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When Sven came to England – and braved the xenophobic storm

Sven-Goran Eriksson
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Getting on with the job

When the tabloids demanded he named Leicester’s keeper and Sunderland’s left-back (England hopefuls Ian Walker and Michael Gray), Eriksson played a straight bat, refusing to say little other than that he felt England could still qualify for the World Cup finals

The opposing sides met in St Albans on November 2, the new man flying into Luton by private jet so he could return to Rome for Lazio training that afternoon. His inaugural press conference, at plush Sopwell House, was packed. When the tabloids demanded he named Leicester’s keeper and Sunderland’s left-back (England hopefuls Ian Walker and Michael Gray), Eriksson played a straight bat, refusing to say little other than that he felt England could still qualify for the World Cup finals.

“I was glad when it was over,” Eriksson later wrote, although it wasn’t quite – with Remembrance Sunday looming, the FA gave their new coach a poppy to wear as he met the media. It was derided as tokenism by the next day’s Daily Express.

With Eriksson initially agreeing to wait out his remaining contract at Lazio while Peter Taylor and Steve McClaren looked after England, he had still not met his players, and skipped the opportunity ahead of a lacklustre 1-0 friendly defeat in Turin on November 15. Even without personal contact, though, the man who would become his captain had revised his opinion.

“It should be good – it will be good,” said David Beckham. “We have got many good players and they will become a good team. He is a great manager.”

While the FA waited for Eriksson (although in the end, poor results at the Serie A club including a run of five defeats in eight games meant he was free by early January), they tried to change minds in the media

While the FA waited for Eriksson (although in the end, poor results at the Serie A club including a run of five defeats in eight games meant he was free by early January), they tried to change minds in the media. “There was a fair bit of briefing from David Davies and a lot of it directly from Adam Crozier, who was very clever with us – you would say manipulative,” says Lovejoy.

Eriksson’s first official day in charge included a trip to see West Ham play Sunderland, the beginning of a long series of cross-country trips shared with assistant Tord Grip. Sven’s tour brought so many handshakes with fans that some wondered whether it was part of an FA love-bombing campaign, a feeling which intensified when the association’s website began publishing a ‘Sven Tracker’ so supporters could find out where he would pop up next.

Eriksson says: “It was totally my idea, because I thought it was the only way to do that job – to try to cover as many players as quickly as possible; as much ground as quickly as I could. I didn’t know everything about English football; of course I followed it and watched the players when I was in Italy, but not to that extent. I thought I should go to as many games and clubs as possible, and Tord could go in the other direction to see as much as we could. I did the same when I was manager of Mexico some years later.”

Athole Still adds: “What people who don’t know Sven do not appreciate is that if he is not involved in a match, or if there isn’t a match on TV, he will be watching some under-12s play somewhere. He just loves watching football.”

Winning them round

Eriksson finally met the players before his first game in charge, in what turned out to be an encouraging 3-0 win against Spain at Villa Park. A core of young but influential believers quickly emerged; among them, Beckham, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.

“His nationality never bothered me,” says Andy Cole, who won the final five of his 15 England caps in the first 12 months of the Swede’s reign. “The papers talked about him not being English, but I don’t think it was an issue with the other lads either. They were used to working for foreign managers. As long as he could speak English, they were OK with that. Players were more concerned about still getting picked.”

Eriksson says he won the squad’s trust by asking them to do no more than they were already good at. “You should make it as simple as possible,” he explains. “You see the players very seldom. Don’t complicate things. Put players in the positions they feel comfortable in, in a system they feel comfortable with. They responded with good performances quite quickly.”

Even at this early stage, those supporters who felt the England manager had to be English were coming onside. “It seemed the press had had it in for Sven from day one,” says Dean Cornish. “At Villa Park the photographers crowded in front of him during the national anthem so that they could ‘catch’ him not singing God Save The Queen. He probably started wondering what he’d let himself in for.

If the Spain game was encouraging, the next international break, a month later, provided evidence that automatic qualification for the 2002 World Cup might still be possible after all

“England fans always back the team and they were behind Sven from the start when it came to matches. There were fans wearing Sven masks. Once the media derision died down, there was support and excitement for him. I really grew to like him.”

If the Spain game was encouraging, the next international break, a month later, provided evidence that automatic qualification for the 2002 World Cup might still be possible after all. England beat Finland 2-1 on an afternoon when Anfield cheered a Beckham goal, then defeated Albania in Tirana. In June, England won in Greece to put themselves firmly back in contention.

“If there were critics remaining by that stage, they had shut up,” says the anonymous former FA employee. “We had a manager who was shaking hands at every ground, who the players loved and who was winning. His popularity then was immense.”

By the time Halloween rolled around again, thanks to unforgettable matches against Germany (a 5-1 victory) and Greece (a 2-2 draw), sandwiched by a professional win over Albania, England had qualified for the World Cup. Gordon Taylor, “betrayed” a year earlier, compared Eriksson’s “aura of stillness” to that of Sir Alf Ramsey.

Barnwell, so insulted on behalf of his LMA members when Sven was announced as national team coach, admitted: “Not one manager in the country would say anything detrimental about his approach or his attitude.” Newspaper headlines now included ‘Svennis From Heaven’ and ‘Svensational’.

It couldn’t last, of course. But while it did, an English football nation that seemed to have spent so much time in darkness was living in the light. “Those were great times – happy times,” says Eriksson. “I thought from when I came into it that it was a huge job, but beautiful. It is, and it was for me, every day.”

This feature originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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