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After Sven’s reign of error: what next for England?

England's 'experiment' with a foreign coach was neither a success nor a failure, but a continuation of what went before.

Ed Barrett

Topics Politics

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Sven Goran Eriksson leaves England pretty much as he found them – a last-eight team. Before Eriksson, England were a last eight-team who sometimes failed to reach the quarter-finals but compensated by occasionally getting to a semi. Eriksson’s reign was a model of consistency: three consecutive quarter-finals – not a penny more, not a penny less.

From this perspective, one could argue that the so-called ‘experiment’ with a foreign coach was neither a success nor a failure, merely a continuation of what went before. On balance, though, I would say it has been a failure, not just in terms of results, but in the conclusions that have been drawn from the whole experience.

It’s worth putting the Eriksson years in some kind of perspective. In the summer of 2000, England crashed out of the European Championship with a performance that clearly exposed the team’s technical deficiencies and manager Kevin Keegan’s tactical ineptitude. That autumn, England lost 1-0 at home to a poor German side in a World Cup qualifier. It was the last international to be played at Wembley, and everything about the day was highly symbolic. The shabby stadium was decorated with a few tawdry banners. The drizzle turned the firework display into a damp squib. The team was hopeless, and the crowd amused themselves by singing songs about the war. Keegan resigned straight after the game, admitting that there was nothing more he could do. The glory of 1966 was a distant memory.

As a player, Keegan had overcome his technical limitations through determination and sheer hard work. He improved until his enthusiasm and effort was backed by enough skill to make him European Footballer of the Year – not once, but twice. He played abroad, and epitomised a modern, progressive, outward-looking approach totally at odds with that of the English football establishment. As a club manager he was cavalier and entertaining, while lacking the wisdom and cunning necessary to win trophies. Unfortunately, Keegan’s England teams displayed all his weaknesses without the consolation of entertainment. The more he relied on his ‘passion’ and ‘desire’, the more it drew attention to his shortcomings. The Wembley shambles was the last straw, and the end of the road for the traditional English approach.

Despite the abject failure that had gone before, there were objections to Sven Goran Eriksson’s appointment. Some simply thought it was wrong to have a foreigner. Others argued that he wouldn’t understand our English ways or appreciate our traditional strengths. Most took the view that anything would be an improvement, and awaited Eriksson’s arrival with interest if not enthusiasm.

Eriksson appeared to be dramatically different to Keegan. Keegan was an excitable, emotional patriot whose heart ruled his head; Sven was a quiet, brainy-looking foreigner with glasses. Fresh from Lazio, Eriksson symbolised continental sophistication. This contrast struck a chord, because it reflected the ingrained attitude of the English to international football.

George Orwell once wrote that the English are quite happy to admit that foreigners are cleverer than themselves. This, he believed, is because the English set no great store by ideas, and regard intellectuals with suspicion. Their inferiority thus becomes a form of superiority. Regardless of its merits as a general argument, it is certainly true of football. The English have always been willing to acknowledge the cleverness and technique of foreign teams, because they have always contrasted it to the morally superior English virtues of fitness and work-rate, as well as more nebulous characteristics like ‘character’ and ‘will to win’. Foreigners didn’t like it up ’em, and England would always come out on top.

In the days when England’s professional players were able to beat all-comers, this was fine. But by the 1950s, the foreigners were catching up. German footballers didn’t turn professional until the 1960s, yet they already had a World Cup to their name. Other countries proved that they were not only more skilful, but also physically fit and mentally strong.

The 1966 World Cup triumph appeared to re-establish England’s pre-eminent position, yet in the long run it created a new set of problems. Alf Ramsey’s plan was to compensate for English technical inferiority by adopting a solid, compact system based on hard work and discipline. It required good players too, of course, although it is significant that he felt able to dispense with the services of Jimmy Greaves, one of England’s truly world-class players.

Before Ramsey, England’s football was physical and aggressive, but essentially positive and attacking. The success of Ramsey’s ‘wingless wonders’ established a more negative, dour national image. ‘Work-rate’ would become the established philosophy during the Seventies, despite England’s humiliation by West Germany in the 1972 European Championship, followed by a failure to qualify for the finals of the 1976 Euros and the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.

The Eighties brought last-stage performances at two World Cups, and then a semi-final at Italia ’90 – respectable, albeit unexceptional, results for a major football nation. In the meantime, the world was catching up in other ways. Even at their lowest ebb, England could always thrash the football minnows. By the Nineties, however, most international sides were organised and athletic. Teams like Turkey, whom England used to ‘stuff’ and ‘roast’, were now reaching the latter stages of tournaments themselves.

English football changed dramatically in the Nineties. Football was gentrified, Sky TV brought money to the new Premiership, and Euro ’96 solidified the enthusiasm for the England team that had started with Italia ’90 and then temporarily dissipated during the Graham Taylor years.

The new England image evolved with the help of everyone from the style press to Tony Blair and the Commission for Racial Equality. It crystallised when David Beckham became captain and then, soon afterwards, Eriksson became manager. The two of them gave England a glamorous, cosmopolitan image, which seemed to echo the domestic league, which was now full of foreign players.

Eriksson’s tenure began well, with a series of victories culminating in the legendary 5-1 victory over Germany in the return fixture of the World Cup qualifying group. In the euphoria over this extraordinary result, the nature of the performance was ignored. Germany had their most demoralised side in living memory and were unlucky on the night. By contrast, everything went England’s way. It was a good display, and nobody could begrudge Eriksson, the team and the fans the right to celebrate it. But it was a fluke, and a highly misleading one at that.

The victory established Eriksson as a messiah who would take England to the promised land. For a considerable time he led a charmed life, and the media kept off his back. It couldn’t last, of course, and eventually he was exposed as a mere mortal. Indeed, the striking thing about his three tournament exits is how similar they were to what had gone before.

Against Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2004, Eriksson’s tactical folly, and his inability to rectify obvious problems during a match, was uncannily reminiscent of Keegan in 2000. Owen was left isolated without a linking player, and England could not keep possession. In the Portugal game Eriksson not only failed to respond to Scolari’s changes, but exacerbated the problem by introducing a second striker who played on the shoulder of the last defender, leaving both forwards stranded.

This year, the team exited with a similar display of tactical stupidity, albeit one that was disguised by the traditional heroic performance after Wayne Rooney’s sending-off. It is often said that England are at their best with their backs to the wall, and it’s true that they have fought some memorable rearguard actions over the years (usually ending in defeat). The sad truth is that they are at home in this situation, because the onus is no longer on them to be creative and make things happen.

So England went out again, the players were ‘gutted’, Eriksson was sorry, and the inquests began.

Everyone agrees that Eriksson’s squad selection was bizarre and seemingly wilfully perverse. Eriksson now claims that he was always unconvinced by Jermain Defoe; yet he took him to the training camp in Germany, where everyone said he was ‘on fire’, and then sent him home. He was right to gamble with Rooney, who is the best English player since Duncan Edwards and would be worth a place even semi-fit. Michael Owen is a proven international striker who has the mental toughness to take a single chance in a high-pressure game. However, he has to be 100 per cent fit and razor-sharp to be effective, and Eriksson should have had a proper replacement in case he turned out to be unready. Walcott was an adventurous choice, but he was never a serious part of Sven’s plans. As has been pointed out, Eriksson gambled – which is not necessarily a bad thing – but he then failed to back his own hunch. This kind of timidity is the worst kind of recklessness, and he paid the price.

This uncertain blend of experimenting and caution was displayed in his team selection and tactics. He devised a system to accommodate his favourite players, but in doing so forced them into unsuitable roles. The result was a shambles. Then, instead of addressing the central problem, he tinkered with the system and confused and frustrated everyone even more – notably, and predictably, Rooney, who grew increasingly angry by the minute. The net result was yet another team with an isolated striker, failing to keep possession or create chances.

So what is the verdict? In the past, the consensus was usually that England were unlucky or not good enough, or both. This time the argument is that England’s players were good enough, but were let down by the manager. It is true that England could have played better, and with the right selection and tactics they would probably have reached the semi-final. If enough players had then hit top form, they might well have gone further. If everything had gone their way, they might conceivably have won it.

That’s a lot of ifs, though. Even with the best manager in the world, England might well have gone out in the quarter-final. Regardless of this, Eriksson is cast as a donkey leading lions. In another echo of the Somme (celebrated the same weekend as England’s demise), he has wasted a ‘golden generation’, just as the generals sacrificed the ‘flower of British manhood’.

Let’s get real. England went into this World Cup with a good crop of young players, several of whom looked capable of proving themselves world class. None of them did. This might be down to Eriksson’s tactics, and they might well prove themselves in the future. In the meantime the jury is still out. Yet in the rush to condemn Eriksson, nobody is questioning the idea that he wasted the talents of a group of world-beaters. The truth is, England doesn’t have the strength in depth of the top nations.

The problem for today’s England manager is the vastly increased levels of expectation. When Beckham emerged in the mid-Nineties, England finally had a player who could bend a free-kick and cross a ball accurately. The nation went mad. In all the excitement, two things were overlooked. First, Beckham was in other respects quite limited. Secondly, most of the leading nations had several players who could hit a dead-ball and more besides. Since Beckham, however, every new England star has been hyped to the heavens.

Meanwhile the Premiership, with its foreign players, has given a sexy shine to the old chestnut that the English league is the best in the world. Sadly, it is not. And just because Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and the rest are stars at home, that doesn’t make them ‘the best midfield in the world’ as they are routinely described. In some ways, English football is as parochial as ever – witness the commentators constantly harping on about how many Premiership (ie, honorary English) players there are in the World Cup.

The Premiership, and Eriksson, and Beckham’s move to Madrid, have given rise to the delusion that English football is brilliant and world-class, and ergo, so is the England team. Hence Lampard reckoned they ‘deserved’ to beat Portugal, and Eriksson and Beckham spoke of England deserving to reach the final. Players like Lampard (runner-up in the World Player of the Year) seem to believe their own publicity – unless it’s negative, of course. When Lampard was criticised for his poor performances in Germany, he whinged that he didn’t deserve it. It’s interesting that Owen Hargreaves, who plays his football away from the Premiership circus, reacted very differently. He too was asked to play out of position and sacrifice himself for the team. He didn’t complain once, despite getting booed by his own team’s fans – the kind of stick once reserved for black players in an England shirt. He got on with the job and ended up putting in a truly gutsy and effective performance. He understands what a lot of English players do not: that reputations count for nothing, and you are not entitled to anything you don’t earn.

The combination of over-inflated reputations and expectations is made worse by the millions of new fans for whom football is a kind of showbiz extravaganza, and who expect every England performance to be a festival of fantasy football. These are the ‘guys’ who are interviewed in the incessant vox pops on the rolling news channels. The rugby types with funny wigs who turned the ‘fan parks’ into the Twickenham car park. The women who scream hysterically at every kick of the ball. The kids who have seen nothing but high-gloss soccer on TV, and support clubs who always win. In the words of the England advertising, they ‘Believe’. They ‘live the dream’ – or, if you prefer, they swallow the myth.

They expect the best, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But their expectations are wildly unrealistic, and when their hopes are inevitably crushed, their ‘suffering’ is indulged by a football-crazy media. It has been noted that when England won the World Cup, it wasn’t even mentioned on the front page of some papers, and the World Service interrupted extra-time for 15 minutes to broadcast the news. In 2006, the home page of the BBC news website invites you to email and say how you are ‘coping’ with England’s defeat.

I never thought I would grow tired of football, but this World Cup has come close to putting me off. Not the football itself, but the childish culture that surrounds England, and the obsessive ‘news’ coverage. One TV reporter went out and about during Saturday’s match asking people why they weren’t watching. It was just a standard piece of light relief, of course, yet the tone was almost accusatory. By 2010 there will probably be official inspectors doing the same thing, and woe betide you if you don’t have a damn good excuse.

The media side of things is unlikely to change, although even the papers seem to have accepted that the ‘Wags’ coverage has probably gone too far. The football side could, though, and Beckham’s resignation gives the opportunity for a clean break. I would welcome a good old-fashioned skipper like John Terry, who even looks 45, like players used to in the black-and-white days. (With Steve McClaren appearing ever more youthful, we could soon have an international team captain who looks older than his manager – a feat Terry has already achieved at club level.) If Terry keeps the blubbing under control, he should fit the bill.

And what of McClaren? ‘He will be a very impressive manager for England’, says Sven. ‘I’ve been working with him for five-and-a-half years.’ That’s as good an example of a non sequitur as you will ever see, but he shouldn’t be written off just because of his association with Eriksson’s reign of error.

Given a bit of luck, and a calmer environment, he has enough good players to build a side that could, in two years’ time, reach the quarter-finals of the European Championship.

Ed Barrett writes for Anorak. Email him at {encode=”ebarrett@dircon.co.uk” title=”ebarrett@dircon.co.uk”}.

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spiked-issue: World Cup 2006

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