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Never easy with England
Qualifying unbeaten for EURO 2004 ahead of World Cup semi-finalists Turkey should have ensured a period of calm and consolidation for England's national team.
Thursday, 22 January 2004


But nothing is ever simple where England are concerned, and since the 0-0 draw in Istanbul that clinched their place in Portugal, a high-profile suspension, injuries and continued speculation over the future of coach Sven-Göran Eriksson have provided plenty of negative headlines. 

While Rio Ferdinand was arguably among the best defenders in Korea/Japan, his chances of going to this summer's finals are slim. On 23 September Ferdinand missed a routine UK Sport drug test. Although he passed a later test, the Football Association opted to drop him for the match in Turkey, prompting a threat from the squad to boycott the game. 

On 19 December, the FA announced an eight-month ban ruling Ferdinand out of EURO 2004. He continued to play for Manchester United until this week but on Tuesday agreed to start the suspension while appealing the verdict and sentence. In his absence, Chelsea's John Terry could face a battle with Newcastle United's Jonathan Woodgate for the spare place alongside Sol Campbell in England's central defence. 

If 'Riogate' has dominated the back pages in recent weeks, speculation surrounding Eriksson has barely stopped since the summer. The Swede, contracted until 2006, has long admitted that he misses club management, but it was when he was photographed visiting Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's house days after the Russian's high-profile takeover that Eriksson was firmly linked with a move. 

Eriksson told students at Cambridge University last week: "If anyone made me a job offer I would have to consider it." The one offer he definitely has, however, is that of a new four-year deal from the FA, and talks on the matter are scheduled for next month. 

Rumour aside, Eriksson has also made plain his frustration over a number of matters. When, on FA orders, he had to drop Alan Smith from the 3-2 friendly defeat by Denmark in November, due to the Leeds United striker's arrest in a bottle-throwing incident, Eriksson said: "I don't understand why a footballer cannot play when he has not been charged with anything." 

He also showed sympathy with the players over their anger at Ferdinand's exclusion and believes the tough English season needs reform. Ultimately, he is nothing if not pragmatic, though, and Eriksson's chief concern will be that his best players stay fit. The pivotal Liverpool duo of Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard have struggled with injuries this season and he will monitor their fitness closely. At least captain David Beckham's form has not dropped since joining Real Madrid. 

Whatever follows in the coming months, England's Group B opponents France, Croatia and Switzerland should not take heart from any bad publicity surrounding their rivals. Prior to the 1990 World Cup and EURO '96, England suffered heavy press criticism, yet they reached the semi-finals each time. England will hope that any further adversity will be the spur to triumph.
- By Paul Saffer




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