Brian Viner: Sven for Villa? Maybe the fake sheikh was really on to something

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

They say, whoever they are, that life ends up imitating art. If you live long enough, life even ends up imitating the News of the World.

The last time I looked, one of the clear favourites to become Aston Villa manager, following Martin O'Neill's abrupt resignation on Monday, was Sven Goran Eriksson. That's the same Eriksson who, while England manager in January 2006, the start of a World Cup year, told the News of the World's undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood, the notorious "fake sheikh", that for a £5m salary he would be very interested indeed in becoming manager of Villa, even if it meant resigning the England job.

He also promised, you might recall, that he would try to persuade David Beckham, then at Real Madrid, to join him at Villa Park. "I know for sure he wants to come back to England," Sven told Mahmood, who was plying him with lobster and vintage champagne while posing as a Middle Eastern tycoon on a swanky yacht in Dubai's marina (note to editor: why don't I get journalistic assignments like that?). "If it's a London club, he will come tomorrow. And it's up to me to convince him Birmingham is the right place to be."

Those words, which provoked howls of media outrage at the time, might yet prove to be astonishingly prescient. Not, of course, that the 35-year-old Beckham would be top of Sven's wishlist if he were to take the Villa job, probably only second or third, but the sweet-talking Swede might well have to convince others that Birmingham is the right place to be.

Whether it is the right place for him to be is another question. Back in January 2006, Eriksson's ever-faithful agent Athole Still responded with indignation to Mahmood's sting operation, saying, "Sven is totally committed to doing the very best for England at the World Cup and it would be a scandal and a disaster if scurrilous entrapment of this kind did anything to destabilise that situation." A scandal and a disaster indeed, although of course what ultimately destabilised England's World Cup five months later was Sven's own lack of guile.

On the other hand, England's 2006 campaign, which ended with a penalty shoot-out defeat by Portugal in the quarter-final, now looks like a tactical and motivational triumph compared with the 2010 version masterminded by Fabio Capello. But on yet another hand, and really you need more hands than Paul the psychic octopus to assess Sven's managerial career, his record since leaving Soho Square – Manchester City, Mexico, Notts County, Ivory Coast – has fallen several furlongs short of impressive.

All in all, Holte Enders can be forgiven their gloom as they contemplate life after O'Neill. They have until October before they play one of last season's top six, but that will give them all the more reason to mope if they haven't registered three or four decent wins by then. And they can't even fantasise about acquiring a billionaire owner, because they've already got one, albeit one who wants his club to be run on an even financial keel. Who, apart from O'Neill and the Villa Park faithful, can honestly blame him?

Cricket reigns while the sun shines

Last Sunday I played cricket for the north Herefordshire village of Docklow against neighbouring Hatfield at the Hatfield Oval, a deliberately grandiose name for the lovely little private ground belonging to a local cricket nut, Ray Godson. The match was a 25-over thrash resulting, alas, in a narrow home win.

For the first time in a proper match I played with both of my sons, aged 11 and 15, and between us we scored 43 runs and took four wickets. It was the kind of day, featuring a sumptuous tea and a long, happy evening in the King's Head, that makes the English countryside in the height of summer seem like the finest place on earth, and cricket like the greatest of sports.

And finally...an England team that will make us proud

A fantastic football competition starts today, one that for skill and commitment has to be seen to be believed. I refer not to the 2010-11 Premier League campaign, but to the World Blind Football Championship at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, not far from where I live.

A couple of years ago I went along to watch the England team training, and was invited to take some penalties, blindfolded as all the players are. First I watched David Clarke doing it. He was, and is, the England captain, and even in a decent week for his sighted counterpart, his goal-scoring record puts Steven Gerrard in the shade. In a 14-year international career, Clarke has scored no fewer than 108 goals. The day I was there, his penalties, against a fully-sighted goalkeeper, flew unerringly into the top right-hand corner. Mine, by stark contrast, could have been saved by a toddler. The mistake I made, according to the coach Tony Larkin, was to take a backswing.

Whatever, it's not often that the world's best wind up in Hereford – apart, of course, from the gentlemen of the SAS. So go along if you're within easy reach of the Welsh Marches, or even if you're not, to enjoy an enthralling sporting spectacle. The tournament lasts until Sunday, 22 August.

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