Humiliated by the men of Motherwell, Plymouth Argyle and Hull City. Laid low by the unknowns of the Championship, a devastating verdict on the regime of Sven Goran Eriksson and a blade twisted into the hopes of every Englishman who might have dared to dream about the World Cup finals next summer. England’s qualification for Germany 2006 is now back in doubt but that seemed like the least of their worries last night.
What Windsor Park will remember, on the occasion of their first victory over England in Belfast in 78 years, was David Healy’s 74th-minute goal; what the English will recall were the inadequacies we feared lurked beneath Eriksson’s methods being dragged into the open and confirmed as ghastly reality. Never has the pressure on the Swede been so intolerable, never has his policy of management by consensus failed so dreadfully, never has an England side been so humiliated since a shock 1-0 loss to the United States 55 years ago.
It can never be the same for Eriksson again. Defeat against a team ranked equal 116th in the world, lower than Turkmenistan, brings a focus and a scrutiny to the Swede’s modus operandi as never before. He now takes his place in the national team’s great historical cycle of soaring hope and crushing disappointment. There can be no unquestionable loyalty to the great stewards of his regime David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the face of such a devastating defeat.
Sven-Goran Eriksson is the luckiest man in football, even after a 1-0 defeat by Northern Ireland. He is paid truckloads of money, has a talent pool to be envied and can stave off criticism by qualifying for the leading tournaments.
But last night was unacceptable. His 4-3-3 system ” 4-5-1, if you like ” failed obviously and painfully at Windsor Park. Against a team that has won one match in four years ” against Azerbaijan, for goodness sake ” England struggled to create chances.
Look at the gulf in class between the England team and the Northern Ireland players. Only four of the home side play in the Barclays Premiership. Against them there was Steven Gerrard, the Champions League player of the year, Frank Lampard, the Football Writers™ Association player of the year, Wayne Rooney, the PFA™s young player of the year . . . and they were embarrassed by men who perform at league level for the likes of Plymouth Argyle, Peterborough United, Burnley and Luton Town.
Gerrard and Lampard were substituted. It sounds like an act of madness to pull off players like that. But they are wasted by Eriksson. The team is designed around David Beckham. He, of course, looks good when he is spraying the ball around, but each 40-yard pinpoint pass takes Gerrard and Lampard out of the match. No team can afford to do that. Gerrard is a much better player than Beckham but the system nullifies his ability. It takes 10-15 per cent from his game and wastes him.