Football: Venables prepares for the end of his Australian adventure

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The Independent Online
Terry Venables may not be going to the World Cup next summer, but he remains in demand. This week, as Australian coach, he has earned a rare draw with Brazil. Next week, as Portsmouth chairman, he attempts to resolve the problems at Fratton Park.

Glenn Moore, our Football Correspondent, managed to interrupt Venables' busy schedule as he prepared Australia for last night's Confederations Cup semi-final with Uruguay in Saudi Arabia.

Terry Venables is not the first former England manager to head for the desert after a World Cup qualifying campaign went wrong but, unlike Don Revie, he took his team with him.

In Saudi Arabia this week Venables steered Australia to a draw with Brazil. A decent result at any time but, in the context of Brazil's 14 straight wins since defeating England in Paris last summer, downright impressive.

Perversely, however, it made his and Australia's pain worse for it underlined the terrible price they have paid for another draw, three weeks ago, against Iran in Melbourne. That night Iran scored twice in the last 13 minutes to secure a 2-2 draw and send Australia, after an unbeaten eight-match qualifying campaign, tumbling out of next summer's French jamboree on away goals. To then go to Saudi Arabia and hold the World Cup holders cruelly underlined the impact they might have made in France.

"It is academic now," Venables said, "but we know we would have surprised a few. We've a good side."

So far this year Australia have beaten four World Cup qualifiers - South Korea, a weakened Norway, Tunisia and Mexico - and drawn with two others, Brazil and Iran. Their first defeat in 17 matches under Venables, to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, did not prevent them qualifying for the semi-finals of the eight-team Confederations Cup.

Having failed in his appointed task one might think Soccer Australia, who are paying Venables extremely well considering their resources, would be happy to let him go. However, Venables' ability to raise the game's profile, his noted charm, and the fact that his team were clearly superior to Iran, have encouraged them to offer him a new deal. But Venables, whose contract expires in the summer, is unlikely to stay in a full-time capacity, if at all. With no Oceanic equivalent of the European Championship to occupy him until the next World Cup qualifying campaign, it will be a surprise if he stays.

He will not be short of alternatives. He came under consideration for the Nigerian World Cup job and was linked with Benfica and Sporting Lisbon. Other offers are sure to follow, though Christian Gross need not be looking over his shoulder.

Australia may offer Venables a sabbatical, or part-time involvement until qualifying begins anew, but that would be problematic on all sides. There are already complications arising out of coaching Australia while being chairman of Portsmouth.

"They would like me to stay and I will listen to what they have to say. As yet we've not agreed on anything, I should know in the next few weeks. The gap is a definite problem. Every other country has got competitions going on all the time. Now you'd be coming out of the World Cup and looking towards the European Championship.

"I've loved the job. The reaction from the players over the year has been fantastic. I love the country, I love the people, they have treated me really well. The problem is keeping involved and playing competitions like this one [the Confederations Cup], which is doing the blokes a lot of good.

"The Mexico win [in the opening game] and the Brazil draw were quite outstanding. We were quite comfortable most of the time against Brazil."

Even the defeat against Saudi would have been a draw had Mark Viduka's last-minute header been under rather than against the bar, but finishing has been one of Australia's problems. They should have been three goals up in the first five minutes against Iran and still had chances after losing their two-goal lead. Venables, who appeared to watch much of the match with mounting disbelief, said the experience was similar to England's Euro '96 semi-final defeat on penalties.

Lifting himself and the team for the Confederations Cup was far from easy, especially when the players threatened to go on strike over their share of Australia's income from the tournament and the Iran game (played in front of 85,000 in Melbourne). The dispute rumbles on but the players are playing.

"They were bitterly disappointed after Iran," Venables said. "They were heartbroken after doing so well. They've now realised this is the way to show we are a good team and they have put in three good performances.

"We have made a very good showing of ourselves against quality players. People don't realise several of our players are not in their first teams: Tony Vidmar, who's with Rangers, has not been playing recently; the same with his brother Aurelio Vidmar at Tenerife, Ned Zelic at Auxerre, Steve Horvat at Hadjuk Split. They have really pulled it out in this competition."

Venables, meanwhile, has had to keep an eye on events at Portsmouth. A cash-flow crisis and apparent falling-out with Martin Gregory, the former chairman and fellow part-owner, has led to a flurry of newspaper allegations and reports of a buy-out. The team's slide to the First Division's relegation zone, and a four-month jail sentence for Eddie Ashby, Venables' assistant, has not helped.

"I had a meeting with Martin Gregory to say I would sort it out as soon as I get back," Venables said. "I've been away and my solicitor's been away. I keep hearing all sorts of things, but I've had no contact, I'll have to wait and see.

"It is one of the problems with being involved in other things, but no other chairman goes to the training ground all the time - they say I should be because I'm in football. I always made the point I don't coach the team. When Terry [Fenwick, the manager] had a good run the credit went to him, because he had done a fantastic job. This year he has had difficulties because the Jamaican boys have been away [on World Cup duty], the Australian boys have been away [World Cup], we've had problems getting a work permit for Zeljko Kalac [an Australian goalkeeper] and we've sold a couple of good players [Deon Burton and Lee Bradbury].

"My idea always was that it would be a long-term involvement for the future, but we've had a few problems in the last week or so. We did owe pounds 2.7m. Now we've a pounds 750,000 overdraft, which is very low, not many clubs have that. It is just the cash flow has been difficult."

To Venables' mind-blowing, body-scrambling flying schedule [London-Australia- Malaysia-Australia-Dubai-Iran-Australia-London-Saudi Arabia in six weeks] will soon be added a few hops down the A3. Portsmouth appears a messy situation, but Venables is unlikely to lose perspective, not while Eric Hall, an old friend, is seriously ill.

With all that on his mind it was no wonder Venables seemed a little overwrought, but he was soon cracking a joke or two, as ebullient as ever. No doubt he will be on our screens during the World Cup, but it is a shame he will not be in the dug-out.

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