Football: Sugar and spice in FA's sticky situation: Manchester today stages the European Championship draw against a backdrop of bickering. Joe Lovejoy reports

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THE city is in mourning for the father of the Busby Babes, but the show must go on and, with a toast to absent friends, Manchester will today stage the draw for the 1996 European Championship.

Dear old Sir Matt is the saddest, but not the only notable absentee. Macedonia will be there, making their debut, Terry Venables will not, leaving England conspicuously without representation when the coaches of 47 nations assemble at the Granada television studios.

As hosts, England are not required to qualify, and are assured of a place among the 16 finalists, but while their team are not involved in the draw process, the Football Association would have liked to have had its new manager in place in time to attend. Or would it?

Sir Bert Millichip said last week that having Venables in Manchester as Graham Taylor's successor would be a 'marvellous publicity coup'. But by Wednesday, when it was apparent that the bold Bert had jumped the gun, his chief executive, Graham Kelly, was back-pedalling furiously in a damage-limitation exercise.

'We reflected on it,' he said, 'and thought it would not be helpful to Uefa if we paraded our new manager as a sort of sideshow to the main event. We thought they would be horrified by that.'

Feeble stuff. The European organisers are looking for all the publicity they can get, and would surely have welcomed a charismatic star attraction. The Americans, with Fifa's blessing, trotted out Barry Manilow, Stevie Wonder and Willie Nelson at the World Cup draw last month. Venables would contribute more to a football occasion than that little lot - and probably sings better than a couple of them, too.

The FA was left squirming by the delay in its appointment, but accusations of undue prevarication are a mite unfair. The same newspapers berating Lancaster Gate for 'dithering' would have a field day if the FA installed a manager who was immediately found guilty of financial impropriety during his brief tenure as chief executive at Tottenham Hotspur.

'Due diligence', the phrase used time and again to excuse the deferment, constitutes a reasonable explanation. The fact that it is the FA's Premier League offshoot which is investigating allegations of illegal payments made by Spurs during the Venables years makes it all the more difficult for the parent body to pre-empt its verdict.

Kelly summed it up best when he said: 'If we appoint him as manager and then we get a report (from the Premier League) which says he's a rogue and a villain, and he's broken every rule in the FA handbook, we'll be in a sticky situation.'

Whether England should even consider a man whose past gives rise to such doubts is a moot point. There are those who feel Venables' record of financial chicanery should disqualify him. It is an opinion I respect, but do not share. He has been convicted of nothing and, in football terms, he is accused of nothing that countless other managers have not done. His greatest mistake was in falling out with a powerful man like Sugar, who is very much of the get mad and get even persuasion.

The FA, quite reasonably, takes the view that it is hiring a coach, not an accountant, and as such Venables is, by common consent, second to none.

If the men in the Lancaster Gate glasshouse were suddenly to start throwing stones, embarrassing questions might be asked of Doug Ellis, the Aston Villa chairman. Ellis's club have been fined by the FA this season for the very offence of which Venables and Spurs stand accused - paying an agent (Graeme Smith) to facilitate the transfer of a player (Mark Bosnich). A serious matter? Not serious enough to prevent Ellis from serving on the FA's international and finance committees.

The close relationship between the Premier League and the FA does have its advantages in the present situation. We can safely assume that there is a free flow of information between the commission of inquiry and the FA executive, in which case it will not be necessary to wait for a written report at the end of the hearing before assessing Venables' fitness for high office.

The inside story was available to Kelly and company as soon as Sugar had finished giving evidence to the commission, and all the talk since has been of a short delay, with the appointment now expected on Tuesday. Sugar said on arriving at the hearing that he had nothing new to offer that might damage Venables' prospects, and that the partner he sacked last summer was the best man for the job.

Inside, it was not quite so simple. 'Nothing new' dragged on for four and a half hours, at the end of which there was a tricky quid pro quo. The deal was that if Venables was to have a clean bill of health to manage England, Spurs had to be cleared, too. This was only 'natural justice', and if 'justice' was not forthcoming, legal redress might be sought.

I understand Sugar told the commission that if Venables was cleared and the club were not, his lawyers would make him 'an even richer man'. This possibility of High Court action, subsequently confirmed by Sugar's solicitors, was behind two postponements this week.

In such circumstances, the delay was excusable. If fault is to be found, it lies with Millichip, and the 'in by Saturday' statement which raised the level of expectation, putting the FA under unnecessary pressure.

The fact that it is now talking in terms of an announcement on Tuesday suggests either that the Spurs inquiry is a damp squib, or that there are no skeletons in the cupboard which would preclude a provisional appointment, pending the commission's report.

The strong probability is that Venables will get the job on Tuesday and keep it, at least until the finals of the European Championship.

The draw he misses today will see 47 countries drawn into eight groups for the purpose of arriving at 15 of the 16 finalists. There will be six groups of six teams and two of five, with the top two going through from the larger groups, but only the winners where five compete. The two runners-up in the five-team groups will play off to determine the 15th finalists, with the 16th place automatically going to England, as hosts.

A total of 31 games will be played at eight venues - Wembley, Old Trafford, Villa Park, Hillsborough, Anfield, Elland Road, Nottingham's City Ground and St James' Park, Newcastle - with the tournament starting on 8 June and the final at Wembley on 30 June.

When the draw is made, by the ubiquitous Bobby Charlton, there will be more teams than ever to avoid - for more than the usual reasons. No one will relish a trip to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia or Georgia, all of whom may be required to play their home games on neutral territory to guarantee the safety of the oposition.

And the FA thinks it's got problems.


1: Germany, France, Russia, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Republic of Ireland.

2: Norway, Romania, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Wales, Ukraine.

3: Bulgaria, Belgium, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia.

4: Iceland, Austria, Finland, Lithuania, Israel, Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia.

5: Turkey, Latvia, Albania, Cyprus, Malta, Faroe Islands, Estonia, Slovakia.

6: Luxembourg, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan.