I met Terry Venables once. He’d brought out a rather bizarre board game called The Manager and was trying to sell it as a TV programme. I was hired to answer the quiz questions on it in front of some BBC bigwigs. They didn’t take it up and I had to spend the morning with Eric Hall, so it wasn’t a successful day.
The point of the name-dropping, though, is that I remember wondering what the hell Tel was doing trying to sell this sort of pony when he should have been managing a very big football team. Soon afterwards, he was doing the next best thing. They gave him the England job.
It’s those fingers in those pies, of course, that attract the Panorama programme makers and still make people suspicious of him. Board games, nightclubs, novels. And everywhere he goes, he costs people money, including the likes of Crystal Palace and Portsmouth who can’t afford it. But I’ve never heard anyone say he can’t do the day job. In fact, I’m amazed this question is even being asked.
A quick trawl through the CV should be evidence enough. He’s been turning around underachieving teams from the start. In his first season as a manager, he took Crystal Palace up from the old Third Division. In his third season, they won the Second Division title. The press called them the Team of the Eighties, but that wasn’t Tel’s fault. With no money to spend, he’d done wonders with a limited squad that included the skilful Vince Hilaire but still relied on big Dave Swindlehurst for its goals. He kept them in the top flight for a season; when he left, they went down straight away.
His next club, QPR, won the Second Division title too, a year after a 1982 Cup final replay they were unlucky not to win – after which the bigger fish at last came in for him, though typically they had to come in from abroad. At the start of the 1984-85 season, Barcelona hadn’t won the league title for 11 years. At the end of it, they were ten points clear at the top. If any of his players had been able to take penalties in shoot-outs, they would have won the European Cup the following season too.
The duet with Alan Sugar ended in tears, but it still brought Tottenham their last major trophy (all right, count George Graham’s League Cup if you want). And he kept Middlesbrough in the Premiership two seasons ago.
As for England, I stopped supporting them wholeheartedly when they let Venables go. After their biggest success in years, under a manager who actually knew what he was doing, they were more concerned about his commercial and legal activities than his abilities as a coach. Cue the Hoddle muddle and the great Keegan disaster. England’s loss was almost Australia’s bonus: they came within two late Iranian goals of reaching France 98.
When did Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp play well for England? In Euro 96, when one looked the best young left-sided attacker in Europe and the other was brought on to turn the match against Scotland. When did Gazza and Shearer do it for the last time? Who paired Shearer with Sheringham and brought Anderton on?
Don’t take my word for it, listen to Tony Adams, who gave him some long and extravagant praise, calling him “a football man who knew his job in depth... he would tell everyone where they needed to be when the ball was in certain areas of the pitch and we liked that knowledge.” Find me an England player who says he was crap as a coach.
So I agree that Venables shouldn’t be at Leeds. He should still be with the national team, who wouldn’t have gone out of the World Cup with such a whimper if Tel had been on the bench against Brazil. Funny how they wrung their hands about his off-the-pitch activities, yet they let Eriksson make commercials and daft classical collections. England have wasted their chance for the last six years. Leeds might do better – and whatever happens, it’s going to be a fun ride. Cris Freddi
The partisanship of all concerned makes even simple judgements difficult. Venables’ first managerial job was at Crystal Palace. During his four-year spell at Selhurst Park during the late 1970s The Eagles rose from the Third Division to the First and were, we are often told, “dubbed the Team of the Eighties”. But who did the dubbing? Step forward Jeff Powell, a man whose adoration for the former England boss is so all-consuming you suspect he fills his idle moments by practising signing his name as Jeff Venables all over his notebook cover.
All the boosterism in the world, however, cannot conceal the fact that for a man who has apparently been at the top of the tree for nearly two decades, Terry Venables’ list of achievements does take less time to read than the average programme: one Spanish title and one FA Cup. If that makes Venables a great coach, then the English dictionary does not have words of sufficient amplitude to describe Bob Paisley, Alex Ferguson, Bobby Robson or a host of others.
At Palace and QPR Venables achieved three promotions. He also took Rangers to an FA Cup final, which they lost. As records go it is quite good – a match for that of Graham Taylor at Watford, for example.
At Barcelona, Venables won the club their first title for 11 years, but the style of football he employed didn’t endear him to many outside Catalonia. The style of Venables’ Barça is summed up by his decision to buy Steve Archibald rather than Hugo Sánchez, then with Atlético Madrid. In the 1986 European Cup final against Steaua Bucharest, on the less-than-neutral territory of Seville, the great El Tel neither motivated his team nor came up with any tactical ploy to break down the Romanians’ obdurate defence. It was one of the most mind-numbing games in the history of the competition. Even the penalty shoot-out was hopeless.
At Spurs, Venables’ record ranks alongside those of Keith Burkinshaw and David Pleat. Are they football greats? If you believe Venables is, then they must be too. Then there was the England job. Coincidence or not, following Graham Taylor was a good idea. After him anybody would have looked like a mastermind (well, OK, maybe not Phil Neal). During his time in charge of the national team Venables and the much touted “Christmas Tree formation” achieved one notable result: the 4-1 demolition of Holland at Wembley.
Apart from that, performances were as patchy as they had been under Bobby Robson or Ron Greenwood. Venables never led the team through a qualifying tournament, so his only competitive matches were all at Wembley during Euro 96. A draw with a Swiss team cunningly organised by Roy Hodgson, a narrow victory over the Scots that owed more to Seaman and Gazza than it did to any tactical acumen, and a win on penalties over Spain were hardly a vindication. Against Germany in the semi-final, Venables’ team failed to take advantage of an early lead.
Since then what have we seen? Portsmouth and Palace are best forgotten. An Australian team packed with European-based professionals couldn’t be organised sufficiently well to beat Iran. Venables’ record at Middlesbrough (played 25, won 8) tells us very little except that he is a better coach than Bryan Robson. As endorsements go, this is right up there with being the tallest man in a tribe of pygmies. Which pretty much sums El Tel up, really.
England lost on penalties in the semi-final of Euro 96. When the Dutch team achieved a similar feat on home soil four years later, their coach Frank Rijkaard immediately resigned because he felt he had failed. Venables, by contrast, was hailed as a genius. In the kingdom of the blind and all that. Tony Christie
From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month
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