Club and country

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, you might say.


SOMEWHAT odd that given the future over Sven Goran Eriksson's craven decision to put out a team of England youngsters in the second half of the disastrous game against Australia at West Ham, nothing at all was heard in England about what went on the same evening in Paris. That is to say there was much pointing of the finger of blame both at Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger the managers of Manchester United and Arsenal over their opposition to playing England's ill-fated friendly at all, yet not a peep from Wenger was recorded, here at least, over the choice of a string of Arsenal players for France's friendly match against the Czechs; which they lost 2-0, almost as humiliatingly as England lost 3-1 to the Socceroos.

Coach Sven Goran Eriksson became a national hero when England overwhelmed Germany 5-1 in Munich and thus rescued what seemed a desperate situation in their World Cup qualifying group last year. Since then it has been downhill all the way. — Pic. AP-

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, you might say, and I understand that though one Arsenal player, Robert Pires, had a good game for France, Patrick Vieira, in the half a game he played, was virtually non-existent while Sylvain Wiltord did little of consequence in attack. By sharp contrast Vieira had a majestic game just three days later at Old Trafford against Manchester United whom Arsenal beat comprehensively in the FA Cup. So controversially indeed that Ferguson, never the most gracious of losers, not only made a fatuous attack on Arsenal's "intimidation" of the referee — did he forget the shocking behaviour of United players to the referee Andy D'Urso in a United-Middlesbrough game not long ago — but petulantly lashed out in the dressing room after the game at a football boot which bounced off a wall and hit David Beckham. Cutting him just above the eye, and necessitating two stitches. The reverberations of that happy little event will last a long time.

Arsenal in the Australian game had just Ashley Cole, the left back, and in the second half the striker Francis Jeffers, whereas United had Gary Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes. Neville angrily denied that he and others were not giving their best, emphasising that if they'd not wanted to play they would not have turned up at all. Meaning presumably that some sort of excuse in terms of injury could have been found. It may be remembered that Ferguson quite disgraceful and provocatively, earlier this season, withdrew Paul Scholes from an England squad, allegedly injured, only to play him for United a couple of days before the international match was due. Ferguson made an angry root and branch attack on friendly fixtures of the Australian kind and it is true that it came at an especially delicate time. Just three days later came the United-Arsenal Cup tie at Old Trafford, then the following Tuesday and Wednesday, European Cup ties involving both clubs. Yet, it might be argued and indeed has been that the big European clubs have been hoist with their own petard, greedily bullying UEFA into constantly enlarging the so-called Champions Cup — which is now a misnomer — abolishing the old home and away knock-out pattern which existed in earlier years. Indeed UEFA to the ire of such clubs now mean to cut out the second mini-league phase and go back to the old home and away pattern. The truth is that the major clubs are now trapped in a vortex of financial imprudence, paying vast salaries to their players — Beckham himself is on �90,000 a week! — even if the bottom seems to have fallen out of the over-priced transfer market.

Back to Eriksson and his feeble behaviour. He became a national hero in England when his team overwhelmed Germany 5-1 in Munich and thus rescued what seemed a desperate situation in their World Cup qualifying group but since then it has been downhill all the way. There is no doubt that he and the Football Association had right and the law on their side, that there was nothing to stop Eriksson putting out his full team for the whole 90 minutes, rather than pitifully announcing in advance that yet again he would change the whole side for the second half. As it transpired, a truly wretched performance by the "full" England team found it 2-0 down at half time, unable to redeem themselves in the second half, when the youngsters were brought in. They did rather better since the second half was drawn 1-1, but whether or not they were at full throttle — which some of the Arsenal-French players certainly didn't seem to be — the fact remains that the `A' team was stopped in its tracks.

This as the former Arsenal and England centre forward, Alan Smith, shrewdly pointed out, was especially unfair on such players as Frank Lampard in midfield and the newly-capped centre forward, Southampton's Beattie. Each obviously wanted to make as great an impact as possible, Lampard after falling out of international favour, Beattie on his first appearance. But neither was afforded the chance. That Eriksson was culpably gutless can hardly be denied.

My own mind went back a long way to John Hansen, once the tall and elegant Danish international inside-left, as clever on the ground as he was dangerous with his head, a star of the Denmark 1948 Olympics team in London, then of Juventus in Turin and ultimately for Lazio in Rome. Years after he retired I visited John at the Coca Cola plant he was running in Copenhagen where he told me that the trouble with Denmark's team was that after those Olympics in which it took third place he and others — such as Karl Aaage Hansen and left winger Carl Praest all went abroad. As professionals, then, he and they were no longer eligible for Denmark. This meant throwing in a bunch of youngsters to sink or swim together without the support and comfort of older, more experienced players. In the event, the youngsters sank.

England's youngsters laudably did not, in that second half against the Aussies, but this was palpably not the way to blood the likes of 17-year-old Wayne Rooney, the precocious Everton centre forward, who become the youngest footballer ever to play for England. Eriksson has been mumbling about playing friendlies at the end of the season, but this period in all but post World Cup years has in any case been given to foreign tours. And how many such friendlies could be accommodated?

The truth is that Eriksson seems to have lost his way all along the line. It has cogently been asked why when he threw in so many untried youngsters there was no place even on his home pitch for West Ham's playmaker Joe Cole. But this is just one question among so many.