Europe's Socceroos say G'day to Venables

Clive White visits the Ealing set of an ex-England coach's latest adventure
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The Independent Online
It was all purely coincidental, of course, but the Aussies did seem to be rubbing the Poms' noses in it again yesterday.

OK, so they have "stolen" our national coach, but did they really have to remind us of the fact by holding their first European training camp for Terry Venables' Socceroos on Wembley's doorstep? And as for arriving for yesterday's session in the official England team bus, well...

They had not taken too kindly to being described as a pub team at the weekend and Dave Hill, the chairman of Soccer Australia, was in the mood to throw down the gauntlet to England - "any time, anywhere."

The idea clearly tickled the fancy of the cheeky chappy, too, but that was for the future, perhaps next spring by which time he hopes to have successfully led Australia through the qualifying programme to the World Cup finals in France.

After the events at Wembley the other week, who is to say he has not backed the right horse. Tahiti and the Solomon Islands certainly look rather less formidable opposition than Italy and Poland, even if there are a couple of play-offs to follow after that before they could celebrate reaching their first finals since 1974.

Having led the Australian-based players to victory in a four-nation tournament involving Norway, South Korea and New Zealand last month, this was Venables' first get-together with those Australians who play in Europe. It was an indication of just how enthusiastically his appointment has been received by them, if not necessarily everyone back home, that 29 players made it to London for this three-day camp, including some who are too injured to take part. The one notable absentee is Paul Okon, the Lazio sweeper, who is undergoing an exploratory knee operation.

The weather may have been bitterly cold and blustery on the playing fields of the Barclays Bank Sports Ground in Ealing, but Venables was in his element, back doing what he does best: working with players. Not surprisingly, his sudden change of allegiance caused a bit of confusion at times, the players never too sure which "we" he was referring to. "Yes, you might say there was a lot of `we'-ing going on there today," Venables said.

He rejected the suggestion that he was working with vastly inferior material to that which he had in his hands just seven months ago. The quality of the players had impressed him. He reckoned he had an even bigger pool to choose from than, say, Wales or Northern Ireland and has likened Australia's standing to that of Hungary, whom they will play in a friendly in Budapest on 2 April. "People will be surprised how good the team is that we eventually come up with," he said, singling out such lesser names as Mark Viduka, a striker from Zagreb whom he believes could be more than a bit special.

Of his own high-profile, highly paid appointment, he said: "I believe good coaching makes a big difference. I think the coach can make or break a team. They have always recognised that in American sport and now places like Italy are realising how important the coach is and are starting to pay them big money."

Venables, for one, is being rewarded rather better than he was with the Football Association. But wasn't there just a tinge of regret at leaving his job as England coach? "None whatsoever," he replied. "If the circumstances were repeated I'd do the same again.

The skill factor looked extraordinary high at yesterday's session in difficult conditions, but I'm not sure what the boys back in Wagga Wagga would have made of the pink bibs.