Football: Ashby's exit cuts Venables' power base: Consultant dismissed at White Hart Lane as Sugar's camp criticise Tottenham's chief executive for breaching Stock Exchange rules

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The Independent Online
TERRY VENABLES emerged from yesterday's board meeting at Tottenham Hotspur with his Cheeky Chappie grin apparently restored, but the grim reality was that in his battle with Alan Sugar for control of the club, Venables' power base was rapidly diminishing.

After the board meeting it was confirmed that Edward Ashby, a consultant at the club who was described by one White Hart Lane insider as Venables's 'eyes and ears' on the commercial side, had been fired. Jonathan Crystal, a director of the club and Venables' main ally on the board did not attend the meeting.

Members of the Sugar camp were also quick to criticise Venables, the club's chief executive, over a gaffe he made on last Saturday's Cup final Grandstand when he predicted that Tottenham Hotspur plc would make pounds 5m in the current finanical year. This was a breach of Stock Exchange rules and forced the company to issue a statement saying it had made pounds 4m for the 10 months up to 31 March.

A White Knight went charging through the gates of White Hart Lane earlier in the day but it will take more than the local laundry service to rescue what behind the smile is still clearly a distressed Venables. Stopping briefly to answer questions from the media as he drove away from the ground in a blue Mercedes, he said in answer to an enquiry whether or not he was still at the club: 'Yes, and I feel in better spirits than last Friday.'

The decision to dispense with Ashby was one which Venables was known to have resisted repeatedly in the past. Venables and Sugar attended the board meeting along with Tony Berry, Colin Sandy and Douglas Alexiou.

What significance there was in the absence of Crystal, the only man to vote against Venables' sacking as chief executive last Friday prior to his reinstatement by a High Court injunction, is hard to say. Nick Hewer, a spokesman for Sugar, said he had 'no idea' why Crystal was not present. Sugar had been fiercely critical of the barrister's role in the dispute over the weekend as he was of Ashby, an undischarged bankrupt with a host of company failures to his name.

Sugar, the club chairman and majority shareholder, arrived at the ground at 7.45am - more than two hours before Venables - for what was anticipated as a confrontational board meeting. According to Hewer, however, 'everyone was well behaved'. He said: 'It was all very civilised. Terry Venables is chief executive and free to come and go as he pleases. He knew about Ashby's situation on Friday when a vote was cast.'

Sugar's shareholding, which amounts to almost 50 per cent, had risen by pounds 1,071,000 during the day. Upon arrival at the ground he said: 'The matter has gone to court and now they have to decide. I'm here today because, unfortunately, of the decision of the court. The judge has done her best to try to understand what is going on but she doesn't realise the staff here are in total disarray, not knowing which way to turn.

'I'm here merely to show my support. I'm around and we've got to try to keep a status quo until this stupid matter is resolved. The board of directors are in charge and always have been. Clearly one thing is very fortunate - there's no football going on and so no damage can be done to the club. I hope everyone keeps calm and we'll do our best to get everything back on a level plane again.

'I'd like to say to the fans that I and the board have the best interests of the club at heart. This is not an ego trip - I'm not an egotistical loony. If I was I'd have been reported many times before for interfering in football. This club has been established since 1882. It's bigger than me, it's bigger than Robert Maxwell and it's bigger than Terry Venables.'

The Stock Exchange forced Tottenham to issue a statement because it was particularly concerned when the price of Tottenham share rose by 14p to 103p - largely in reaction to what Venables said. To maintain a fair market for trading shares the Exchange requires that any information which is likely to move the price of a share is given to all shareholders at the same time. Venables' comments to Desmond Lynam clearly contravened the Stock Exchange's rules.

The medium used for the publication of so-called 'price sensitive' information is Topic, a computer system run by the Stock Exchange. City investors keep a constant eye on a Topic screen, watching for announcements. Topic also lists share prices.

The official line from the company - published via the Topic system - was: 'Based on unaudited management accounts Tottenham's profit before tax for the 10 months ended 31 March 1993 was approximately pounds 4m.'

Privately, members of the Sugar camp were quick to criticise Venables. They said the faux pas was example of his 'naivety' in business affairs.

The formal explanation, made through Topic, was that 'that statement was made without the board's approval'.

The rise in the share price was also helped by Sugar's offer to buy Venables' shares at a maximum price of 125p. Investors were hoping Sugar would offer all shareholders the same terms. Under rules devised to regulate City mergers and takeovers, if Sugar buys Venables' 22 per cent shareholding he is obliged to make an offer to all shareholders at the same price. However, aides to Sugar said last night that the chairman of Spurs did not want to trigger a full-blown take-over of the whole company. A spokesman also stressed that Sugar did not want to turn Tottenham into a private company.

(Photograph omitted)