Sven-Goran Eriksson: Shinawatra stopped speaking to me at Man City
Sven-Goran Eriksson has won several major honours as a manager across three countries and also managed three separate national sides – so when we had the chance to speak to him we obviously decided to talk about Manchester City…
Eriksson is best remembered in England for his five-and-a-half-year spell in charge of the national team, but the Swede also went on to manage two sides who would later win the Premier League: Manchester City and Leicester City.
Eriksson was the Thai consortium’s first appointment at Leicester in 2010, when he led them from the bottom of the Championship to a 10th-place finish, but the 69-year-old jokes he “joined Manchester City one year too early” after just missing out on the start of the Sheikh Mansour era.
Instead he spent a season working for another Thai owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, who cited “modest ambitions [that] don’t end with domination of the world game” but who himself spent less than 15 months at the club before selling it on at great profit.
As is traditional with City (or at least used to be), the Shinawatra era was one of hope and excitement followed by embarrassment and humiliation.
After sacking Eriksson against the wishes of players and most supporters, the former Prime Minister of Thailand had his £800million assets frozen in Thailand amid allegations of corruption, with the club forced to take out a £30million bank loan and allegedly trying to sell players behind the back of the new manager, Mark Hughes.
All in all, classic City.
Initially, however, things looked promising after Shinawatra’s vision for the club had convinced Eriksson to take his first job since leaving his position as England manager a year previously.
“I didn’t have any contact with Thaksin before he took over the club, but then an agent whose name I don’t remember said Thaksin and these people are interested in hiring me as the new manager,” Eriksson says.
“I knew Manchester City at that point weren’t that great. But they said they were willing to invest some money for new players so after lots of discussions in London I said, ‘OK, let’s go for it.’
“I told the agent, ‘If you want me, we have to buy a lot of new players because that team risks going down.’ In the last season before I came they were struggling. I’d seen a lot of games, when I was with England but also when I was working in the media.”
City heeded Eriksson’s advice and spent around £30million on eight new players that summer.
It was a lot to change in such a short space of time, but it worked: the Blues won their first three Premier League games, including a derby against Manchester United when one of the new signings, Geovanni, scored a brilliant winner.
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“We were lucky because all of them fitted in really well,” Eriksson says, “except for one, Rolando Bianchi, the striker we bought from Italy.
“He scored a lot of goals the season before, and I checked him on videos and with all my friends in Italy. They were all very, very positive about him.
“I don’t know if it was too big for him. Technically, he was not as good as we had hoped so after a while he was on the bench.
“But all of the others came into the team really quickly and gelled together so we were a bit lucky – but it was through good work by the scouts too. We had a scout who worked for the club already who was very good.
“Also, when we started I had Hasse Backe and I had Tord Grip with me so we were sitting discussing looking at things…’we need this kind of player, this kind of player.’
“Hasse Backe had been working for Swedish television as an expert commentator. He had been watching the Champions League and leagues in other countries for years. So he knew a lot of players. He said, ‘We have to take Martin Petrov,’ and we did.”
Eriksson already knew the City team fairly well from his time working for England and in the media, and of the players already at the club he is quickest to praise Micah Richards.
“You could see he would end up in the national team,” Eriksson says. “He was great at right-back or as a central defender. He had power and speed.”
But there were still some welcome surprises for Eriksson when he took over, not least in the goalkeeping department.
Andreas Isaksson had been the club’s No.1 before Eriksson’s arrival, but it was two youngsters, Joe Hart and Kasper Schmeichel, both of whom had been loaned out to Football League clubs the previous season, who caught the new manager’s eye.
“That was a great story because we had Isaksson, who was a regular, and then Joe Hart and Kasper Schmeichel, so we had three great goalkeepers,” Eriksson says.
“Hart and Isaksson were injured when the league started so Kasper played three or four games and did really well. When all three were fit I remember we were talking, Eric Steele, Tord and me, ‘Who are we going to start?’
“I thought Kasper. I thought he was a fantastic keeper. He’s one of the best I ever had.
“We ended up deciding together to go for Joe, and I think it was a good decision. But we could also have gone for Kasper, and I don’t think the difference would have been anything.”
Rise and fall
With Hart breaking through in goal, and a combination of old and new working well in front of him, City were flying. After defeats in the fourth and fifth games of the season, they won six out of their next 10 and were third heading into December, only four points off the top.
Shinawatra started to dream. Eriksson warned him it was too early for them to seriously challenge for the title, but when results started to drop off following the turn of the year, it became clear that patience was not one the owner’s qualities.
“He didn’t understand football at all,” Eriksson says. “At Christmas I think we were second or third. We started the league very well, and I remember Arsene Wenger saying to me it was amazing that we’d got it together so well in just a couple of months.
“So we were very happy. I told Thaksin Shinawatra we are a very good team, but don’t think we can win this league this season, or in the second or third season. We are good. But not that good.
Manchester City quizzes
“Then come March, April, I realised he was not happy because I wanted to speak about next season, to make the team even better, but he always had an excuse and didn’t come for meetings.
“I think we did very well if you consider what kind of money we had to spend. I knew the team was OK, and next season I thought we would do even better.
“Us coaches and scouts sat and analysed the year and looked at how we could improve, and I was ready to present it to Thaksin Shinawatra, but I never got the chance because from March, April, he didn’t speak to me anymore.”
City won just five league games in the second half of the season but still finished with their joint-highest ever Premier League points total.
And, crucially, one of those five wins came at Old Trafford as City completed their first double over their rivals in 38 years.
Eriksson retained the support of the dressing room until the end, so much so that players were willing to go on strike in protest against Shinawatra.
Eriksson talked them out of it, but on the final day of the season City’s players effectively downed tools anyway as they lost 8-1 at Middlesbrough.
“I remember when it was more or less official (that I would be sacked), the captain, Richard Dunne, came into my office and said, ‘We don’t want to play.’ ‘But we have to play,’ I said, ‘We have to be professional.’
“The last game of the season was Middlesbrough away, and that was a disaster. I think Dunne got a red card after five minutes. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to play that game. But we should have done.”
Remarkably, despite everyone knowing he would be replaced, Eriksson still led the club on their end-of-season tour of Thailand, with Shinawatra remaining silent.
“No players wanted to go, and neither did I,” Eriksson says, “but I told the players and myself, we have to go. We still are employed by Manchester City and we must be professional.
“Even if you know you’re going to be sacked, you still have to be professional until the end, and then I can say I have done my job and my work. That’s important.
“But it was not good. At that point everybody knew I would not be the manager the season after, but Thaksin Shinawatra didn’t say anything. I was not sacked at that time. It wasn’t until the last day of the tour that he told me he wanted to change manager.
“I asked him, ‘Who?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, it’s just a feeling I have.’ He didn’t give me a reason at all.”
This article was originally published in October 2017. Eriksson was speaking on behalf of FanLeague, a football prediction game in which fans can compete against their friends and have a chance of winning a guaranteed jackpot.
By Mark Holmes