“I really didn’t expect that pressure from the press” When Sven came to England – and braved the xenophobic storm

Sven-Goran Eriksson

When Sven-Goran Eriksson took over as England’s first foreign manager in February 2001, he faced a staggering 'welcome' from high-level officials and gutter-level tabloids. Fifteen years on from his arrival, Steve Anglesey explains why – and what happened next 

“No, I never was a hammer-thrower,” says Sven-Goran Eriksson. The 68-year-old manager of Shenzhen FC pauses and then, down a phone line from a holiday in Panama, he starts to laugh. “But oh yes, I remember them saying I was.”

Over 15 years on from his arrival as England coach, the Swede is talking about the reaction to his appointment as the Three Lions’ first foreign manager. Or rather, the overreaction to it from certain sections of the press.

“I guessed some of them weren’t going to be my friends,” he tells FourFourTwo. “I didn’t read much of it. I thought it’d be better if I didn’t.”

For a while, that seemed to be the safest course of action. In the three months between Kevin Keegan’s resignation in a Wembley toilet and Eriksson’s first day at work in Soho Square, a group of former international players, football administrators, journalists and supporters queued up to knock down the notion of England looking abroad. At the start, even Eriksson concurred.

David Beckham and Kevin Keegan

Keegan's management of the England team ended after Wembley defeat at home to Germany

“I spoke to my agent, Athole Still, very soon after Germany beat England in the final game at the old Wembley [in October 2000],” he recalls. “He said: ‘Would you be interested in being England manager?’ I said: ‘That’s a joke – no foreigner could take England.’ Two days later he said it was possible and I said I was interested. Then it all moved very quickly.”

He said: ‘Would you be interested in being England manager?’ I said: ‘That’s a joke – no foreigner could take England’

- Sven-Goran Eriksson, to agent Athole Still

October 31, 2000 – the date the deal was confirmed – proved a scary Halloween night for the FA. Chief executive Adam Crozier may have considered the hiring of Eriksson a neat trick, but there were few treats in store when a late-night knock on the door brought the delivery of the next day’s first editions to Lancaster Gate.

Hunting pack

“What a climbdown. What a humiliation. What a terrible, pathetic, self-inflicted indictment,” fulminated The Sun. Worse came in another piece which derided the FA’s “smarty-pant spin doctors” before heading into orbit. England fans, claimed Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail, “wanted Terry Venables, and rather than Gianni Foreigner I believe they would have settled for Billy Anybody. 

"Yet, we sell our birthright down the fjord to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer-throwers who spend half their year living in total darkness.”

The negative reaction to a foreign manager didn’t come as a surprise to Eriksson or his agent. “Sven and I had realised from the start it would be inevitable; nor do I think Sven took it personally,” Athole Still tells FFT. “We accepted there would be a general feeling against any foreigner.”

Perhaps some of the shock came from the fact that the Lazio coach arrived as the FA’s choice almost from nowhere. In the hours after Keegan’s resignation on October 7, Eriksson had not even appeared among the top 15 candidates in the first bookmakers’ odds

Yet the pair underestimated exactly how stridently that feeling would be expressed.

“I really didn’t expect the pressure from the press,” says Eriksson. “That was the surprise, not the pressure of the football job, because I was in Italy and if you don’t win games there they kill you.”

Perhaps some of the shock came from the fact that the Lazio coach arrived as the FA’s choice almost from nowhere. In the hours after Keegan’s resignation on October 7, Eriksson had not even appeared among the top 15 candidates in the first bookmakers’ odds for a permanent successor. Ahead of him were the likes of John Gregory, Peter Reid, Bryan Robson, Alan Curbishley and David O’Leary. Former England managers Terry Venables and Bobby Robson led the field.

Sven-Goran Eriksson

Sven successfully managed Lazio before accepting the England job

But the FA had very different ideas. A former employee who spoke to FourFourTwo recalls the shaken England party flying from London to Finland for their next match and seeing the international committee – among them, recently installed FA chief executive Crozier, Arsenal’s David Dein, Leeds’s Peter Ridsdale and committee chairman Noel White – poring over a flipboard on which the most prominent name seemed to be Johan Cruyff. Meanwhile FA technical director Howard Wilkinson and Les Reed, in caretaker charge of the team after Keegan’s shocking departure, were thought to be in favour of reaching out to Fabio Capello.

Hodgson had blotted his copybook with a disastrous spell at Blackburn, while Robson was coveted by Ridsdale but eventually viewed as too difficult to prise away from Newcastle

What soon became clear to those on the inside, if not initially to those on Fleet Street, was that England’s next manager would not be an Englishman. Venables came with baggage and FA enemies; even before a poor goalless draw with the Finns on October 11, Wilkinson was a non-starter after declaring England – now bottom of Group Nine – should focus on 2006. Roy Hodgson had blotted his copybook with a disastrous spell at Blackburn, while Robson was coveted by Ridsdale but eventually viewed as too difficult to prise away from Newcastle United, even in a part-time role that would pair him with a younger man such as Peter Taylor.

England fans

The Swede's popularity with England fans was miscalculated by the press

Besides, Crozier was after a groundbreaking signature move that, along with the FA’s imminent switch from fusty Lancaster Gate to fashionable Soho Square, would define his first year in charge. Snatching one of the Premier League’s top managers would certainly do that, but it was correctly supposed that Alex Ferguson would not be interested and that Dein would resist moves for Arsene Wenger. Both Dein and Crozier had another name in mind.

David Dein, who was influential on the international committee, was a big supporter of Sven from the start, and though an element of that was probably protecting his interests at Arsenal from losing Arsene Wenger, he recognised Sven’s qualities

- Athole Still

Still says: “David Dein, who was influential on the international committee, was a big supporter of Sven from the start, and though an element of that was probably protecting his interests at Arsenal from losing Arsene Wenger, he recognised Sven’s qualities. One part of that was that as a Swede he was seen as politically neutral. Even if England had been able to appoint Arsene Wenger, there would still have been an element who would have baulked at having a Frenchman. It certainly couldn’t have been a German.”

Crozier had also been pro-Eriksson virtually from day one, especially after Ferguson gave his nod of approval to the man who almost replaced him at Manchester United a couple of years later, before the Scot rescinded his plan to retire. “I met Adam Crozier, David Dein and Athole Still in Rome,” reveals Sven. “And I realised that I could not say no; that if I did I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

National outcry

Even a rising member of the national squad had his say. “The England team should be managed by an Englishman,” declared one David Beckham

But as Eriksson’s name began to creep into the press and Crozier began negotiations with Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti, the resistance began.

Jack Charlton, who led the Republic of Ireland to three international tournaments despite hailing from Ashington in north-east England, called the idea of hiring a foreigner “a recipe for disaster”. His old Newcastle fishing partner Paul Gascoigne told the papers: “It would be an embarrassment for English soccer.”

Trevor Francis reminded the FA that instead of looking overseas, “there are some excellent English coaches in the Nationwide League.” At the time these included Sam Allardyce, Neil Warnock, Gary Megson… and Trevor Francis. Even a rising member of the national squad had his say. “The England team should be managed by an Englishman,” declared one David Beckham.

Jack Charlton

Charlton made it plain he disagreed with the idea of a foreign England manager

Of all the press voices lining up against the appointment, none was more strident than Jeff Powell, a long-time admirer and friend of Venables. Eriksson’s biographer Joe Lovejoy says: “Jeff was very much the leader of the pro-Terry camp. A lot of us also wanted Venables, but Terry was doomed in that he had a dyed-in-the-wool enemy in Noel White, who had said ‘over my dead body’.”

Of all the press voices lining up against the appointment, none was more strident than Jeff Powell, a long-time admirer and friend of Venables

We contacted Powell, now the Daily Mail’s boxing correspondent, but he was unable to contribute to this feature. However, when FFT asked Powell several years ago about his flawed grasp of Swedish topography and sporting pursuits, his twinkly-eyed response was: “I was right about Sven, though, wasn’t I?”

The nascent internet football community marvelled at the piece, which included Powell’s bizarre suggestion that the appointment had hastened the arrival of “third-world Britain”; that “one more week and we shall be stockpiling petrol and hoarding food”.

The Daily Telegraph’s Alan Tyers, then working at startup website Football365, says: “I remember the whole piece being amazing and us condemning it but also enjoying laughing at it. It felt at the time that there was a type of football writing emerging on the internet that was not in any way represented in the papers, where it was still guys like Jeff Powell handing down these opinions in tablets of stone and you just thought: ‘What on Earth is he on about? Hasn’t he noticed that England have had a succession of English managers who have been completely hopeless?’

“It felt like a watershed moment to us; that the top journalists were completely out of touch with ordinary supporters. It seemed like the newspapers were the extreme and the internet was the voice of reason and calm, which is not really the way it’s turned out.”

Eriksson did have his supporters in the national press, notably Patrick Collins of the Mail On Sunday, who railed against the response from “the Friends of Terry Venables”, lamenting that “one loyalist was responsible for an eruption of puerile xenophobia whose natural home was the lavatory wall”.

Yet the appointment was drawing wider criticism, too. “The appointment of a foreign coach beggars belief. This is another example of us giving away our family treasures to Europe,” said League Managers Association head and former Wolves boss John Barnwell. “It’s a betrayal of our coaching structure,” said PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor, claiming: “Terry Venables is not considered because they have put criteria down that maybe the Archbishop of Canterbury wouldn’t meet.”

Sven-Goran Eriksson

Are they keeping you up, Sven?

Then there were the fans. “I saw the protesters saying ‘we don’t want a foreigner’ and I didn’t really feel affected by that,” says Eriksson. “I always thought that if I did a good job the English people would be supportive. I had five-and-a-half years there and I never met any rude or abusive English football fans. Almost everything negative was from the press. There was a big difference between the English fans and the English press.”

I always thought that if I did a good job the English people would be supportive.I had five and a half years there and I never met any rude or abusive English football fans

- Sven-Goran Eriksson

In his first visits to England, Eriksson was followed by Ray Egan, a retired police officer from the Midlands prone to dressing as John Bull. Still active today, Egan has recently donned his costume to protest the gassing of badgers and the closure of Goodyear’s Wolverhampton plant. Back then, recalls Eriksson, “he held a placard saying the English people should hang their heads in shame for having hired a foreigner”.

“It didn’t bother me. It was only one person,” said Sven. In reality, the opposition was more widespread than he believed.

“I distinctly remember seeing the Ten O’Clock News headline and shouting ‘No!’ at the television,” says home-and-away England supporter Dean Cornish. “It may sound parochial, but as a patriotic Englishman I just couldn’t bear it. It’s not just English arrogance; I genuinely believe that international football is just that – the best in football one country can offer versus the best another country can offer. I’d probably think it was cheating if the kit man was a laundry specialist from Sweden, let alone the manager. I felt that if we won something under Eriksson, then it would be tarnished in some way, and I think most England fans felt the same.”

Next page: What the players thought...