Jozef Venglos was expected to bring glory to Villa on the basis that he was continental, but David Wangerin remembers how it never quite worked out for him
Jozef Venglos was manager of the best Villa side I’ve ever seen. For ninety minutes, anyway. That delightful October evening in 1990 when we inexplicably smashed Inter Milan into little pieces and scattered them across our pitch remains the most captivating game of football I’ve witnessed. It still seems inconceivable – trouncing a collection of Europe’s finest with a team captained by Stuart Gray. Surely no run-of-the-mill manager could ever have orchestrated it.
You’d be forgiven for attributing this classic case of over-achievement to Venglos’ predecessor, the motivator extraordinaire Graham Taylor, who’d led us to the runners-up spot the season before with a squad barely good enough for the First Division. In truth, the Inter victory was probably Dr Jo’s finest hour. Some of us left Villa Park that night convinced this was the guy who’d take us to the promised land.
Two weeks later we got turned over in the San Siro, and life under Dr Jo was never the same again. We won only one League match the rest of the year. By January we’d been knocked out of both cups; by March we’d signed Gary Penrice for a million pounds. After that – well, suffice to say it isn’t every team that wins only once in its last nine matches and stays one place above the relegation zone the whole time. And that may be the only reason Dr Jo was able to leave Birmingham without a bloody nose.
He arrived in town as inconspicuous a figure as a Villa manager could be. At the inaugural press conference, the Chairman introduced him with the words “hands up, those of you who know this man”. Certainly this was an appointment which reeked of the kind of inspiration and foresight Aston Villa was famous for not possessing. It was the season English clubs were being re-admitted into Europe, and we fancied ourselves to go places in the UEFA Cup. Who better to re-acquaint us with our faded European glory than an experienced continental manager with a doctorate?
After an atrocious debut in a high-profile summer tournament, the national press had already filed Dr Jo’s season under Continental Manager Adjusts to English Game. Yet in some respects Venglos adjusted with ease: in next to no time we were hoofing balls into the air with the best of them. This came as a bitter disappointment to those of us hoping to see our team infused with those delightful continental idiosyncrasies like playing the ball along the ground. But no. Graham Taylor had shelled out £1.5 million for Tony Cascarino only a few months before he left, and by God we were going to use him.
Given the predilections of our Chairman, whether hanging on to Cascarino was something Dr Jo had any control over is moot. Ditto the three centre-back system he’d inherited from Taylor – and, perhaps misguidedly, persevered with all season. Of course things might have been different had our Ostravan footnote, Ivo Stas, been blessed with two healthy Achilles tendons. Agonisingly, it came to pass that the sweeper who’d looked so impressive playing against us for Banik Ostrava would never play a minute for the Villa first team. Instead of the dream partnership in central defence with Paul McGrath, Ivo’s legacy is little more than an alleged profit on the insurance policy we’d taken out on him.
All this may go some way towards explaining why Dr Jo may simply have been the right man at the wrong time. He’d inherited a most un-continental system and a squad of players he could change only marginally, and yet he was expected to accomplish great things instantly. His only real deficiency may have been an elementary failure to recognize that victory in England was not worth the same number of points as two draws. Reading his programme notes for the January cup-tie with Wimbledon, you sensed it had taken him half the season to appreciate this.
Once he did, he acted in the way any inexperienced English manager would under the circumstances: he panicked. He sacked Taylor’s assistant John Ward and replaced him with terrace idol Peter Withe (because, legend has it, he’d read about him in a book). The new management team opted for a strategy of unrelenting attack – which failed, if only because a) it didn’t produce many goals and b) it let in quite a lot at the other end. David Platt, when he wasn’t burying his nose in Italian phrasebooks, was our only reliable goalscorer; Cascarino lunged occasionally, to predictable effect, and Penrice scored almost one goal all season. Defensively, we were about as obliging as we could be without actually removing ourselves from the pitch: there were five goals for Arsenal, five for Leeds, five for Manchester City, and only one clean sheet in our last eighteen matches.
The only real surprise about Venglos’ departure was that it came after the season had ended. There are many who believe Doug Ellis was genuinely sorry to see him go, and certainly you can’t help but wonder whether a bit of fast-talking and few ready-made excuses would have assured him of another season or two. Certainly it seemed to work for his successor.
From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month