Football: A sharp man at the cutting edge: As England enter the age of the coach, Terry Venables reveals his practical side. Ian Ridley reports

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The Independent Online
IT WAS only 1-0 against half- hearted opposition but, to popular acclaim and approval, there were optimistic omens as a new era dawned. Wembley was duly wooed and wowed; the tigers of the media purred. Thus began Graham Taylor's reign as the England manager 31 2 years ago.

And so started the Terry Venables regime as coach, a change of job description designed to remind him of his role: restricted to playing matters. But while there may have been many similarities - a happy camp, a stated desire for players to express and enjoy themselves chief among them - there were, too, significant differences in approach and even outcome.

This England against Denmark, as opposed to that one against Hungary, drew 20,000 more to Wembley than Taylor's first selection as it seemed the public request of 'please sir, can we have our footballers back?' was heeded. North of Watford Gap, Venables may not be quite the people's choice projected, but his pass-and- move team - showing the difference between long ball and long pass - has quickly found approval.

In the early days of the Taylor regime, England's leafy training headquarters at Bisham Abbey, on the border of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, resembled a comedy club, with his former Watford player Steve Harrison recruited to give a dash of Norman Wisdom to the Bulldog Breed. Like so much, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

At Venables's first assembly, Bisham was more restrained, realistic. The weather seemed greyer, the lights dimmer in the old building's rooms. And he now went for more conventional wisdom.

Aware of how limited time with players is - there were two-hour morning sessions on Monday and Tuesday, with a shorter one on Monday afternoon and an hour for set pieces on Wednesday - he worked with the forwards himself to explain his ideas of flexibility and adaptability while Don Howe organised the defence. Bryan Robson was available for work with individuals.

There was little talking, according to one player, unlike previous arrangements. On the September Monday evening of that first Taylor week, for example, there was a discussion on that summer's World Cup performance. Indeed, the absence of formal chat illustrates a fundamental difference between the two managers.

Taylor's dealings with the media, until fear and loathing took over in his later days, were from the William Waldegrave theory of open government. He always believed himself to be on a mission to explain and educate, and took umbrage when he was misinterpreted.

It was usually conducted with bonhomie, though one sensed that in the desire to convey a positive image, Taylor lost sight of himself. The smile became forced; in the end he could keep it up no longer. He was ever honourable, but sometimes there may have been call for a less admirable approach.

Venables is more from the practical wing of the Waldegrave ministry. His attitude at the main Tuesday press conference was businesslike as he gave just enough for previews to be written, and left little room for misunderstanding. Cleverly, he delivered something for everyone, tabloid to broadsheet to radio. And TV was his usual chirpy self on TV. 'The public are not fools,' he said at one point. 'They know what they want.'

Post-match, it was similarly sharp as he gave instant response to the daily newspapers, a more considered verdict for the football correspondents, then another press conference for the Sunday papers, all in the space of two hours. Taylor, too, began with a similar routine but felt moved eventually to conduct more debriefings on Thursdays.

There was human interest with humour on Darren Anderton: how Venables conducted his transfer negotiations from Portsmouth to Tottenham. 'I asked for a price. I said: 'No, not that one.' ' There was, too, tactical analysis, on the roles of Peter Beardsley - dropped for Steve Bull in Taylor's first match, incidentally - and Anderton and on how they should link with Alan Shearer up front.

But even Venables expressed surprise at the amount of media. 'Don Howe reckons it has doubled in four years,' said the manager for the mobile phone age. Indeed, much of it - especially in the number of cameras pointed at him as he made his way to the bench at the start of the match - seemed intrusive.

There was, it seems, little comparison between the two managers within the England camp. 'No, not really,' said one. 'Everyone was looking forward. Though there was a fair bit of talk about the Cutting Edge programme, and jokes about 'Do I not like that'.' The diplomatic Alan Shearer, meanwhile, talked about the week being a great success. 'He got all the lads on his side,' he said of the new coach.

In his pre-match team talk, Venables asked the players to make opponents afraid of England at Wembley again, not to stand off the opposition, and that when somebody went for a tackle to make sure that another was going in behind them. At half-time he urged the players to believe in themselves, to want the ball.

Venables himself had said that he did not expect to be nervous before the game, and indeed he looked relaxed throughout the 90 minutes. He looked himself, with a smile to Bryan Robson in the tunnel before the game, but seriousness itself as he made copious notes during the match.

He left Wembley just past midnight clutching those notes and 'my lonely video' of the game, trying to come to terms with being in 'mothballs' for the next five weeks before England play Germany in Berlin on 20 April, save for a 'few bits and pieces' such as reporting to the FA's International Committee and the odd karaoke night at his Kensington club Scribes West.

It had been a thoroughly satisfying first week in the way he had handled the occasion and himself, and clearly the stoical bearing he showed when faced with the trauma associated with his financial affairs has stood him in good stead.

But, then, Graham Taylor seemed similarly resilient and credible those 31 2 years ago; besides which, there is a saying in football that it is not how you start but how you finish.

For all the difference in style, it will come down to a piece of advice Taylor has offered to Venables: 'Just make sure you don't lose.' Taylor did not lose many but he drew too many, while Venables stamped the whole of his first week with the mark of a winner.

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