Play football or think, but never at the same time

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The Independent Online

It seems almost eerily appropriate that England's new football coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, was born on the very same day that I was, 5 February 1948. As the famous team astrologer and faith-healer Eileen Drewery could testify, the date represents a perfect kick-off for a football coach, combining the sensitive creative talents of the Aquarian with the sharp-toothed cunning associated with the Chinese year of the rat.

It seems almost eerily appropriate that England's new football coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, was born on the very same day that I was, 5 February 1948. As the famous team astrologer and faith-healer Eileen Drewery could testify, the date represents a perfect kick-off for a football coach, combining the sensitive creative talents of the Aquarian with the sharp-toothed cunning associated with the Chinese year of the rat.

The briefest glance at past England managers, from the Libran pig Bobby Robson to Kevin Keegan, disastrously a Piscean rabbit, confirms that astrological balance has much to tell us about the beautiful game.

But then so has experience. The usual chorus of know-alls have already presumed to offer the new coach advice about his new job but few, I would venture, have quite so much in common with this Aquarian rat as I have.

We are both in the management game. Each of us has had our successes - Sven Goran with Lazio in Serie A, me with the legendary V&A team in the 1997 Gunnersbury Cup. He gave up playing in 1975, which coincidentally was just when I was making my debut, but it is not in my nature to crow - I gather that these days he plays a nice game of tennis. While he has swanned about Europe, I have chosen to remain at the very heart of the English game, which, as he will soon understand, has its own priorities.

First of all, he should forget about tactics, formations, reverse Christmas trees and so on. We don't like that kind of talk. The English way is simple: either play football or think - never try to do both at the same time. As for instructions from the touchline, a few basic slogans - "Line it!" "Switch it!" "Get rid of it!" "Man on!" "Heads up, lads!" - are all a manager needs.

As a general rule, the yobbish swearing and bullying that is so popular among English and Scottish managers is rarely productive. My method at half-time is to encourage a gentle, free-ranging, democratic chat about what exactly has gone wrong, after which the players resume, as bewildered as ever, but feeling that they have had the chance to express their views.

There will be setbacks but, in every defeat, lesson can be learnt. A few years ago, we played against a team whose striker had a wooden leg. He scored a hat-trick. If we ever come up against another one-legged player, we shall know exactly what to expect.

Officials over here, Sven Goran will discover, can be highly unpredictable. The V&A now have superb referees, including one who is a highly accomplished National Theatre actor, but in the past we made the mistake of letting a former player take charge. In the heat of the moment, he headed the ball into his own net from an opposition corner. Having consulted himself as to the legal position, he let the goal stand.

Finally, there's the problem of image. There's something about the English job which, after a couple of defeats, transforms unexceptionable men into prats and shifty-eyed losers. As if trapped in a bad marriage, fans look into the eyes of the person in whom that they had such hopes, and see reflected their own failures and disappointments. Abuse can be startlingly nasty: on Thursday a tabloid published a letter suggesting that "a lynch mob should descend upon Lancaster Gate and string up the committee in a public place."

It's a rough old game. We have had a troubled season and this week played a college team who were fitter, faster, better and younger than we were. Yet we squeezed out a 3-2 result. "You're being humiliated by a bunch of old men," one of their substitutes bellowed at his team. Such moments, as the Aquarian rat Sven Goran will know, make it all worth while.

terblacker@aol.com

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