James Lawton: English football is a battered remnant of an old way of life

'Supporters want to watch their national team without the fear of acute embarrassment'
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The Independent Online

One of the less ecstatic reactions to the likely appointment of the first foreign coach of England's football team came on breakfast television. "As a foreigner," said the pundit solemnly, "he could have a lot of trouble with the fans. They will latch on to the fact that he is not English." It is probably true, but there are other things they will pick up on even sooner, between choruses of "No Surrender to the IRA". All of them will sound alarm bells.

One of the less ecstatic reactions to the likely appointment of the first foreign coach of England's football team came on breakfast television. "As a foreigner," said the pundit solemnly, "he could have a lot of trouble with the fans. They will latch on to the fact that he is not English." It is probably true, but there are other things they will pick up on even sooner, between choruses of "No Surrender to the IRA". All of them will sound alarm bells.

They will notice that he is wearing the kind of suit that costs a grand or two on Rome's Via Frattini and is not easily collected from a freebie bin of Nike or Umbro. His eyes will not turn moist, as did those of his predecessor Kevin Keegan, on one of the first occasions he hears the chant that he is a useless bastard.

Sven Goran Eriksson, currently coach of the Italian champions Lazio, represents a bold piece of rethinking by the Football Association. Not only is he a foreigner, he may just be able to answer the question asked by a catastrophic former manager of England, Graham Taylor, who posed proudly in front of the mirror in his official team blazer before reporting for duty. When critics suggested that his football was rather too basic for the needs of the international game, Taylor asked, derisively, "What is this sophisticated football?"

It is football which has passed England by for so long. Football of touch and skill and even artistry. But more than the mere playing of the game, is the style of it, the meaning of it, which many here who welcome the move to foreign leadership have found so lacking in the domestic game. If Eriksson is urbane, if he conducts himself with a composure that suggests an awareness of life beyond the touchline, it is only partly out of personal predilection. In Italy, the spectacular theatre of the game, where he has cemented earlier successes in his native Sweden and in Portugal, it is also a professional necessity.

For decades, Italian players have been reflecting in demeanour and lifestyles their vast financial rewards and prestige in society. When Paul Gascoigne, the young star of the English game, arrived in Rome, ironically to play for Lazio, at the start of the Nineties, he might have arrived from another football planet. Italian professionals did not drink excessively, and they did not decorate the front pages of the tabloids each day.

They didn't burp into microphones. What they did, like the new coach-elect of English football, was shop in Via Frattini, and dine discreetly in carefully selected restaurants whenever they didn't gun their Ferraris and Porsches back to their villas in the Roman hills.

When Ian Rush, a much more dutiful pro than Gascoigne, arrived in Turin for Juventus in the Eighties after a hugely successful career with Liverpool, he was shocked by the style of his new team-mates. They gave him a blank look when he asked, after his first match, for directions to the "players' bar". There was no players' bar. Just a swift exit to the shadows after brief contact with the media.

In many ways, the appointment of Eriksson is an inevitable development. The English way of football has been exposed as a battered remnant of an old way of life. For compelling reasons, the FA's first choice was not Eriksson but Arsenal's Anglophile coach Arsÿne Wenger. He has magnificently installed at Highbury the sophisticated football about which Graham Taylor was so sceptical. Not only has he improved the football, given it a depth and a beauty most perfectly expressed by the quick, subtle game of his compatriot Thierry Henry, he has lifted horizons, explored possibilities for individual players who before had been inclined to settle for limited achievement. England's captain Tony Adams - generally referred to as The Donkey - began to play with an undreamed-of polish under the influence of the Frenchman.

The recently appointed chief executive of the FA, former Saatchi & Saatchi man Adam Crozier, wants both an improved image - and more substance. He wants the England team to represent excellence on the international stage. He wants the end of yobbism on both terraces and pitch, and his calculation is that Eriksson is the available man most equipped to carry the nation's football into a new era of style and, most importantly, competence.

The fact is that quite a few of the supporters share a common yearning - to watch their national team without the fear of acute embarrassment, to have a sense of pride about the quality of the English player who was once given this tribute by the great Dutchman, Johan Cruyff: "He is so brave and good- hearted he can, with the right help, spread terror into every corner of world football."

For now, some would be quite pleased if Eriksson can persuade Beckham to get a sensible haircut.

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