Peter Corrigan: A friendly question: can we take Sven seriously?

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The Independent Online

Most of those who have spent the past few days moaning about the farcical futility of yet another friendly international featuring the massed bands of Sven Goran Eriksson's England have missed an important point. The match in Gothenburg on Wednesday was staged to mark the centenary of the Swedish Football Association, so it should have been viewed as less of a game and more of a celebration of Swede FA.

Most of those who have spent the past few days moaning about the farcical futility of yet another friendly international featuring the massed bands of Sven Goran Eriksson's England have missed an important point. The match in Gothenburg on Wednesday was staged to mark the centenary of the Swedish Football Association, so it should have been viewed as less of a game and more of a celebration of Swede FA.

As such it was a huge success. Unfortunately, football milestones are expected to move around a bit, and on a night when all European countries were engaged in giving their teams a rare run-out, why was it that England once more managed to make the event more of a mockery than anyone else? Granted, it was a colossal waste of time for so many at a time when domestic pressures at club level are reaching their height. But, with Euro 2004 only a couple of months away and the 2006 World Cup qualifiers looming, there is a need for the mothballs to be shaken out of the international shirts, and out of the managers, too, come to that.

And the matches needn't be meaningless. Northern Ireland wouldn't have thought they'd been wasting their time in Estonia. They hadn't won a match since 2001, so their 1-0 victory under new manager Lawrie Sanchez was a tremendous morale-booster, especially as he had left a number of senior players at home.

The Republic of Ireland's 2-1 home win brought the Czech Republic's record of 20 unbeaten games to an end. You wouldn't call that an ignorable result, and it has brought renewed confidence to Ireland and more validity to the reign of manager Brian Kerr.

Similarly, the Welsh were considerably cheered by their 2-1 victory over Hungary in Budapest, and they needed it after their shattering failure to qualify for Portugal. Manager Mark Hughes had blasted the clubs who had been tardy in releasing players but, despite the shortages and the presence of only three men from the Premiership, he organised a winning line-up out of those at his disposal.

It was not a game played in a friendly or casual manner. There were seven bookings and a fracas for a finale that involved the fiery Robbie Savage and Hungary's manager, Lothar Matthäus. Odd how some people take every game so seriously. That England's approach puts one more in mind of Lily Savage than Robbie may have much to do with an attitude they've been bred to adopt.

On his return from Sweden, Eriksson said that it had been more important to the Swedes that they win than it was to the English. But how can you dismiss victory as an irrelevance? Winning a football match does more for team bonding than three days being locked away playing with each other. Trying to win does carry with it the risk of injury, but players can get injured training.

True to form, the leading clubs in Europe announced on Friday that they intended to gain legal compensation for players called up for international duty. If the English players were paid on piece-work they would not have received much from Wednesday.

To be fair, England have traditionally found it difficult to produce any excitement or promise in friendly internationals. If you care to delve into the records you will find that a succession of England managers have received more collective stick after friendlies than they have after competitive games.

There were times, of course, in the Seventies and Eighties when England played far fewer competitive matches because they didn't qualify for anything, but friendlies have long been the bane of English football fans, whose pockets have been stripped of countless millions in return for meaningless Wednesday nights, most of them wet in my recollection.

While I can't join Eriksson's faithful media disciples in saluting his genius, I must admit that he is far from daft. He would have noticed the level of disgruntlement that usually followed England run-outs and has accordingly demolished the last vestige of their importance. This he has done by flooding the pitch with players - not all at the same time, but don't put that past him - and rebranding the occasion as purely experimental, not to be taken seriously.

In his 36 games as England manager, Eriksson has used 60 different players in his quest for a winning formula. He has appointed almost as many people to the bench as the Lord Chancellor. That this development has not been accompanied by experimental admission money, eg half-price or even less, is probably due to some oversight or other.

The Football Association should be grateful that Eriksson's master lessons in tinkering have taken place while Wembley Stadium has been closed for alterations and England's friendlies have been played at venues around the country where supporters have been grateful for a sight of their national team.

Had they attempted to stage the multi-substitute shows at Wembley they would have struggled to half-fill the place at normal prices. At least Eriksson has been up front and consistent about his one-on-all-on policy and and it is hardly his fault that the conflict between club and country over the use of players at this vital stage of the season has been escalating.

The strange protests aired by Sir Alex Ferguson about the overuse of Nicky Butt and Phil Neville on Wednesday show what Eriksson is up against. But, by design or not, he has made more of a mockery of the situation than any other manager, and for once I agree with the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, who is seeking a limit of six subs for friendlies from next season. Perhaps then Eriksson might come to the conclusion that if his top players are not available he will have to select a team from the rest and allow most of them the opportunity to stake their claim in an entire match played with ambition and intent. This is fairer to the players, the supporters and even to himself, because the policy has enabled other countries to discover men with an international aptitude not previously discerned.

One thing we can be sure of is that the FA are unlikely to intervene. They made their position regarding their manager very clear last weekend - they are terrified of losing him.

Again, I must acknowledge that they and others may be vastly superior in assessing managerial worth, but I have yet to see overwhelming evidence of Eriksson's excellence, and certainly not to the extent of suddenly bunging him an extra £1m a year to do the job until 2008.

I'm aware he was in consultation with Chelsea, and possibly Real Madrid, and I offer no criticism for that. But I do find it odd that a man who should be gripped with the steely ambition to lead his team to victory in the European Championships two months hence is discovered using a golden spade to dig an escape tunnel.

Not only are the FA prepared to overlook his apparent lack of focus, one of their spokesmen tells my colleague Nick Townsend on page 10 that even if Eriksson lost every match in Euro 2004 they would still want him to continue.

This statement allows us to finish with another historical note, because I doubt if any manager has ever been granted such indemnity against failure. Certainly, it is the first time a Swede has been given permission to be a turnip.

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