Football: Price of doing the business

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IT WAS hardly a stunning surprise when Alan Sugar mistakenly referred to his toy as 'Tottenham Hotspurs' and forgot that 92 clubs not '70 odd' are operating in the Premier and Football Leagues.

This indicates that Sugar is not a football man. I doubt that he is even remotely a fan. For him the game seems to have nothing to do with glory: it is a balance sheet. As long as the figures came out right he probably would settle for finishing half-way up the table and getting through a couple of rounds in the cups. At a guess the club he admires most is Wimbledon: poorly supported but solvent.

What Sugar clearly does share with the self-made merchants, the builders, bakers and butchers who have traditionally held power in British football, is the belief that men who spend a great deal of their lives playing and teaching a game cannot acquire a head for business.

Never mind that Terry Venables invested more than pounds 2m in Tottenham and relished the responsibility of chief executive. In Sugar's mind the issue was comparatively simple. The only place for Venables was the training ground.

This is the puzzling part to most people and the wounding part to Venables who had turned around a loss of pounds 2.3m while building a team in the best Tottenham traditions, one that looked to have more potential than any they have sent out since the Sixties.

'I was growing more and more confident that we could win the championship,' Venables said this week after deciding to extend a legal battle for control of the club.

We are not talking here about economic sense, for the cost to Venables and his backers could be colossal. It is his refusal to bow before the notion that the only refinements professional footballers work on relate to the control and propulsion of a sphere.

Venables' entrepreneurial instincts showed early. Eventually they came to the attention of Jim Gregory who owned Queen's Park Rangers when Venables played for and later managed them.

'People forget that Jim made me managing director,' he said. 'At one time there was a lot of talk about me buying the football club and leasing the ground from him.'

As things stand at White Hart Lane there is no talk of Venables having any say in Tottenham's future. 'He (Sugar) suggested I could always manage another club,' Venables said. This is missing the point. Management, pure and simple would be a backward step for him.

'At Barcelona I was only responsible for the team,' he added. 'That suited me because working abroad was a new experience, something I'd always wanted to do. But that's behind me. You move on in life.'

Here are two of the things Venables had in mind for Tottenham. He wanted the club to be run from offices at the training ground and a central ticket agency in the West End of London. 'It's the way most of the big clubs in Italy and Spain do things,' he said.

It is now obvious that Sugar felt Venables had too much in mind. At about the time their relationship began to founder Sugar read in a newspaper that Venables was about to sign a player and wanted to know why he had not been consulted. 'Because there is no truth in the story,' came the reply.

Foolishly, you may feel, Venables is risking everything he has worked for. But when he heard Sugar's accusations stubbornness came into play. 'I couldn't let him get away with it,' he said.

As for Sugar's claim that Venables hinted at the practice of sweetening managers to get a signing through, the 'bung' as it was referred to in court, I honestly cannot tell you how much of this goes on.

However, I do recall that Sunderland were fined pounds 5,000 in 1957 and four of their directors were suspended for making illegal payments contrary to League rules when there was a maximum wage.

As it was told to me, one player who had not benefited was persuaded to seek out the manager and ask for the going rate which was pounds 1,000. 'Tell him you want a grand,' they said. Gloomily returning from the manager's office, he was asked how things had developed. 'Told me to sod off,' he said. 'And by the way, what is a grand?'