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Aaron Lennon darts down the right, and cuts into the box. From his seat in the touchline shelter, Sven-Göran Eriksson stands up. Wayne Rooney swings and misses and the ball breaks to Joe Cole. Eriksson cranes his neck and peers. Is it, could it be, the number 29 at last? Cole fires over. No, not Eriksson’s bus. He sits down again. Maybe the next one.
And so shall England remember him. Not for IFK Gothenburg’s Uefa Cup triumph, not for leading Lazio to their first Scudetto in 26 years, not even for inspiring the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich, but for watching games like a businessman at a bus-stop.
He railed yesterday against the Football Association’s decision to part company with him after five years over the allegations made in the News of the World following the “Fake Sheik” sting – allegations over which he is suing the newspaper. “The FA, the government, whoever, should not be ruled by the newspapers,” he said. That may be so, but this feels anyway like the right time to say goodbye, after a third consecutive quarter-final exit.
There was a time when his unexpressiveness seemed a virtue. Where Kevin Keegan, his predecessor, had ranted and raved and tugged at the nation’s heartstrings, Eriksson was calm, cerebral, an icy Scandinavian intelligence in rimless glasses – just the thing to add a dash of continental sophistication to the natural brawn of the English game. For a while, he made good on the promise of his appearance. He restored a World Cup qualification campaign, thrashed the Germans in their own back yard and presided over a 1-0 defeat of Argentina in the 2002 World Cup. He was so popular that sales of Ericsson mobile phones enjoyed a boost in England.
A 2002 quarter-final defeat to Brazil brought the honeymoon to a close, and faintly ludicrous charges that his undemonstrative touchline demeanour had failed to lift England. What had been a strength had somehow become a weakness. A more realistic failing was his inability to effect a tactical change, even after Brazil’s Ronaldinho had been sent off. It was a deficiency that would haunt him, particularly against coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. Three times he met him in quarter-finals, three times he lost.
Largely because of Wayne Rooney, the 2004 European Championships felt like a development. But against France and then Portugal, winning positions were squandered by bafflingly negative substitutions. The sophistication of which English fans had dreamed turned out to be nothing more than throwing Phil Neville or Owen Hargreaves on with 20 minutes to go.
This time against Portugal, Eriksson was left helpless by Rooney’s red card. This time, though, the manager apologised. “The first two quarter-finals,” he said, “they were enough, but this was not enough. This was a team that should have been in the final. This is a big disappointment.”
And that is why the memory, as he moves on to Real Madrid or wherever, will be of ineffectuality. He was patient and courteous always, but the reckoning must be in performances. Over the past two years, with the draw in Austria, the hammering in Denmark, the humiliation against Northern Ireland and then Saturday’s defeat, there has been a sense of decline, a feeling that any gains he had made were being eroded.
Given that he has spoken of this as England’s most gifted generation in decades, his reign must be regarded as a qualified failure.
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