So, Sven’s off, to the undisguised delight of his media detractors, who want him replaced with a tracksuited fusion of Henry V, the Duke of Wellington and Bomber Harris, who will spur the team on by sheer force of bellowing, in the dressing room and on the touchline.
Amid all the bluster, it would be easy to overlook the cause of the FA saying “enough”. It wasn’t Eriksson’s naivety at falling for the “fake sheikh” ploy at all, or his interest in oil-enriched superclub Aston Villa and mild critiques of his England players in week one of the revelations. It was week two’s comments about corruption that had big clubs calling for his head. A “Premier League source” told Mihir Bose in the Telegraph: “For the England manager to be saying these things is like the head of the Metropolitan Police saying crime is rife. The FA are supposed to regulate the game and the FA’s most high-profile person says the game is corrupt. That’s an impossible situation.”
The outrage provoked by private comments was in sharp contrast to the way some greeted others’ public statements. Jeff Powell in the Mail said: “Eriksson should be subpoenaed to give evidence to the corruption inquiry triggered by straight-talking Mike Newell and honest Ian Holloway, then sent packing if he cannot substantiate his allegations.” Faced with such doublethink, it is not far-fetched to suggest that had Eriksson told the sheikh that football was clean then Powell would have lambasted him for his naivety and/or complicity in a cover-up.
Sven will now be asked by an FA inquiry to expand on his claim that three clubs had questionable transfer practices. The Premier League are to stage their own investigation, though chief executive Richard Scudamore may not expect to find out much to judge by his calming comments, such as “Maybe it’s not as prevalent as people make out”, when Newell first went public. Scudamore later explained the purpose of the post-Sheikhgate inquiry: “We want evidence put into two categories – evidence to support wrongdoing or to prove there is no wrongdoing.” This suggests he is either cleverer or more stupid than he looks, as proving the non-existence of something that those involved would wish to hide is, without a machine that looks into witnesses’ souls, impossible.
Only two people, George Graham and Ronnie Fenton, were censured as a result of the Premier League’s previous bung inquiry, prompted by Alan Sugar’s High Court evidence that, in Terry Venables’ opinion, “Mr Clough likes a bung”. The inquiry lasted for four years but, without the state’s powers of investigation and search, in most cases the evidence fell short of the necessary standard.
Joe Royle, one of the few in the game to acknowledge Newell’s allegations, stressed that in his view most managers were not up to funny business but pointed out that none the less no one had sued as a result of the book Broken Dreams, by Tom Bower, which went into detail about the questionable activities of some. The agent Rachel Anderson recently spoke of encountering a “frightening level of corruption” within the game and suggested that the Fraud Squad would “take about 20 minutes” to find damning evidence.
The FA know full well that Eriksson doesn’t have facts and figures to back up his off-hand comments – all he has done is to repeat conversations he’s had in boardrooms with club officials and other managers, conversations that go on all the time, maybe even with people in the FA. He won’t publicly name the three clubs because he knows that would leave him open to legal action unless he has evidence – which is exactly why all those journalists who have had similar conversations steer clear of publication.
In fact, other Daily Mail writers (while sticking to the paper’s line that Eriksson should go, a follow-up to their 2004 campaign that he should lose his job for having consensual sex) have said that the Swede is being squeezed out on the wrong issue. Bungs inquiry is a charade to avoid the truth ran one headline, in the paper that after all serialised Bower’s award-winning book.
Inadvertently, Powell stumbled on the truth, with the word “subpoenaed”. No inquiry within football has the power to force witnesses and suspects to testify on oath or hand over all the financial evidence. What is needed is an investigation at government level, with a (naturally complex) paper trail being followed to overseas banks, tax records and the like.
In the meantime, whatever you do, don’t speculate in private about the identities of those to whom Eriksson was referring – you’ll be making yourself unsuitable to replace him. Though we do wonder if the Swede will let anyone at Soho Square in on the secret, lest the FA suffer the embarrassment of appointing one of the suspects as his successor.
From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month