As the media storm around Sven-Göran Eriksson reaches gale force, Barney Ronay considers the combination of football failings and tabloid prurience that got us here
The career of a modern England manager tends to follow a familiar pattern. Things kick off in a fug of giddy optimism, inspired more than anything by general relief at the departure of the last fellow. Some promising results follow. Glenn Hoddle had Le Tournoi in 1997 (the second most important trophy England have ever won). Graham Taylor went unbeaten for a year. Even Kevin Keegan had his moments. After this, almost directly, comes the long, slow drawn-out death. More or less every recent England manager’s reign has finished in the same way: with a very public kind of nervous breakdown. Currently Sven-Göran Eriksson is entering the end game. Everybody knows it’s coming. There’s just a lot of this stuff – this terrible head-shaking indignation – to get through first.
The inevitable public humiliation of most recent England managers has been easier to get to grips with. Taylor failed to qualify for the World Cup; Terry Venables had a cloud of unfathomable financial chicanery following him around; Glenn Hoddle became odd and crankish. Sven, meanwhile, has been undeniably efficient. Tournaments have come and gone and will continue to do so. There may be something in his downgrading of friendlies, but that’s probably more to do with the influence of Premiership clubs and a falling-off of international football outside the major summer beanos.
Almost out of necessity, with Sven it has become personal. Never trust man in his fifties, they say, who takes good care of his hair. Ah yes. The ladies... Priapic middle age is something best kept to yourself. But of course that just wasn’t going to happen here. This time around it’s all been about Sven and the terrible Nancy, surely one of the least office-bound lawyers in the civilised world. Here she is striding through customs in skin-tight scarlet pantsuit and pixie boots; and again pouting on some Mediterranean beach in diamante bikini and satin pumps. Sven Love ‘Stronger’ for Nancy the Sun burped out on page three towards the end of last month. “Every day is a new chapter in life.” And when you’re Nancy it is – or at least a red-top splash, a fresh photo op, or just an entirely new round of sex-claim shock-phone hotel-love rendezvous allegations.
It all kicked off with the astonishing revelation in the Daily Mirror that Sven had telephoned his ex-girlfriend once or twice. Sven’s New Calls To Faria ran the front page on August 20. “They chatted amicably on the phone. Sometimes Sven called Faria and other times she called him.” Oh, the depravity of it all. But we’re just getting started. Nancy…1 Faria…0 Sven’s Lover Joy As Rival Says: I’ll Flee UK, screamed the front page of the Sun three days later, above a story that seemed to suggest that Alam might be thinking about taking a short holiday some time soon. The next four days would prove a shoutathon of tabloid inanity. Try to make sense of this lot: What A Hoop-La! (Sven and Nancy meet in a hotel, admittedly under the amusing alias of Mr and Mrs Eric Jones). Carmen Down Dear (Sven and Nancy listen to some music). Going Faria Away (more holiday stuff). Svendetta (Sven wises up: “Someone is trying to make life difficult for me”). Nancy: It’s Lies; Nancy: It’s Rubbish; The Sun Says: He got a result.
And then of course there was football. Unfortunately for Eriksson, he seems to have suffered his first genuine stroke of bad luck in the middle of all this. The coincidence of two things – Alam’s industrial tribunal relating to her dismissal from the FA; and the worst run of results in his time as England coach – left him exposed on two fronts. Previous intrusions into his private life had been batted away with a flutter of his CV. But it’s all so much harder when you’ve just been turned over by a bunch of fourth-raters in rainy Belfast. The defeat in Northern Ireland on September 8 offered a unique kind of challenge to the tabloids: how do we make this (one bad result) look like it’s got something to do with this (a mildly confused personal life)? Where are his balls? N Ireland...1 England...0 was the best the Sun could come up with. And things have continued along the same tenuous line, best summed up by a message in the Star’s Text Maniacs column: “Sven’s good at da booty thing – not so good at da footy thing.” Ah, the thrill of vertiginous debate.
Let’s get this straight. We know, don’t we, that this stuff – the cavorting with celebrity-hound Nancy; the business with Ulrika Jonsson; the drinks party gropings – has nothing to do with football and everything to do with prurient curiosity? Single man with on-off girlfriend gets the sack for having a fling with the office flirt. It’s just not going to happen. But as always it’s the combined force, the background fuzz and jungle hysteria, that takes its toll. Sven now has a credibility gap. Stroking his chin pensively in the dugout, we see him checking into the “superior mansion king room” at Watford’s Grove hotel, or alone in his Regent’s Park terrace frowningly thumbing his wrinkled black book. We notice his consistency. This is a man who knows what he likes: 4-4-2, tall centre-forwards and bosomy brunettes of a certain age.
The problem is that we all become complicit: the tabloids; me for writing this article; you for finding yourself unexpectedly diverted by the fact that, according to evidence at her tribunal, Alam knew Sven (“a generous lover”) as Sugar and Mark Palios as Pretty Polly; and of course the main players themselves. Why doesn’t it all just fizzle out? There’s a clue buried in the Mirror’s Nancy: It’s Lies exclusive of August 22:
“Nancy, hiding behind dark sunglasses, arrived at Gatwick just after 3pm from her three-week holiday on the Italian island of Sardinia. She was whisked through arrivals by agent Ali Gunn... Ali, accompanied by other members of the Italian’s entourage [italics added], insisted: ‘Nancy doesn’t want to talk about this’.” Oh yeah? Well hiring an agent probably isn’t helping. And how about that entourage?
So here we go. This is all going to be played out right to the end. Because nobody – with the possible exception of Sven, Trevor Brooking and millions of newspaper readers – really wants it to stop.
From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month