Eriksson confident that he will survive Thai pressure cooker
Despite a season of progress, there are signs that Thaksin Shinawatra is unhappy with Sven Goran Eriksson. In his first major interview, the Manchester City manager tells Ian Herbert how he is facing up to his 'biggest' challenge, why he prefers being single - and of his fascination for cricket
It is a measure of what comes with managing a South East Asian billionaire's football team that the book on Sven Goran Eriksson's bedside table in the Valentino Suite of Manchester's Radisson Edwardian hotel is a biography of Mao Tse-tung. "It's that thick," says Eriksson, signalling that getting to grips with the oriental lands where Thaksin Shinawatra is setting his commercial sights for Manchester City, has been hard work.
Mao – and China – he might be mastering, but it will take more than a few long nights under the reading lamp to help Eriksson understand the Thoughts of chairman Thaksin.
The Swede has been bemused by reports from Dubai in the past few days of Thaksin's failure to dismiss suggestions that he might replace his manager at the end of the season. Thaksin had every chance to put Eriksson's mind at rest when, after a Middle East and Asia business leaders' forum on Monday, he was asked several times: "Are you happy with Sven or looking to replace him?" He said he would not discuss "any specific person".
After a season which has seen him take City to a record Premier League points total and acquire a devoted following at the club, Eriksson has reason to feel taken aback. But when he sits down to provide his first detailed reflections on his return to England Eriksson reveals how, behind the posters plastered across Manchester proclaiming "Ol' Blue Eyes is Back", the task at City has not been the bed of roses it seems.
Few managers show the strain less than he but, when asked if the pressure to meet Thaksin's targets is the greatest he has known in football, Eriksson is inclined to say "yes". This is some statement from a manager who, after creating what World Soccer magazine labelled "the most expensive team in history" with Sergio Cragnotti's seemingly bottomless pit of cash at Lazio, was told in the January of his third season: " Win something or you'll be sacked in June."
Eriksson's explanation is simple. "[At my] other clubs I knew we either had to fight immediately for the League or – the case of Fiorentina and Sampdoria – we knew we couldn't win the League," he says. "This job, taking Manchester City, from where they were playing, to Europe and maybe further than that, is different. That's big."
Eriksson also reveals that he felt enough uncertainty when approached by a billionaire unknown to him that he telephoned Sir Dave Richards – chairman of the Premier League and one of the recruiting committee which hired him for the England job – to ensure Thaksin had passed the League's fit and proper person test. "I think the [job] security is [provided by] the Premier League," Eriksson says.
"The League doesn't allow anyone to buy a club if he's not been checked so it was enough for me to make a phone call to Sir Dave Richards. He [replied]: 'Absolutely clean'."
Richards, of course, did not know about Thaksin's penchant for unsettling public statements but, ever the diplomat, Eriksson will only focus on the financial benefits of owners like Thaksin.
"It's something new when foreign people come into the country and buy clubs," he says. "But it's not bad for football.
"Abramovich spends a lot of money and it makes other clubs in England richer as well." But what did he really make of Thaksin's public pronouncement that City can be "the next United"? "If you don't try to reach the stars you will not even reach the top of the trees. You just don't do that overnight." Eriksson might get to the bottom of Thaksin's comments when the two encounter each other at Sunday's home match with Portsmouth. But whatever he finds, rumours of the Thai's dissatisfaction have taken the gloss off a nine-month period in which Eriksson, free from the Football Association, the Regents Park neighbourhood and, to some degree Nancy Dell'Olio, has been discovering England anew.
The prospect of Eriksson discussing the finer points of cricket amid the terraced backstreets of post-industrial England seemed as unlikely as him getting one over on Felipe Scolari (the man now being touted as his replacement yet again) when Eriksson handed in his FA blazer and scuttled out of the country two summers ago. But life in Britain second time around has kindled a curiosity for the sport, he reveals.
"If they don't explain it to me it seems strange, I must say. But once they explain the rules and the points and the wickets, of course like all sport, it's interesting" – his words suggesting that he has not entirely got to grips with the game just yet. All will become clearer in the summer – if he's still in his job then – when he attends a match at Lancashire, the plan being to take in a Twenty20 fixture to ease him in gently. "I've not seen a game but we will be going – the coaching staff and myself. I can imagine it's difficult to bat the ball and bowl the ball," he says.
Eriksson has also been getting to grips with the differences between codes of rugby, another far cry from his days in the goldfish bowl on London, a city where – with the exception of away matches – he says he has limited his time to just three or four days "at meetings with the Thai people". It sounds like he's enjoying the benefits of being single again? "Yes," he says. "It's for and against but for now I like it. Manchester as a city has been a big surprise for me. The weather you could always discuss but it's not as big as London which makes it easier to live in."
There's certainly more anonymity than you might think to life at a £1,500-a-night 14th-floor suite at the Radisson. "It's much easier to go from where you are to a restaurant or a meeting," he says. "It is where I would like to be next season."
Whatever suppressed mirth that might give rise to – and the Alan Partridge comparisons are the least of it – do not let it be said a hotel existence has made the Manchester City manager any less committed to the city than his predecessors. Neither Kevin Keegan nor Stuart Pearce spent anywhere near as much time here as Eriksson, whose enthusiastic community appearances in the suburbs have taken on the characteristics of a royal visit. There was a particularly hilarious encounter with ladies of more mature years, back in October, when Eriksson attended a tea dance as part of a community initiative. "They virtually mobbed him," says a witness to that occasion and it is a similar scene when he appears at the Sporting Edge sports facility in Higher Openshaw, exactly a year after Pearce had opened it as part of the Barclays Spaces for Sports programme.
Eriksson admits, after throwing himself enthusiastically into an encounter with a group of young rappers that we meet at Openshaw, that he had some negative thoughts to overcome before discovering this new life in England. "Yes there was a lot of speculation [about me] coming, that the press would kill me – however you want to express it," he says. "But you know, you take a job because you think it's a good job, a good country, things like that. I've never really been afraid because I know who I am. I know what I have done, I know what I can't do and in that way I am rather confident."
British club football is, in a sense, Eriksson's footballing alma mater; the realm to which he first owed his reputation in Sweden back in the 1980s when, having accepted Tord Grip's tart observation that he would be "better off not playing", he made a name by developing the zonal tactics which Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton were introducing to the Swedish leagues. He travelled to Ipswich to meet Bobby Robson at that time. But no place quite left its mark on him than the boot room at Liverpool, a place which has created a huge – though until now little known – reservoir of affection for Liverpool. "I was invited twice to the boot room – a great honour," Eriksson says.
"The rule was very simple at that time and I understood it, though I don't know how it is today: you could speak about everything after the match – except the match just finished. There was a glass of wine or whatever and it was very social."
Though Eriksson met Bob Paisley and observed him at work, it was with the late Joe Fagan that he formed the closest relationship. It started with Liverpool scout Tom Saunders observing Eriksson's Gothenburg side at close quarters and concluded with Fagan inviting Eriksson to Liverpool. "He became a friend and we met many times," Eriksson says. "But it went back further. I suppose I shouldn't say it today maybe but when I was young and growing up we could see English football at three o'clock on Saturday, Liverpool was my great favourite."
The after-match encounters with managers have been one of the delights which the national job never provided. "The chat, perhaps the glass of wine, I knew about it but had never experienced it," he says. "The countries I've been in, it's not like that."
It is with Arsène Wenger that Eriksson has his closest relationship among club managers, he reveals, borne of his England days when their mutual friendship with David Dein – the man who led the FA's pursuit of Eriksson – brought them together often for dinner in London. "We didn't always talk football but there was a lot of football," Eriksson says. "I consider him my friend." There have been other discoveries for Eriksson, many of them experienced with his assistant Hans Backe who, with his family unable to join him from Denmark, has also found himself alone in Manchester.
Widnes, on a cold winter's night, watching the reserves; Sunday afternoons after training watching City's youth sides as he often does. Anyone at the football club will tell you Eriksson's energy for it is enormous. The departure of a man so courteous that, in the words of one club colleague, "It takes him half an hour to get to his desk," would be considered a disaster.
And yet, for all that, when you press Eriksson on which of the countries he has managed in he would most like to wind up in, it's hard to avoid the impression that Portugal – with its serenity, warmth (and absence of billionaire club proprietors) would suit him best. "It's a friendly country – small, extremely good weather, good food. You have the sea, too. An extremely peaceful country," he says. With a property there and a £1m payoff to speed him should he actually be sacked, it's little wonder Eriksson can keep the events of recent days in perspective.
The Sporting Edge site in Higher Openshaw, Manchester has benefited from a £550,000 grant provided by Barclays and the Football Foundation as part of the £30m Barclays Spaces for Sports initiative to create sustainable sports facilities across the UK. There has been refurbishment to an existing sports hall and installation of a new artificial grass pitch and floodlighting. Barclays Spaces for Sports is a partnership between Barclays, the Football Foundation and Groundwork.
Sven Goran Eriksson on...
...turning Manchester City into the next Manchester United: 'If you do not try to reach the stars you will not even reach the top of the trees'
...the growth of foreign ownership in the Premier League: 'It's something new when foreign people come into the country and buy clubs. But it's not bad for football'
... on the press: 'There was a lot of speculation [about me] coming to England, that the press would kill me... but I've never really been afraid because I am rather confident
...on cricket: 'I can imagine it's difficult to bat the ball and bowl the ball'
Much travelled: Life and times of one of European football's great explorers
1979-82 IFK Gothenburg
2007-date Manchester City
Swedish Cup 1979, 82
Swedish League 1981, 82
Uefa Cup 1982
Portuguese League 1983, 84, 91
Cup of Portugal 1983
Portuguese Super Cup 1989
Coppa Italia 1986
Coppa Italia 1998, 2000
Italian Super Cup 1998, 2000
Uefa Cup 1999
Uefa Super Cup 1999
Serie A title 2000
P 67 Won 40 Drawn 17 Lost 10
MAN CITY SIGNINGS:
R Bianchi (Reggina) £8.8m
Geovanni (Cruzeiro) Free
M Petrov (A Madrid) £4.7m
J Garrido (R Sociedad) £1.5m
V Corluka (D Zagreb) £8m
Elano (S Donetsk) £8m
V Bojinov (Fiorentina) £5.75m
F Caicedo (Basle) £5.2m
Benjani (Portsmouth) £3.87m
N Castillo (S Donetsk) Loan
* Eriksson remains the only manager to win the League and Cup double in three different countries – in Sweden (with Gothenburg), Portugal (Benfica) and Italy (Lazio).
* Eriksson spent almost £200m while in charge of Lazio, including the signing of Juan Sebastian Veron for £18m and Hernan Crespo from Parma for a then world record fee of £35.5m.