IT IS A funny old game, although some might use another metaphor. Is Sven a great manager, an OK one, or, to use a technical footballing term, a turnip? Is he really worth pounds 4.2m a year? Or one tenth or even one hundredth of that?
The final judgment can only be posthumous, as it were. But even if England win the World Cup - more likely than Eeyore winning the Derby, but probably not much - it will not erase the memory of a number of distinctly ungreat moments along the way. No one comes out of the Sven-Goran Eriksson affair unscathed, and its gamey combination of cupidity and indecisiveness, laced with media tack, makes it an unattractive microcosm of the game as a whole.
The tactics of the News of the World are external to the FA and outside its control. Not so the greed and indecision off which the media feed. It's significant, says Professor Christine Oughton, director of the Football Governance Research Centre at Birkbeck College, that FA action about Eriksson's future came only after the second round of revelations alleging corruption in transfers, which directly concerned the great and the good of the Premier League, not the remarks about players, even though the latter are more damaging to the team.
The slow-motion reaction is in part the result of the unwieldy representative structure and blurred responsibilities and functions that characterise the FA as a whole. 'Because of its institutional structure, the FA finds it hard to make decisions quickly,' says Oughton. In fact, despite the high-profile (and high-salary) nature of Eriksson's appointment, a similar sense of ambiguity and evasiveness pervades the entire employment relationship, as summed up in its curious ending. After all, Sven would almost certainly have gone after the World Cup anyway, either in a blaze of glory if England won or with 'a thank you and goodbye', as he put it, if it didn't.
It's hard not to see this as a cultural mismatch from the start - and one that is regularly replayed on the pitch. 'English players prefer strong leadership and clear direction,' says Chris Brady, professor at Cass Business School - and a former professional footballer. 'That's why they like 4-4-2: it's clear and unambiguous. Why does [Chelsea coach] Jose Mourinho do so well in the Premier League? Although most of the Chelsea players are foreign, Mourinho works through John Terry, the captain, and Frank Lampard, who drive the team. It's a perfect fit for the Premiership.' Eriksson's core relationship, however, is not with Terry or Lampard, England players both, but with the less forceful David Beckham. His style - 'good organiser, nice guy, the players like him' - is more consensual and less directive. This approach has much to commend it for a season-long league campaign. Indeed, Eriksson's book, On Football (Carlton), puts a welcome and all too rare emphasis on that under-used footballing organ, the mind. 'I spend a lot of energy taking the aggression out of my players,' Eriksson says. 'All a player has to do is begin to argue with the referee, play dirty or quarrel with the opposition for there to be a danger that their performance will sink like a stone.'
He talks of taking time to build relationships and security, eliminating performance anxiety and creating resilience. The approach won an Italian league title for Lazio in 2000 - albeit at the second attempt and with resources that would have pleased Mourinho. But managing qualification is not the same as the short, sharp shock of the knock-out phases. Players vying for glory are motivated differently to those playing for bread and butter in the league - and require similarly different management. This is like project management: high pressure, end-dated, with clear targets. 'In this context and despite the conventional wisdom,' says Brady, 'the manager has great power and can be quite ruthless - provided the players believe they can win under his leadership.'
This, alas, is where the real damage has been done. At a quick count, Eriksson will have earned about pounds 14m (net) on his five-year England watch, a salary that a FTSE 100 chief executive would be proud of, even without a payoff. In these circumstances falling for the 'fake sheikh' set-up makes him look naive and greedy. But compromising himself is one thing to criticise the players to an outsider, even a bogus one, is to undermine the bond of trust and confidence that he spends much of his book promoting.
'He may be technically right when he says it didn't mean much - it's hardly earth-shattering that a player is unhappy or lazy - but after that are they going to give him everything when it really matters?' asks Brady. 'It's either all in the mind or it isn't - he does seem to believe that he can have his cake and eat it too, and he wants us to agree in the bargain.'
It's a flawed end to a flawed beginning. But despite the hype it was unlikely to be otherwise. Poor governance on one side and lack of straightforwardness on the other do not make a winning recipe, on or off the pitch.
The Obser, 29 January 2006