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Friday, Jan. 9, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Scrutiny will increase if Eriksson becomes Chelsea manager


LONDON -- Will he stay or will he go?

Christopher Davies

Rarely a day passes without someone, somewhere in English football asking whether Sven-Goran Eriksson will quit his job as national coach to join the Russian Revolution at Chelsea.

The Swede has given no clues about his long-term future. Eriksson feels there is no need, as his contract with the Football Association runs until 2006, though the F.A. has offered the coach a two-year extension, which he said he will consider when the time is right, presumably after Euro 2004.

The political shadow boxing will continue and, in football terms, the stakes could hardly be higher than coaching England, a job Eriksson enjoys though he detests the baggage that comes with the territory.

Eriksson has made no secret that he was unhappy when some aspects of his private life, notably a fling with television presenter Ulrika Jonsson (famous for being famous) hit the front pages, after his fellow countrywoman kissed and told for a fistful of money.

If you are a shop worker earning £20,000 a year and, for whatever reason, you decide to play away from home, you are less likely to be discovered or have the facts splashed over national newspapers.

However, when you are paid £3 million a year to take charge of England, there are certain things you cannot expect to get away with and if Eriksson does not want to be portrayed as a TV beauty's lover, then he should stay at home watching television more often.

This side of English life will not vanish should he jump ship to Chelsea. If anything, it would intensify as Eriksson would be involved more on a day-to-day basis in the Premiership and European football, making his profile even higher.

At the moment, Eriksson has at his disposal the best English players in the country (plus one or two abroad) and despite the media watchdogs ever ready for some of his indiscreet nocturnal wanderings, this correspondent believes he would be mad to give up on David Beckham, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and Team England for the multinational Chelski.

The rumors have not gone away since Eriksson was photographed going into Roman Abramovich's house last summer.

Eriksson dismissed the significance, saying his visit to the billionaire Chelsea owner was purely social -- "I have dinner with [vice chairman] David Dein -- does this mean I am also joining Arsenal?"

Yet the smoke signals and tom-toms have continued to suggest that this summer Eriksson will go west to Chelsea, though the club issues regular statements that it is happy with Claudio Ranieri with no plans to replace him.

Excuse my cynicism, but in football "no" often turns out to mean "yes."

Remember Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president, saying: "No, no, no, never, no, no, no" -- a magnificent seven denials that the European Champion was interested in David Beckham?

Eriksson let it be known he felt his authority was undermined when the Football Association ordered him not to select Rio Ferdinand while the Manchester United defender's drugs case was pending.

He was also grumpy when the F.A. released the news it had offered the coach a contract extension, but as the new deal had been agreed to by the international committee, it would have leaked out at some time.

There are few secrets in football and Soho Square's power brokers were effectively getting their retaliation in first.

Then the mind games began.

Eriksson said he would rather concentrate on Euro 2004, than open talks about a new contract.

Friends of the F.A. wrote that England would like Bayern Munich's Ottmar Hitzfeld should Eriksson say "auf wiedersehen."

At the moment it is stalemate, a calm before a possible storm, though as always results will decide how the cards finally fall.

If Ranieri leads Chelsea to Premiership or Champions League success, Abramovich can hardly replace the likable, if eccentric, Italian (who will not need reminding, however, that Real Madrid sacked Jupp Heynckes after it had won the European crown).

Should Chelsea falter, then the "Eriksson for the Bridge" stories will gather momentum.

On the other hand, England's fate in Euro 2004 could be a double-edged sword.

If it wins the European Championship, what better time for Eriksson to leave?

At the same time, failure to reach at least the semifinals will see the more jingoistic scribes go for the Swede's jugular.

Eriksson holds the ace and trump cards. All he needs to do is to agree the new contract on the table from the F.A. and a line would be drawn under the speculation.

Eriksson's cards are not so much being held close to his chest as super-glued to it.

Whatever his troubles with the F.A., the Ferdinand saga brought Eriksson and his players closer, Beckham and company impressed by the coach's solidarity and declaration of support for the banned defender.

With one competitive defeat, the loss to Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, Eriksson's record is commendable -- with England qualifying for Euro 2004 with few hiccups.

Money cannot be the issue. If you can't live on £3 million a year, then another million won't make that much difference.

Come July, we shall know how far England went in Portugal and where Eriksson will be working next season.

It promises to be a fascinating six months and like most games, the outcome is difficult to predict.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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