I know nothing (or do I?)

31st October 2003 at 00:00
England's enigmatic football manager relents under pressure and gives away a goal or two. James Sturcke reports

Sven-Goran Eriksson is struggling a bit to find the answers but of course he does not show it.

Sat in a Mastermind-style black leather chair, the England football coach is on stage in front of 500 business leaders who have come to hear him answer questions about "How to get the best of your people."

But 10 minutes into the interview and the first foreign manager of the national team seems to be saying "I don't know" rather a lot.

Eriksson has admitted he did not realise how much grief the job would bring; he says respect is essential to team spirit but cannot say what respect actually is and he is not sure how he turned around the losing culture he inherited from Kevin Keegan.

Despite this, Eriksson appears relaxed thanks to his familiar smile, joke-cracking, charm and calm. He says: "I was offered the England job. I thought about it for a few minutes and decided it was impossible to say no because I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. The job is bigger than I thought and I didn't know about the hassle."

But he does know some things. He knows qualifying for Euro 2004 is a success (whereas losing to Brazil in last year's World Cup quarter final was only a "half success"), there are no divas in the England squad, and a flying football boot would never, ever hit the star player in the face in any locker room of his.

The 55-year-old said: "If I have to criticise a player I am honest and direct. They think it is fair. Try to criticise in a positive way. Don't try to kill them. Don't kick the players.

"You cannot treat young men as though they were schoolboys. Treat them like grown-up men even if they are 17 years old. Listen to them, talk to them and don't think you know everything - learn from them."

Eriksson was appointed England coach in November 2000 when the team was bottom of its qualifying group for the 2002 World Cup. He turned that round (beating Germany 1-5 en route) and then beat Argentina in the first-round group in Japan before going out to eventual champions Brazil.

His renown for calm, style, eloquence and modesty has not only set him apart from most football managers, it has also made him popular with his players and an inspiration to fans, managers and business leaders. That led him to teaming up with business transformation guru Rene Carayol for the staged interview at the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in Harrogate last Thursday, to explore ways of nurturing talent, managing risk and building team spirit.

Eriksson said: "If you do not have team spirit it is impossible. You choose your best players and then you tell them what you want to do. You explain it in a good way so they understand. They have to accept what you want. If they do not you have a real problem.

"But I should not be afraid to take decisions with the players. I take advice from them. After a win they often ask to try something new. They show respect even if they are millionaires. They don't behave like divas."

Asked what respect is, he said: "It is a great word and you have to show it in all parts of life. You have to respect everyone involved: the players, coaches, the nutritionist and the kit men. Without the kit men, where would we be?"

Though not a gambler, Eriksson takes risks, describing launching Wayne Rooney's England career aged only 17 as his bravest and boldest decision in charge.

He eulogises captain David Beckham for giving 200 per cent and says he is not attracted by the millions of rich Premiership clubs, noting his pay now is "more or less" the same as when he was Lazio manager.

He says mental toughness is as important as footballing skills in the team but believes everyone performs better under pressure.

Eriksson revealed: "I am not always calm. I am not calm when I am sitting on the bench and Beckham takes a penalty which is more like a rugby kick.

But even if you are nervous, you do not show the rest of the world and especially not the players. Maybe I should be less cold. I don't know."

Back to mixed messages it seems, and surely far from the inspirational leader he is. But then suddenly, more in an aside, Eriksson reveals his true goal.

He says: "I learned something which I try to follow especially in press conferences: talk low, talk slow and don't say too much."

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