FIRST PUBLISHED: Football First newspaper, September 12, 2004
By Chris Hunt


After a week of intense speculation and debate, it’s good news all round for Sven. Not only has he got England through the first two games of the team’s 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, but he still has a job too!


This week’s results – a draw and a win – might not have come in the order that they were expected, but with four points gained from a possible six, the team must have been mighty relieved that they survived the tense trip to Poland and were able to return home with the kind of result that allowed them to snub the media in just the way that they wanted.


It might not have been a pretty performance in Katowice, but on the final whistle there was a palpable sigh of relief from the England terrace of the Slaski Stadium. After the mediocre performance in Vienna, fans had been effusive in their criticism of the manager, the captain, and, in particular, the goalkeeper. The coaches leaving the Ernst Happel Stadium on Saturday were full of chatter about the game, with David James taking the lion’s share of the abuse.


By contrast, the long and arduous journey back from Katowice was largely silent. The game might have lacked any meaningful style and flair, and result aside, the performance wasn’t that much better than that four nights earlier, but there was a feeling among the England faithful that it was a job fairly well done under difficult circumstances. For fans who had spent the day under the watchful eye of armed riot police, who had been shepherded, corralled, intimidated, and finally fenced in for an hour after the game, it was reason enough to be satisfied that we were getting out of the country alive, never mind with a result. Having Jermaine Defoe’s dazzling performance to smile about was just an added bonus.


Away games in the nations of the former Eastern Bloc are always eagerly anticipated by travelling England fans, but these games also come with an atmosphere of danger and intimidation. More often than not the experience is one of poor segregation, inept policing, and antagonistic locals, all to watch the game in a near-to-derelict stadium with no facilities of any kind to speak of. Thankfully the police of Katowice seemed to have learnt lessons from the ham-fisted attempts at crowd control seen in recent years in Warsaw and Bratislava, and bar the brief exchange of seat throwing between the extremists of both nations early in the second half, on the terraces the game passed off relatively peacefully.


It was on the pitch that we saw the biggest surprises. Despite all the talk of an unchanged team, Sven pulled a fast one, switching players when we least expected it. Before the game, when fans gathered over a beer in the Ars Vivendi bar in the centre of Katowice, debate raged over team selection. While few truly believed that playing a donkey in place of David James would be a step in the right direction, the unease about another ultra conservative team selection was growing. But if we had put two and two together, even from our bar stools we probably could have worked out the ideas ruminating through Sven’s mind. Wasn’t it strange that David James should have been allowed out of the team hotel to do a touch of bargain hunting in the local antique shops? And just what was Alan Smith doing wandering by our drinking establishment on a mid morning stroll when he should be fully focused on the game ahead?


If Sven surprised everyone with his sudden U-turn on David James and Jermaine Defoe, he stuck resolutely with his captain – throwing a sop to the critics by substituting England’s Number 7 with a full 90 minutes on the clock. With a win in the bag, Beckham made sure he came the full length of the pitch to applaud his crowd after the final whistle – and the gesture was appreciated. “He’s playing below par,” said 30-year-old Paul, clapping the captain off the pitch, “but his work rate is top notch. If I picked the England team he’d be in it every time.


“As for Sven, he didn’t make too many radical decisions. He might have dropped David James, but anyone should have done that after a performance like the one in Austria. Playing Defoe has just about got him out of jail – he looked international quality and a better bet to step in up front than Alan Smith.”


By 1am, having spent an hour locked in the stadium after the game, and a further 40 minutes negotiating the gridlock of the coach park, hundreds of fans finally found themselves at the airport passport control desk, with the word ‘delayed’ flashing next to every flight due to leave.


“Why do we do this?” wondered one fan allowed. There were nods of agreement, but all know they’ll be back in the queue in five weeks to check-in for the unknown delights of a trip to Azerbaijan.


“The job got done,” says 34-year-old David as he boarded his plane. “It was a good result, especially as Poland is always a hard place to get a win, but Sven still has to prove himself. His extended honeymoon is over and now he has to earn our respect game by game – people no longer accept that he is the best man for the job.


“Bringing Defoe in was productive,” he adds, “but I’m still not totally convinced on the keeper issue: is Robinson really any better than James? As for Beckham, I don’t think he had a great game, but I don’t think he had a bad game either. He’s under a lot of pressure to perform, but there are other world-class players in the team who are underperforming. He’s just the one that’s under scrutiny.”


With the plane journey home almost devoid of football chat, it was obvious that Sven had yet again done just about enough to keep his job – for now at least. And yet there was one last topic of conversation for discussion, as word of the players’ press boycott was filtering back via the modern miracle that is the mobile phone. “I can understand their reasoning,” concludes Swindon fan, Paul, “but they have to realize that the press is the only medium they’ve got for talking to the fans, 4000 of whom didn’t give up on them and made the huge effort of travelling out to Katowice.”

With two average performances, and four points in the bag, Sven lives to fight another day. But at some point soon this England will have to show us what they’re really made of. And with two more qualifiers next month, let’s hope it’s soon. Azerbaijan really will seem a long, long way to have travelled for a performance like this.




Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007