Thursday, March 1, 2012
The Iceman cometh
On February 28, 2001 the first foreign coach of England, Sven-Goran Eriksson, took charge of his first game. It had been an appointment that saw widespread criticism from fans and the media, but the Three Lions took on Spain at Villa Park and emerged victorious with a 3-0 win coming courtesy of an unlikely goalscoring trio of Nick Barmby, Emile Heskey and Ugo Ehiogu.
England's decision to 'go foreign' for the first time, after the resignation of Kevin Keegan following a home defeat to Germany in October 2000, saw the FA install Swedish manager Sven-Goran Eriksson into the country's most high profile football job. Eriksson was viewed highly on the world stage after impressing both with Benfica and in the Italian league with Lazio, who he had led to a league and cup treble the previous summer.
Eriksson's contract in Rome was set to end in mid-2001, but for all his successes he had been pushed to resign after losing six out of nine matches as the champions suffered a catastrophic loss of form at the turn of the year. Regardless of the fact he was set to take up his new challenge in January, three months early, English media reaction had been somewhat sceptical over the prospect of a non-native in charge of the national team and many were swayed towards criticism by the fact that Eriksson's wages were a reported £3 million per year.
The Swede, known for his coolness and given the nickname 'The Iceman', acknowledged he was under pressure to deliver and said he would be "hung" if he failed to get results, although added that his nationality had little to do with that. "I have to defend myself with good football, good results," he said. "If results come, no-one cares about the nationality of the manager."
With England in a disastrous position in their World Cup qualifying group - bottom, below Albania, after a 1-0 defeat to Germany in the last match at the old Wembley and a 0-0 draw away in Finland - Eriksson had work to do and insisted that: "It is a big job and a big challenge for me which I hope to enjoy."
His first game was already fast approaching, with Villa Park staging its first England match since 1958 and the Spanish side arriving full of the talent of Raul, Pep Guardiola, Gaizka Mendieta and Iker Casillas. While England still boasted Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, there were eyebrows raised at the inclusion of 31-year-old left-back Chris Powell - the first Charlton Athletic player picked by England since 1964 - and Nicky Barmby among others. On the bench, such future international stars as Ugo Ehiogu, Michael Ball and Gavin McCann were given a chance.
Starting as he would mean to go on, Eriksson had named a 31-man squad for the game. "I have not met the players, just said hello to one or two of them. This is one reason why he we chose so many," he revealed. "Tord Grip [his assistant] and I are quite new to this situation but we have seen a lot of games. Tord has been here almost three months; I have been here five weeks. I am sure we don't know everything about every English player. That is why we chose to take a lot of players - 31 - to see them, to know them."
Eriksson's penchant for making changes would find its root in his first match and eight were made throughout the game. However, the action itself was cause for celebration. The initial stages saw Spain take control as David Lacey of the Guardian wrote: "Once Spain established a close-passing pattern they [England] found it difficult to get hold of the ball... the contrast between Spain's careful build-ups from the back and England's tendency to wallop the ball forward myopically was unavoidable."
But as many teams have discovered, style does not always win you matches and seven minutes before half-time, England took the lead. Barmby, who had netted the first goal of Glenn Hoddle's reign in Moldova four-and-a-half years ago, did the same for Eriksson; calmly lifting the ball over Casillas after good work from Michael Owen to set him free.
Six replacements arrived at half-time, but England's shape was not disturbed and Heskey pounced on a loose ball when Frank Lampard's corner was not cleared, ramming it home from seven yards. Another sub, Ehiogu, headed home the third on 70 minutes but was caught out ten minutes later when he brought down Javi Moreno in the box. Eriksson's day was not to be spoiled though as sub goalkeeper Nigel Martyn flung himself down to save the spot-kick. A comfortable 3-0 win was secured and Eriksson took the plaudits.
Lacey wrote: "ABBA [a Swedish band] be praised, England appear to have rediscovered the art of winning. After an awkward start on a bitterly cold night here the reign of Sven-Goran Eriksson as the nation's first foreign coach began with performance of growing confidence and expertise and an impressive victory over an accomplished but defensively suspect Spanish team."
Other papers followed suit and paid tribute to the results with a plethora of imaginative headlines including the Daily Express' 'Swede dreams are made of this', 'Smiles better' [complete with a picture of a smiling Eriksson] and the Daily Star's 'Sven: The Swedish Sir Alf'.
But not all of Eriksson's players welcomed his arrival. Martin Lipton of the Daily Mail revealed: "The tumultuous emotions of Eriksson's team will not have been shared by David Seaman, who became the first public casualty of the hard edge that underlines the Swede's smiling demeanour. The Arsenal goalkeeper was not even considered worthy of a place on the bench and is understood to have let Eriksson know of his unhappiness at being relegated below David James, Nigel Martyn - who saved a late Javi Moreno penalty - and Richard Wright."
Despite the odd grumble, the overriding feeling from the night was one of optimism. The Swede had got off to a flying start and many were looking forward to a successful World Cup qualifying campaign and, dare they think it, success on the world stage for the first time since 1966. ''You win a friendly, even it is against Spain 3-0, but you must try and keep your feet on the floor," Eriksson said, downplaying expectations, after the match. "Don't try to fly and say that you've won the World Cup. That would be a mistake."
What happened next? England worked their way from bottom to top of its group and qualified for the 2002 World Cup, while one of the greatest results in the history of English football - 5-1 over Germany in Munich - came within the year. But the decision to eventually hand Seaman the No. 1 spot came back to haunt Eriksson when the Arsenal goalkeeper was caught off his line by a Ronaldinho free-kick that saw the Three Lions fall to Brazil in the quarter-finals. Eriksson would fail to lead England beyond that stage at any of the tournaments before he left after the 2006 World Cup.
A brief and unsuccessful return to an Englishman saw Steve McClaren replace him, before Fabio Capello struck a blow for the foreign coach once more. The semi-finals of Euro '96 (under Terry Venables) remain the furthest that England have gone since the triumph of 1966, while Spain ended 44 years of hurt and won Euro 2008 followed by the 2010 World Cup to cement their place as one of the finest international teams in history.