Soft touch Sven

Leicester City fans have been shaken out of their Sven-Göran Eriksson hypnosis, declares Derek Hammond

Along with most Leicester City fans, I greeted the club’s appointment of Sven-Göran Eriksson with a certain pride. Here was a successful England boss, a celebrity of wealth and distinction. A man who had won league titles in Sweden, Italy and Portugal, led Lazio to the double, the UEFA Super Cup and the Cup-Winners Cup, was now coming to little old Leicester.

Just a year ago, I was happy to brush over Eriksson’s more inglorious appointments this century. After leaving Manchester City, his subsequent sacking as Mexican national coach had sparked a spontaneous “victory rally” of 30,000 fans displeased with a World Cup qualifying record of one win in seven games. Next, he was duped by conmen investors at Notts County before flopping at the World Cup with a star-studded Ivory Coast side.

I even forgave him for England’s World Cup campaign in 2006, prior to which he disastrously leaked the news that he was quitting after the tournament. With all the pressure of expectation lifted, it now seemed only reasonable to have invited along the players’ wives and girlfriends at their own insistence, demanding equal rights and equal billing. An end-of-term atmosphere had proven just right for their grand international shopping expedition.

But now he was at Leicester, who were bottom of the Championship after nine games under Paulo Sousa, and the only way was up. The fear was that any group of average modern footballers would run rings around Eriksson, whose successful European teams had been models of self-control and determined self-betterment. His cultured approach would surely be at odds with the high-pace, all-effort negativity of the division.

Maybe the manager’s assistant, ex-Blackburn hardman Derek Fazackerley, would play bad cop to Eriksson’s gentle, trusting commander? Temporarily at least, the free rein and respect afforded to the players seemed to be repaid. At last, City’s owners, the duty-free barons King Power, had good news for the investors back home in Thailand. With a side bolstered by top-tier loanees, we romped up the table and were within a point of the play-offs by February.

At the time, we didn’t mind that Eriksson never moved a muscle in the dugout, betraying exactly the same feelings whether City scored or fell behind. But a question mark arose when he continued to fiddle with his starting 11. He brought in outsiders from Chelsea, including Patrick van Aanholt,  an instantly offensive big-time Charlie, and the hapless Jeff Bruma, whose retention of a starting spot soon became highly suspicious. We pretended not to notice Fazackerley leafing through the pages of a thick A4 notepad during matches. Aimless stats are never a good response when your team lacks leadership, passion and a fear factor.

Having failed last season, losing run-in games against all the top clubs, Eriksson’s apparently limitless budget was extended by the ever-affable owners. Spending soon increased to £15 million on Championship stars at overinflated prices.

The season so far has been played out with a calm assurance that City will finish top by rights – this despite a lack of commitment, ideas and collective responsibility that have increasingly recalled that infamous German shopping trip. To make matters worse, far cheaper, upstart sides have insisted on engaging in inconvenient toe-to-toe battles. Given space by Derby, Leicester passed sublimely and won 4-0. Against more obstinate opposition, the passing game has worked beautifully up to 30 yards from goal and then somewhat frustratingly back to the halfway line.

The City crowd used to sing “give us a wave” to Eriksson, but it always seemed such an effort for him. We stopped out of politeness. His final game, a 3-0 home defeat to Millwall, was played out in stony silence, while players given too much respect began to lose that of the fans. City legend and Radio Leicester star Alan Young hit the roof when a post-match caller explained why the manager should be sacked. But the kid who was pilloried during the phone-in as ignorant and disloyal was instrumental in bursting our bubble of bland acceptance. Eriksson’s hypnotic, soothing style made it hard for anyone to whip up a passionate response to his dismissal. If he was not motivated enough to shake up some urgency, to scream that we are still two points off the play-offs and not even out of second gear, then why should we?

What a relief to have been jolted out of this complacent, half-cocked culture-clash. And what a pleasant surprise that it was the Thai owners who reminded us there is no room for an easy touch in the Championship. We wish the best of luck to the eighth City manager in five years, who everyone at Leicester will be right behind in time-honoured style. Let’s hope he comes equipped with his heart on his sleeve, an appropriate plan of attack and teacups.

From WSC 298 December 2011