If Sven-Goran Eriksson takes the Ukraine job, England will again have to overcome their vicious circularity to reach Brazil 2014
There is probably a word somewhere to describe the precise feeling of vague, nagging disappointment caused by waiting for Sven-Goran Eriksson to do something. Svennui, perhaps: or maybe Erikssomnia. It is a feeling familiar to observers of Eriksson's initially promising but ultimately rather room-temperature six year reign as England manager, that creeping sense of congealment and second-half droop that seemed to emanate, in part, from the manager himself, an increasingly remote and chin-strokingly impassive figure.
It is a feeling that has also resurfaced, unexpectedly, in the past fortnight. Just when you thought you were out – and it has been four years since Eriksson managed in the Premier League – it turns out he can still pull you back in. The news that England's longest-serving manager since Bobby Robson is in talks with the Ukrainian FA to become national team coach has been widely reported across Europe, with some suggestion that an offer has already been made and only personal terms remain to be agreed. In outline this is, of course, an alluringly spicy prospective appointment. England will play Ukraine next September in the final rush of Brazil 2014 qualifiers with the result in Kiev likely to be central to the shake-up in Group H.
A the same time it is perhaps no surprise that news of the imminent reappearance of dear old, ruinously priapic Sven, a man who has the air still not so much of a well-respected former England manager as a quietly scandalous uncle, has been followed in the past two weeks by a complete news blank. Sven has form here: Leeds United, Hartlepool, 1860 Munich and Nottingham Forest have all been the object of distant flirtation, of a generalised sniffing-about in recent months. And technically he is still technical development director of BEC Tero Sasana in Thailand, a post that conjures unfortunate images of Sven spending his afternoons lounging by the pool at a slightly disappointing four-star hotel, bothered by ants, unable to find his laundry, noticing the smell of mould in the lift.
This is, let's face it, a man accustomed to oligarch-level trim, a loiterer in the airless calfskin-upholstered world of football's billionaire periphery. And really, in spite of it all, it is impossible not to feel some stirrings of fondness for Sven, to hear again in your head that quietly melodic robot voice, carrying on the same strangely textureless conversation he seems to have been having since about 1997, glazed with yacht-lust and helicopter-envy but still persuasive and oddly forgivable.
Above all though, it is hard to avoid a sense of the fat wet finger of sporting fate in play. England have been here before. There is a history of circularity, a tendency at certain key moments to suffer at familiar hands. And in many ways Sven does feel like an inescapably recurrent companion, the kind of figure that, looking up from its death-bed, English football might expect to find at its head whispering words of listless comfort, that domed and quizzical face the final receding image as the light begins to fade and everything finally grows cold.
Taking charge of England after the incoherent enthusiasms of the Keegan era, Eriksson was celebrated initially as the height of skinny-tied northern European sophistication. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be. The substance of Sven was always deeply English. Here was a false foreigner, capable of quoting by rote the maxims of Wing Commander Charles Reep, garden-shed philosopher-god of pre-modern direct football. "More than 80% of goals are scored with fewer than five passes," Eriksson announced at a press conference shortly after his appointment, quoting a statistical truism culled from Reep's own notebooks, based on – oh, the shock of the new – observations of the English league in the early 1950s.
Little wonder that English football swooned so readily. Here was a manager whose England team was based from the start around a stylised and celebrified notion of old fashioned artillery-football. In David Beckham and Michael Owen, the two dominant figures of Eriksson-era England, the secret Englishman found a high-spec and profitable version of direct football. As a tactical approach it has its limits (in such skilled hands, perhaps a tournament quarter-final), but here was an overseas manager showing English football the best of its own self-limiting methods, and given licence to do so by an accent, a suit, the misdirection of an overseas passport.
And really the history of English football is littered with similar ironies, not to mention a creeping sense of eternal recurrence. The return of Sven, should he take the Ukrainian Hrivna, promises to bring its own distinct and painful echo. In September it will be almost exactly 20 years ago to the day since England suffered a near-identical Scando-nemesis-elimination from World Cup qualification at the hands of Egil Olsen and Norway.
Under Graham Taylor, fellow advocate of direct football, England were beaten 2-0 in Oslo and not so much outplayed as roundly beaten on their own terms, the nation that gave aerial percentage football to the world bumped from the roster for USA 94 by a brilliantly talented and well-drilled reflection of the best of long-ball science.
It is a long-standing leit-motif that the national team should be scragged repeatedly by those whose methods provide some salutary lesson in stalled footballing methodologies. This goes right back to the terrible surprise of the Jimmy Hogan-schooled Hungarians of 1953, the first overseas team (Ireland aside) to win at Wembley with a wondrously alien display of astute passing football and techniques honed at the knee of one of English football's grandest outcasts. From Hogan, who would go on to introduce progressive notions of coaching to German football, through Olsen, and then on to the looming spectre of Sven-based elimination in Kiev, there is a sense of inevitability to these periodic assisted maimings, of a mocking circularity.
Which is not to say that Eriksson should be underestimated. In fact, should he take the Ukraine job he looks a formidable obstacle. It should not be overlooked that in the pre-England years Eriksson was a managerial phenomenon, hoovering up 17 major trophies in three countries, and his recent history suggests an enduring ability to generate instant improvement. Eriksson is an organiser. He has a profitably uncluttered approach, and immediate results have been the trend. At Gothenburg he won the Swedish Cup in his first season. Benfica won the Portuguese League in his first season. England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich in his first year. Even pre-Emirati Manchester City topped the Premier League briefly and were still third in November in his sole season in charge.
In Andriy Yarmolenko, Evhen Konoplyanka and the promising Roman Bezus Eriksson has something to work with. Ukraine's own keenly fostered resentment over the goal that never was in that decisive final match in Donetsk in the summer should not be underestimated.
And beyond this there is Sven's own knowledge not just of England's players, but of England's basic footballing heart, the tempo and texture of a team that, in Roy Hodgson, is currently managed by a shadowy reflection of his near-contemporary Swede. Hodgson, the Croydon Sven, has been a standard bearer in his own right for English football's familiar Scando-exports of swift, direct football and four-square defence and midfield.
Should Eriksson take up the offer, September threatens to bring not just a striking symmetry of approach, but another fascinating tableau in the grand and painful narrative of English footballing engagement, staffed once again by a familiar cast of returning friends and foes.