Bold Eriksson replaces doubt with expectation

Victory over Turkey has eased pressure on England coach but captain's failure to keep his head still raises questions

Glenn Moore@GlennMoore7
Saturday 04 January 2014 05:20
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The verse of Rudyard Kipling is unlikely to have been on the school curriculum when Sven Goran Eriksson studied at Torsby's Frykenskolan but it was again clear, in the wake of England's Wednesday night victory over Turkey, that he has absorbed the spirit if not the words of "If".

The poem should be a set text for England managers, with its references to "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you", to "trust yourself when all men doubt you", and "bear to hear the truth you've spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools".

It is the most quoted line, about treating the two impostors of Triumph and Disaster equally, which applies especially to the Swede. In Sunderland, as after the triumph of Munich and disasters of Shizuoka and Southampton, there was little emotion as he dissected the Euro 2004 Group Seven qualifier. No gloating, no lording over his media critics. But it was possible, as he sat in a small office, to discern a glint in the eyes, a lightness of being and a sense of vindication.

England's most impressive performance since at least the dispatch of the Danes in Niigata, perhaps as far back as Munich, was a reward for Eriksson's familiar patience and less recognised boldness.

The first quality was evident in Liechtenstein when, with goal difference irrelevant, he eschewed the temptation to chase popularity with a heavy victory in favour of conserving energies for the Turkey tie. The latter came in his decision to risk Wayne Rooney. The gamble followed similar ones, not always successful, with Gavin McCann, Ashley Cole, Owen Hargreaves, Darius Vassell, Wayne Bridge and Michael Ricketts.

Eriksson, as revealed in this newspaper on Monday, had begun pondering Rooney's elevation immediately after the Liechtenstein match. He made up his mind on Tuesday night, overruling doubts among some of the coaching staff, and told Rooney four hours before kick-off. "Rooney said, 'Ah-ha', when I told him," recalled Eriksson. "He is very quiet, but not the nervous type. He shows no fear and understands football, he can link between forwards and midfielders."

Already Rooney looks as if he could replicate in Portugal next summer Michael Owen's impact on the 1998 World Cup finals, but Eriksson cautioned: "We must take it easy. One big game in the national team is not a career. What he showed is that he is mature and ready. People should not expect him to always be one of the best players. He is 17."

Rooney's cause was helped by Eriksson's belated reversion to the diamond midfield with which England dug themselves out of the mire in Bratislava. Since Eriksson is committed to the flat back four which English defenders prefer, this is, in the absence of genuine wingers, the best use of resources. Both full-backs enjoyed the space it created while Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes flourished as base and apex. On the left Steven Gerrard, completing a full international for the first time in 18 months, did as well as anyone has in that position under Eriksson. This was, admitted the manager, because the diamond gives him more scope to drift inside than a conventional flat midfield.

Gerrard can expect to be on the right for England's next competitive tie, against Slovakia at the Riverside on 11 June, as Beckham is suspended. If everyone is fit, Kieron Dyer is likely to come in on the left. David Seaman will hope to reclaim his goalkeeping place, but David James may have finally usurped him. James's athletic late save from Nihat Kahveci would probably now be beyond his 39-year-old rival.

Sol Campbell's return from injury was influential against Turkey and Vassell confirmed his value as Michael Owen's understudy. Vassell now has four goals in less than 10 hours' international football, though this was his first in competition. It was also clear, gratifyingly for Eriksson, the team still want to play for him and the shirt.

England will now seek maximum points from their next three ties and hope Turkey lose one to make the return game irrelevant. Although the World Cup semi-finalists were disappointing on Wednesday, the closing stages, when they had to shake off the caution induced by the old inferiority complex and attack, revealed their quality.

Should the return be crucial to the group's outcome, it will be a security nightmare as well as a difficult football fixture. The pitch invasions and violence outside the ground were beamed back to Asia Minor and an another intimidating atmosphere can be expected.

With this in mind, Uefa, who launched an investigation yesterday, should set an example and force England to meet Slovakia behind closed doors. Slovakia had their own ground closed on Wednesday night because of racist abuse and crowd violence when England visited.

Yet no player was physically attacked in Bratislava as Turkey's Ozalan Alpay was in Sunderland. There was also a racial element to the violence, as the moron shouting, "Kill all Muslims; bomb Baghdad", in the stand after the game illustrated. Not for the first time the stewarding was inadequate.

The bonhomie of the World Cup now seems as distant as Japan and it would be naïve to expect it to be revived should England qualify. Portugal, being much nearer, cheaper and familiar, is more likely to experience a repeat of the riots of Marseille than the congas of Niigata. The pity of it is that the team is beginning to look as if it would grace the Championship.

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