Is it time to reassess the reign of Sven-Goran Eriksson at England?
Italy, Chile, Netherlands, USA. What do these four countries have in common? Simple, all of them have failed to qualify for next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.
England, much maligned England, have once again strolled through qualifying. But we’ve been here before. At the last Euro's England was knocked out in the last 16 by Iceland, the same Iceland who was comprehensively blown away by France the very next round. But, of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
This leads me to wonder, should we perhaps change our perception of the Suave Swede’s time as England manager? Sven has come in for much criticism over his record as manager, largely because he failed to deliver a major title with England’s fabled ‘Golden Generation’ The failure to get Gerrard and Lampard to work as a pairing, the retirement of Paul Scholes and the failure to go beyond the quarterfinals are all shown as reasons why Sven was a failure. But perhaps this needs re-evaluating.
Certainly, the attempts to pair Gerrard and Lampard together arguably cost England as neither was a ball winner and both failed to curb their attacking instincts. Meanwhile, Paul Scholes, a player who some consider better than both and a player capable of dictating a game was marooned on the left wing, a decision that ultimately led to Scholes’ retirement from England duty. But Sven wasn’t the first manager to try to shoehorn in players and he’s unlikely to be the last.
But what I really want to focus on in Sven’s perceived poor record at major tournaments. Three quarter-finals has usually been considered not to have been good enough for a nation like England. But is this actually the case? I want to look, not just at Sven’s record on its own, but also in comparison to his predecessors and successors.
If we start with his first tournament, the 2002 World Cup. England was eliminated by Brazil, in bizarre fashion after goalkeeper David Seaman was beaten by a long-range chancer from Ronaldinho and many felt let down. But let’s look at that Brazil team. It was led by the attacking triumvirate of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. Say those names to yourself again. We are talking here about three of the best players of the last 20 years, very few players that have come since have even gotten close to those three. Brazil, of course, went on to win the tournament. England, whilst we had some very good players, didn’t have one player on that level, let alone three. A World Ranking of somewhere between 5th and 10th throughout this period suggests that the quarterfinals were about right.
Moving on to Euro 2004, we know that, in typical England fashion this ended with a defeat on penalties. Sven wasn’t the first England manager to get knocked out on penalties, but so far he has been the last, but more on that later. But there remains a huge ‘What If’ hanging over that tournament from an England perspective.
That if is called Wayne Rooney.
This tournament came at the end of Rooney’s breakthrough season and having scored four times in the group stages to help England recover from the opening match defeat to a Zidane inspired France (the second of two matches that Sven lost inside 90 minutes at major tournaments), Rooney looked set to be the star of the tournament, a player capable of winning games, and the tournament, on his own. That was until nearly 30 minutes into the quarter-final with Portugal, when disaster struck. Rooney collided with a defender chasing a through ball and went down clutching his foot. Despite attempts to play on, Rooney had broken his foot and had to be subbed.
Shorn of the heartbeat of its attack England never quite looked the same and were eventually undone by that old English nemesis, penalties, including a miss by the usually reliable captain, David Beckham. This one was arguably the one that got away, but injuries and missed penalties are beyond the control of the manager.
Finally, we come to the World Cup of 2006. This tournament ended the same way as the previous one, with defeat to Portugal, on penalties, in the quarterfinals. This was another tournament beset by problems. Once again a Wayne Rooney injury clouded things, although the striker was eventually passed fit. But he would again have a decisive impact, but this time for all the wrong reasons. His sending off seemed to be the decisive moment of the quarter-final, much like a previous young English hope, David Beckham, eight years previously. Another optimism filled tournament, another glorious failure and that was that for Sven. Thanks for trying but you weren’t good enough.
But I am not so sure this is true. If we stop and examine the records of those who came before and after, it’s clear that Sven actually holds up quite well. England’s first manager, Walter Winterbottom, led England to four World Cups, reaching the quarter-finals twice. But this was in the days when qualification wasn’t required and only 16 teams competed. Winterbottom was also in charge on what is considered the most ignominious day in English football history, the 1-0 defeat to the USA in 1950. Winterbottom left England with a win percentage of around 56%.
His successor was Sir (although not then) Alf Ramsey. Ramsey is, rightly, held up as the yardstick by which all others are measured having led England to World Cup triumph on home soil. But his record beyond that famous win is patchy at best. Under him England did defend their World title to the quarter-finals in 1970, but, even accounting for the errors made by reserve keeper Peter Bonetti, may argue that Ramsey’s decision to take off Bobby Charlton was the deciding factor in the tie with West Germany as this freed up Charlton’s marker, Franz Beckenbauer to take control of the game and swing it West Germany’s way. Of course, even if Charlton had stayed on and England progressed, there remains a doubt that they would have retained the trophy, which was eventually won by a Brazil side many consider to be the greatest in history.
After that, we have a third-place finish at the 1968 European Championships and a failure to qualify for three tournaments, the 1964 and 1972 European Championships and, infamously, the 1974 World Cup, when a dodgy watch appeared to be England’s villain. Nevertheless, with a win percentage of just over 61% and as the only man to ever lead England to a major trophy, Ramsey has to be considered a success as England manager.
The same cannot be said of Ramsey’s successor, Don Revie. The man who led Leeds to the most successful period in its history was the man chosen to follow England’s greatest ever. Some might say it was doomed to fail from the start, but a failure to qualify for the 1976 European Championships, followed by a resignation to take up a lucrative post in the United Arab Emirates means Revie’s England career will forever be remembered in infamy. His win percentage stands at less than half, at just 48%
The man next in the hot seat fared little better. Ron Greenwood ended a long association with West Ham to take over but the initial signs were not much better. Failure to qualify for the 1978 World Cup meant a fifth successive tournament that England failed to qualify for. This streak was broken in 1980 with qualification for the European Championships but this ended at the group stage. In 1982 England made the World Cup and had high hopes. But despite the likes of Robson, Wilkins and Brooking being in the squad it was another injury to another key player, Kevin Keegan, considered at that point to be amongst the best in the world that hindered England who failed to emerge from the second group stage in Greenwood’s final tournament in charge. His win record, however, is a pretty respectable 60%
The legendary Sir Bobby Robson was next to take the job but like Ramsey, Revie and Greenwood before him, Robson failed to qualify for his first major tournament, the European Championships of 1984. But, after this, things picked up, at least on the World stage. Though England failed, once again, to get out of the groups at the 1988 Euros, losing to a Marco van Basten inspired Holland along the way, in the World Cup things were much better. In 1986 England reached the quarterfinals, where they were undone by a player many consider the greatest ever, Diego Maradona, playing at the peak of his powers. Maradona scored both goals, the first the most infamous in World Cup history, the ‘Hand of God’ the second, possibly the greatest and most famous in World Cup history, his slaloming run through the England defence. Then, of course, there was the run the semi-finals and fourth place in 1990, but I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about that. Robson’s win rate was just 49.5% yet he provided some of the most memorable moments in England history.
The same can be said of Robson’s successor, Graham Taylor, sadly though, for all the wrong reasons. Elimination at the group stages of Euro 92 was followed by a failure to qualify for the World Cup in 1994 and the famous (or infamous) ‘Do I not like that’ and conceding to San Marino inside of a minute. Of all permanent managers, only one boasts (if that’s the right word) a worse win record that Taylor’s 47.4%
Again I don’t think you need me to tell you about Terry Venables and those heady days of the summer of 1996, ‘Football’s coming home’ and all that.
Glenn Hoddle was the next man in the hot seat and many, including myself, think he left too soon (even if he did leave under something of a cloud). Hoddle set about revolutionising the England team introducing younger players and a new system. Of course, the infamous Beckham incident clouded his one and only tournament, the 1998 World Cup, which ended at the quarter-final stage on penalties (where have we heard that before). But had he had longer many think England could have achieved much more. A Win rate of 60.7% suggests Hoddle was on the right track
Kevin Keegan’s reign is probably best forgotten. Elimination at the group stage of Euro 2000 followed by the defeat to Germany in the last ever game played at the old Wembley. That brings us to Sven and so we go beyond.
Perhaps Steve McClaren and the qualification campaign is best left 10 years ago. Suffice to stay England failed to qualify and McClaren, quickly nicknamed ‘The Wally with the Brolly’ was soon handed his p45 with nine wins from his 18 games in charge
McClaren was followed by one of the most legendary managers in the game, Fabio Capello. Yet the Italian’s time in the job will not be fondly remembered. Capello qualified for his only major tournament in charge but the World Cup of 2010 will not be fondly remembered. England won just once, scraping into the second round where they were torn apart by Germany. Although carried on, he too left under something of a cloud shortly before the Euros of 2012. His win ratio was, however, the best of any England manager (bar Sam Allardyce’s 1 match reign) at 66.7%
Roy Hodgson was the man chosen to lead England into that campaign, which ended with Italy tearing England apart in the quarterfinals. Group Stage elimination followed at the 2014 World Cup (where England became the only nation to lose to Italy in a finals tournament since 2006) and then the Iceland humiliation. It’s far too early to judge Gareth Southgate.
So, what does all this tell us? Well firstly that our record in major tournaments since Sven departed has been frankly dreadful. Even the most pessimistic England fans would expect better than one quarter-final in five tournaments, Sven got three in three remember. His win record is bettered by only three men and only one of those was in charge for more games. In short, although he failed to deliver a much wanted major tournament win Sven did deliver a level of consistency that most viewers of England would love to have now and that very few before him ever accomplished. Before Sven, no manager qualified for every tournament (when qualification became necessary). Since then, aside from the McClaren reign, qualification has become the norm for England, something which, despite our romantic notions of the past, it was not always.