A week for U-turns and humble pie

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Eruptions of national fervour are not always a rewarding sight but the volcanic activity injected into English breasts by the spectacular victory of their football team over Holland on Tuesday night produced much to delight those who were watching from a respectful distance; not least the number of U-turns being acrobatically performed.

The Prime Minister, who presides over an assembly where U-turning is a listed sport, loosed off his official congratulations with the speed of a Stoichkov free-kick. Quite properly, too, but we on the fringes of this one nation would have appreciated a kindly word to the Scottish team who limped forlornly home while the English were foaming at the mouth.

A sympathetic message to their luckless manager Craig Brown would have shown that the PM cares for all his children, not just the ones who are winning. But how many communications of encouragement did Terry Venables receive in the darker days when his heroic team was in its difficult gestation period - or in the more difficult gesticulation period? How often did No 10 issue a "Keep your peckers up, lads" telemessage? There wasn't even an "Everyone right behind you, try to shake them off at the airport" warning.

Venables should have issued an edict that only those willing to ride with him on the dung-cart would be permitted to board the band- wagon. Had England failed in their qualification group, he would have stood alone to face a merciless pillorying. Just one game brought a cheering mass to his side, surrounding him with backslappers who took on the appearance of having been there for ever.

No one in these islands needs reminding about the fickleness of public acclaim and those of the Celtic persuasion can be driven to patriotic passion on far less fuel than required by our more staid neighbours. But when the English let loose they are a fearsome sight.

The affinity between Englishmen and mad dogs is usually demonstrated only by the country's full-time football hooligans but on rare occasions like last week's you realise that the louts are only the tip of the iceberg. Of all sports, football alone seems to possess the key to unlock the chains of England's emotional restraint forcing them to forgive their heroes any excess.

Tennis is the only other game that might have the same effect. I invite you to consider what would happen if Paul Gascoigne were to win Wimbledon and then I urge you not to dwell long upon the thought.

Unfortunately, I have to indict my own profession for the most screeching U-turns of all last week. In the scramble to be attuned to the national pulse they suddenly discovered in Venables Messianic qualities they had somehow overlooked before. The fact that he had never had the advantage of being able to mould a team under competitive conditions before the opening of this tournament doesn't seem to have dawned on them.

After Tuesday there was a furtive flurry of re-alignment. Some newspapers tried to make light of their previous antipathy. The Daily Mirror pictured their football writers in the stocks and one beneath the executioner's axe. All very funny; but there had been nothing funny about the ceaseless campaign that had been waged against Venables for the previous two years. There were honourable exceptions but the discomforting of Venables became a main-line activity for some.

When Robert Maxwell had his hooks in the Mirror, he had a sudden whim that Bobby Robson should be sacked as England manager. It was just before Robson took England to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico and the Mirror began a "Robson Must Go" campaign. Robson is one of the best football managers England has produced over the last 25 years. Terry Venables will run him close for the title of the best. No doubt, Robson, who has just become manager of Barcelona, and Venables will find it all amusingly ironic.

I am happy, however, to say that for all the shortcomings of my trade the most profound embarrassment of England's success would have been caused to Venables' employers. Thanks to the prescience of some members of the Football Association's international committee Venables was due to quit whenever England's involvement in this championship came to an end.

How the Italians must envy them. They gave their coach, Arrigo Sacchi, a contract that runs through until the 1998 World Cup, figuring that international football management benefits from continuity and confidence. Despite the fact that polls conducted among anguished Italians since their team's exclusion on Wednesday reveal a 90 per cent swing against Sacchi - or, put another way, a 90 per vote for him to swing - the Italian FA are holding firm.

Our leaders cleverly guarded against that eventuality by refusing to grant Venables an extension of his contract to embrace the World Cup, preferring to see how he did in Euro 96. He regarded this a mite less than a vote of confidence and announced that he would go down with the ship during this championship. That's why, five weeks ago, Chelsea's Glenn Hoddle was appointed to succeed Venables and has been waiting awkwardly in the wings every since.

I denounced this as ludicrous when it was announced and that appeared to be a mild criticism last week when Hoddle looked ahead and saw a hero in the job he is soon to fill. If he cared to glance behind, he would have also seen a hero in the job he vacated. Ruud Gullit, Chelsea's new manager, has been an eloquent television star and there would be little doubt about the answer if you asked any Premier player to say from whose lips would he care to hear team talks next season.

ENGLAND'S triumph against Holland brought silence, albeit temporarily, to the temperance lobby. The alcoholic escapades of the English players in Hong Kong, and on the flight home, still calls for some explanation in the light of the debilitating effect it had on England's start to the championship. But their splendid recovery at least gets the prohibitionists off the back of those who respect the long association between football and its social side. While England were receiving copious loads of criticism about their antics, the Scots were being a touch prissy about their strict regime that put a considerable distance between their squad and the demon fluids. As unlucky as we feel the Scots were, they should reconsider a policy that goes against the grain of their national characteristics. They might even take a hint from their own sporting anthem that aptly describes their exit. It goes something like: "And sent them homeward, to drink again."

There have been mischievous suggestions that the withdrawal of the world No 2, Thomas Muster, from Wimbledon was less to do with the thigh strain he suffered at Queen's than the ignominy of being seeded only seventh. Muster refutes this and says that in nine weeks he has had only six days off. Quite right, too. What better time for a top pro to take a break from tennis than in the middle of summer. British tennis stars have for years reaped the benefit of booking a holiday during the second week of Wimbledon.