cause it.

The way he put the victory into context during a long and expertly-worded press conference was a masterpiece of public relations and his warning that a reaction in the next match was inevitable unless his players made a rapid descent from the clouds obviously applied to the country at large.

This made a big impact at the Sun newspaper where they must have thought long and hard about how best they could reflect his calming words before devoting their entire front page on the day of the Albania match to the words: "HIT 'EM FOR SIX".

But although there are some areas likely to remain impenetrable to rational thought, most would have been prepared for a lesser achievement on Wednesday evening. They might not have been ready for such a quick reminder of how England have deported themselves in front of goal for most of the last 30 years but there was more than enough quality in the two goals they did score to compensate for that.

Once the Greek match is over he can settle down to weigh up his strengths and weaknesses. David Beckham's emergence as a tireless exhorter who knows precisely what to do next is astounding. To survive the pressure piled upon him by his own petulance and the grotesque publicity surrounding his marriage and fatherhood marks him as a very special young man.

The way Michael Owen has discarded the heavy cross carried by all those who fail to realise their potential is an astounding part of the fairy tale. What caused the delay in his final arrival? And what about Robbie Fowler? If Gérard Houllier was a bad hairdresser he could not have caused more upset with his perms.

Which brings us to the main prize placed in Eriksson's lap by the events that have unfolded since a week last night. He can now, surely, depend on the wholehearted co-operation of the clubs. England have been slipping down the list of priorities in recent years. The prospect of Japan and South Korea in nine months time should bring him assistance undreamed of by his luckless predecessors.

Ghostly misunderstandings

Whatever the size of the fine imposed on Austin Healey for the article that appeared under his name in The Guardian before the Lions decider against Australia, I think it was justified. Freedom of speech is worth defending but not the right of someone to insult an opponent in print; even someone like Justin Harrison, who had been loutish to him in previous matches.

I do not believe it had a bearing on the outcome or that it upset morale as Matt Dawson's earlier outburst had done. But that's not the point and I hope that in future they either ban players and coaches from writing at all during a tour or they should censor them.

Part of Healey's defence was that his ghost writer, Eddie Butler, was responsible for the offending words and Eddie was big enough to step forward to claim the blame. Since Eddie, and the paper, had spent much of the tour toning down Healey's entertaining offerings I cannot accept that the writer was the culprit and, in any case, it was Healey's responsibility to check it.

Ghost writing is a maligned occupation. I've been doing it for over 40 years and I'm still at it and regard it as a legitimate part of the profession. The paper pays for a player's views and the insights and we weave them loosely into something approaching readability.

As my old sports editor used to say: "Give us the words and we'll write the music." But I insist they read every line because there's a clear moral here – don't let your ghost writer haunt you for the rest of your life.

As for a ghost being haunted, the story of the scribe delegated to write a column for the England captain Bobby Moore in 1973 would chill the spine of any sportswriter. It was only seven years since England had won the World Cup and had travelled to play Poland in Katowice in a vital qualifying tie for the 1974 World Cup. Poland won and Moore was among the culprits.

The England squad were then moving on to Moscow to play the USSR and when we all clambered aboard the charter plane the crew helpfully handed out the English newspapers in which manager Alf Ramsey had been crucified (had Sven witnessed it, he would never had taken the job). The result was a freeze-out of the press. We were staying in a different hotel and were banned from entering England's, which was no use to Moore's ghost.

Refused entry at the front door, he wandered round to the side and began calling Moore's name plaintively at the towering building. Miraculously, a window several floors up was opened and Moore's head popped out.

"Bobby," screamed the ghost. "What have you go to say?" "I'm gutted," replied Moore, closing the window against the cold Moscow air.

Try writing 800 words on that.