The Nick Townsend Column: Thanks to the FA, Eriksson maintains a belief in his own indestructibility

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There is always a suspicion that politics is not disgorging sufficient controversy when front-of-the-paper columnists swoop to pick out the entrails of what our tabloid sports brethren have cooked up. Or in this case, something that was meticulously prepared earlier. The Sheikhin' Svenners affair, a moneytrap in which the England football coach was done up as neatly as the finest piece of gravadlax by the News of the World, with more to follow, could not go unappraised by them.

Some of it was priceless. On Monday, one London Evening Standard scribe opined that "Sven Goran Eriksson is arguably the best English manager since Sir Alf Ramsey" - Messrs Venables and Robson may have some observations about that - and "the British footballing press have done their disgusting best to get this hardworking man drummed out of his job".

You await the ironic pay-off, but it never comes. Old Hermes, the winged-heeled messenger of mythology, has been taking enough of a kicking without his own kith and kin joining in. Yet, it's worth quoting the writer because the suspicion is that a more rational form of those views are shared by many. A cursory ear to the radio phone-ins tells you that this industry stands accused of being determined to use any means to prise him out of the job.

Well, debit where it's due. Hermes is, somewhat appropriately, also the patron of tricksters. What the Murdoch meanies perpetrated was less about crusading journalism; more about an elaborate illusion, of which David Copperfield would be proud. Yes, it was a classic sting but, for all Eriksson knew, what took place was genuine at this "Babylon Hotel" in Dubai, and those present could have simply passed on what he reportedly said to the media. He believes in his own indestructibility, and who can blame him, given the FA who have thus far rewarded him for his lack of steadfastness.

In a sense, the episode confirmed merely what we had already gleaned. Yet, was his, albeit hypothetical, speculation about Aston Villa, his own future with England, his role as a kind of Svengali for David Beckham, and the suggestion that Michael Owen and Newcastle actually may be a marriage of convenience, compatible with being the figurehead of English football? The FA had forced Glenn Hoddle out before he could repeat the words "handicapped" and "afterlife" in the same sentence. And do you recall how reticent the blazers were to accept Terry Venables and his carousel of "baggage"?

Initially, it appeared that the mood of Eriksson's club counterparts was turning ugly. But the gaffers have accepted a three-line whip from the League Managers' Association. It doesn't stop the chairmen, though. Wigan's Dave Whelan claims the Swede's indiscretions amount to gross misconduct. Unless Eriksson and his advisers demonstrate otherwise, and that it was "a breach of confidence", in their legal suit against the newspaper, does he not have a sound point?

And what is the reaction from the FA? Rather than displaying the astute leadership they did when they broke convention and appointed Eriksson, they appear to be following what they believe to be the public mood. Thus, the Swede stays, out of a kind of desperation; a belief that England are tantalisingly blessed with the strongest crew and on their truest course for the World Cup since 1990. And that any change of hand on the wheel from the current "flawed genius" will jeopardise that.

Never mind that England's World Cup pretensions are based on dubious premises. The facts that they emerged from a poor qualifying group, and even then looked vulnerable at times, and are over-dependent on certain personnel remaining in good shape were placed in perspective by Argentina in the friendly, despite that flattering result.

Though Eriksson retains the faith of his players - won't they support just about any boss while they continue to be favoured by him? - his relationship with Beckham will be intriguing, in view of his embarrassing observations about the England captain.

That said, you will hear no rush to judgement from this quarter; not on the basis of recent developments. In this observer's view, he has long overstayed his welcome; simply because as a coach he has failed to justify himself at the élite level, both in 2002 and 2004.

But, his advocates cry, who would step into the Swede's built-up shoes? The arguments that it is not the right time and there is no suitable replacement are unconvincing. Would it really be that much of an intellectual struggle to send out a team when you have Robinson, Gary Neville, Terry, Campbell or Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Beckham, Joe Cole, Lampard, Gerrard, Owen and Rooney and a relatively well-rehearsed version of 4-4-2 at your disposal?

In the week that the Irish FA have appointed Steve Staunton, who has nothing much more than six months' experience, riding shotgun to Paul Merson at Walsall, who could say categorically that Stuart Pearce would be unable to accept the reins of what is perceived to be a blue-blooded thoroughbred of an England team? Or Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley, Bryan Robson or Steve McClaren?

But the FA will maintain the faith, and offer prayers that the capture of the World Cup will justify that stance. If it doesn't, one suspects that Eriksson will still receive a "thank you" in his pocket. It is we messengers of doom who will get it in the neck.

Walcott's move in the best interests of the boy

There has always been something unedifying about football clubs squabbling over teenage prodigies, all claiming the boy's future is assured in their hands. It is, though, an inescapable fact of footballing life and happens all the way down the pyramid because talented youngsters, having accepted one club initially in good faith, understandably desire to better themselves.

What can be agreed is that 16-year-old Theo Walcott, who has joined Arsenal from Southampton, with an agreement - one nailed down by 84 signatures, according to vice-chairman David Dein - has done so in a manner rather more acceptable than in the case of the Nigerian teenager John Obi Mikel, who now looks likely to join Chelsea.

It was always inevitable that Walcott, a lad so swift that he outpaced his own team-mates during goal celebrations, let alone the opposition during play, should respond to the entreaties of a leading Premiership club. This can be an all-too-brief career, so why would he be content to remain at an unfashionable clubuntil he is well past his 18th birthday? As Dein says: "These are important times in the development of his career. The next year or two will determine how good Theo is going to be."

Despite the protestations of Saints chairman Rupert Lowe, it is right that, under current scholarship procedures, the player concerned can cancel the agreement for any reason. The boy's interests must surely take precedence. Anyway, many will feel that Southampton's "compensation" of £5m (rising to a possible £12.5m) is decent business.

Just one caveat, though, to the widespread belief that Walcott was astute to favour Arsenal ahead of Chelsea: an education under "Professeur" Wenger has not always turned out a successful graduate. Jermaine Pennant and Francis Jeffers might attest to that.

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