Nick Townsend at Germany 2006: Eriksson's legacy to England will not become a standard work of reference
Sunday 02 July 2006
Not even the satisfaction of a funeral in Berlin. The unprepossessing Ruhr Valley industrial city of Gelsenkirchen was the scene of Sven Goran Eriksson's wake. As for open-topped bus rides through London, an honorary knighthood and the belated appreciation of a proud nation, that never appeared his likely destiny from the first contest of this tournament.
That opening game against Paraguay, when England prevailed unconvincingly, appears a lifetime away now. There was constant pretence, until yesterday, that England were merely fooling the world with their apparent ineptitude, and that the £20 million man would lead England into the promised land.
He was blessed with a fine legacy of players, although for all the talk of a "golden generation" it was not one as richly endowed as some of them evidently believe. Yet if there was a system failure, as many of us prophesied there would be, when Eriksson was confronted with the wiles of Luiz Felipe Scolari, there was always an undying belief that Wayne Rooney would be the lone genius who could furnish England with a victory.
If only. Again England ran out of steam at the quarter-final stage, just as they had in 2002 and 2004, and again a penalty shoot-out was the agonising backdrop. Eriksson arrived, the Continental sophisticate, in early 2001, the man who would brush the English game with tactical stardust after Kevin Keegan's ignominious departure. But Sven departs having squandered an opportunity and having bowed to his nemesis Scolari again.
Like royal eras of the past, the Eriksson Years will be remembered for his mistresses, his "betrayals" - first that clandestine meeting with Chelsea, then with the News of the World's "Fake Sheikh" - and an ultimate execution, which could well have been his fate at various intervals during his five-and-a-half-year tenure. Those of us who have insisted that this was a tournament too far for the Swede have been vindicated. Yet it would be a mischievous recycling of history to pretend that we all could have anticipated a sequence of World Cup and European Championship failures from the start.
Other than a minority, who resisted his appoint-ment onxeno- phobic grounds or for a more noble rationale (the genuine belief that all national coaches should represent the land of their birth) most of us were prepared to grant him latitude. After all, Eriksson came laden with over two decades of solid club background, including in Italy, where judgement of a coach is at least as harsh as it is in England. But it is unlikely that his work as England's coach will become a standard work of reference. More likely it demonstrated his profligacy with a group of players rich in potential.
Statistically, he departs with a decent record, though that is illusory. His teams won competitive games, with a few embarrassing exceptions, including the defeat by Northern Ireland in last year's World Cup qualifier, but never progressed to the level required of one of the world's top footballing nations.
He introduced Rooney, though the then teenager would have thrust his frame into any coach's thinking. It was merely a question of when - and when his questionable temperament would destabilise the operation, as it did so painfully in Gelsen-kirchen yesterday.
Eriksson utilised a plethora of players, and dispensed with many. Some did him proud after initial frustration: Joe Cole for one. Some performed well under him, but you suspect some - Steven Gerrard for one - would have discovered even more under a more astute coach. It was never evident that the Swede was confident in his various tactical formations or could respond effectively with substitutions if the opposition's own strategy demanded it.
Did he lack passion? Frankly, even if he did, that should not be employed as a denunciation of his abilities. The ability to summon skip-loads of naked emotion should not suggest that a coach is worth his salary. Otherwise Kevin Keegan would be a billionaire. Few were more demonstrative; in contrast, there were few more phlegmatic individuals than Sir Alf Ramsey.
Like the subject of an Ingmar Bergman film, communication was never Eriksson's forte. Certainly not with the media. And through us, with the public. His English barely improved since he was introduced as a prize capture by the then FA chief executive Adam Crozier, and perhaps wisely Eriksson restricted his observations of his players to a minimum. Also wisely, he did not court favourites in the media. Our dealings with him were generally cordial, if largely unproductive. His reaction "First half good, second half not so good" became a standing joke.
Certain lines of questioning irritated him, particularly that pertaining to his undying approval of his captain David Beckham. After that B international against Belarus he retorted: "I don't understand you, I must say" after he was asked whether the Real Madrid player was an "untouchable". He added: "What do you have in your head? That Beckham doesn't do any damage? How many crosses does he put in? I don't understand you, gentlemen, I must say."
But overall he maintained his composure to a fault. When he attempted to coat his demeanour with menace, as he did when provoked last week, he invariably sounded preposterous. "To win the World Cup, I'm prepared to do whatever," said the Swede ahead of yesterday's confrontation with Portugal. If that means play bad football, then come on - who cares?" One of his acolytes really should have told him how absurd that sounded.
He survived three chief executives - Crozier, Mark Palios and the current incumbent, Brian Barwick - though the principal reason was presumably because he and his "people" persuaded the former to commit the FA to a highly lucrative contract, one which Palios perversely enhanced when it was discovered that Eriksson was prepared to sell his soul to Chelsea.
His dalliances with other women while living with his girlfriend Nancy Dell'Olio were, of course, not a cardinal sin; they were merely an unnecessary distraction for a figurehead of the national game. The relationship with Faria Alam, an FA secretary who was also involved with Palios, may not have been exactly a remake of Profumo, Colonel Ivanov and Christine Keeler, but it was a tawdry business and suggested that the coach's judgement was flawed.
He appeared to be on good terms with his players, but one suspects that is principally because he indulged them, particularly the favoured ones, notably Beckham whom he retained, erroneously in this observer's view, as captain after Peter Taylor had nominated him thus in his one game in charge. He always appeared in awe of Beckham's celebrity.
Now he passes on the baton to a Briton, his No 2, Steve McClaren. The process has not been smooth; like many British teams, it has been dropped in the process. This has not been the most auspicious week for England players. At least Tim Henman could claim he was the victim of an unfortunate draw; England under Eriksson had the benefit of an inviting run through to the final. But it was game, set and match to an old adversary.
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