Time and football wait for no manager

While most of us were still trying to fathom out what sort of man they were looking for, there he was. The definitive modern manager
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The Independent Online

What is a football coach but a teacher, and what genuine teacher could resist a special-needs class? This may seem a ludicrous simplification of what persuaded Sven Goran Eriksson to accept the burden called England, but for all the millions involved the lure of the world's most daunting challenge would have been overpowering to a man so proud of his ability.

What is a football coach but a teacher, and what genuine teacher could resist a special-needs class? This may seem a ludicrous simplification of what persuaded Sven Goran Eriksson to accept the burden called England, but for all the millions involved the lure of the world's most daunting challenge would have been overpowering to a man so proud of his ability.

It is far easier, therefore, to work out why Eriksson took the job of head coach than it is to establish why the Football Association offered it to him in the full and certain knowledge that the wrath of the nation would swiftly follow. Perhaps we can find one clue in the speed with which the transaction was completed. The Swede's willingness to leave Lazio in July was matched only by his apparent anxiety to set a new bite-their-hands-off record.

When word first wafted out from Italy on Monday, the FA's chief executive, Adam Crozier, and his sidekick David Davies were giving the impression of being engaged in negotiations of a difficult and delicate nature. The noise in the background was Eriksson pounding on the door.

Only a few days earlier the FA had signed up Leicester City's manager, Peter Taylor, to be assisted by Manchester United's coach Steve McClaren, to assume part-time roles for England's friendly against Italy on 15 Novem-ber. There was also the strong suggestion that they would carry on for the home friendly against Spain in February and the World Cup qualifiers against Finland and Albania in March - indeed, Leicester's chairman, John Elsom, gave his blessing to such an arrangement.

We supposed that by hiring two young and talented caretakers the FA had gained themselves the time to attend to the appointment of a permanent head coach at amature, not to mention magisterial, pace. It was even suggested last weekend that during the interim the recently retired England captain, Alan Shearer, and Charlton's eye-catching manager, Alan Curbishley, would be added to the coaching team so that when the new man arrived he could be greeted by as eager a bunch of bright-eyed subalterns as ever assembled under the three-lions banner.

Within a day that sweet and ordered scene had dissolved into a somewhat chaotic cameo that I fear may end in tears. Eriksson appeared to swallow the hook before they put the bait on it or, to offer an alternative metaphor, one minute they were setting out equipped for a long hunt and the next the prey was in the cage organising his first press conference.

Not for one minute do I suggest that the FA were stampeded into it, but it was amazing how quickly the sound of thundering hooves had replaced the hushed tread of fine leather. It was all so sudden they would have hardly believed their luck.

How scientifically they had set about their task is difficult to assess. Perhaps they think Sven is short for Svengali. But, while most of us were still trying to fathom out what sort of man they were looking for, there he was. The definitive modern manager: sophisti- cated, worldly, multi-tongued and with a list of credentials fit to be handwritten on the finest parchment by a portly monk.

The panel appointed to fill the vacancy left by Kevin Keegan - a blend of bristling high-fliers like Crozier and Davies and the crotchety old buffers who traditionally occupy the loftiest places in the administration of our major games - found themselves credited with a considerable coup by some and blasted by others. Prominent among the latter were the leaders of the players' and managers' associations, furious that a foreigner was to be entrusted with an Englishman's task. "Betrayal" was one of the weakest words employed to describe the move which would have temporarily stunned even the FA's most ardent admirers; if, indeed, such a species exists.

It is not an objection likely to recede this side of a great achievement, and Eriksson will not be unaware of the additional pressures it will apply.

Meanwhile, two forlorn figures stood almost unnoticed at the periphery of the furore. Taylor and McClaren will still have charge of England next week but seem uncertain as to whether Eriksson will have any input. Taylor wouldn't object if he had, and says he may take the opportunity to quiz the Swede on the Lazio players who will be appearing for Italy.

That is dangerous talk. The role of English "snitch" would not endear Eriksson to his present colleagues, and there must be real doubts about his ability to last out the season with Lazio. It is a similar situation, but on a larger scale, to John Toshack's attempt in 1994 to help out Wales while still running Real Sociedad in Spain.The dual role lasted one match. Wales lost 3-1 to Norway and the crowd chanted, "Go back to Spain". And when he went to Spain they chanted, "Go back to Wales". In football, even a suspicion of divided loyalty leads to rejection.

Although Eriksson is not due to join England until next summer he hopes to take a part in the World Cup qualifiers in March, but I doubt if that would work. A lack of accomplishment by either England or Lazio would stoke up the howls.

Bizarrely, his long-time lieutenant, Tord Grip, has already joined the England payroll and will this week be wandering the country, watching players and reporting back. So, as from now, his future task with England will be acquiring lodgings in his mind.

We can rely on the media of both countries to monitor every word, every move and every facial twitch in search of conflicts in his priorities. That and every other facet of his life will approach the intolerable. Already, he has complained that Fleet Street's finest have been bothering his family on a search for skeletons. It would be a proud first for the English press if they could hound an England manager out of office before he even starts. Kindly refrain from doubting our ability to do it.

It is for these reasons only that I doubt the wisdom of the appointment. I have no quarrel with a foreigner being called upon. It may be the first time any leading footballing country has summoned outside help, but I doubt if it will be the last. There are two excellent precedents close at hand. For England to appoint a Swedish coach is nothing compared to the Republic of Ireland appointing an Englishman. But the glorious reign of Jack Charlton is worthy of legend status.

It's a different game, but for the Welsh Rugby Union to have placed their team in the hands of a New Zealander, Graham Henry, was just as heretical, but he is doing a phenomenal job not just with the team but with the entire structure of the game.

Eriksson is capable of doing the same but, unlike Henry, he has the Premiership grandees to contend with. English football is club-led and I doubt if a foreigner can cope with that. I also doubt if a cultured, Continental mind can ever hope to corral the raw and maverick talents of the English footballer into a successful unit.

Alf Ramsey did it and so did Charlton - for these purposes I am classing England and Irish players as one - and so, for a sadly brief period, did Terry Venables, who I believe should have been restored to the job. Apart from the ravings of some moral pulpiteers, we have yet to be advised why Venables was not acceptable for a task to which he is not only equal but upon which he could have been already embarked.

Instead, we have the intriguing Sven Goran Eriksson, whose only visible drawback is his availability. He is eminently qualified and seemingly unafraid of the magnitude of the mission. I just hopethat he and those who appointed him do not share my feelings offoreboding.

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