Football: The new world in motion: As England prepare for the visits of Greece and Norway, Terry Venables seeks a fluid approach and a positive attitude: Ian Ridley, football correspondent, hears the national coach play a fanfare for common sense

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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS appropriate that the Football Association's headquarters at Lancaster Gate are being refurbished, and that Terry Venables is in an office on the third floor rather than the basement in which Spitting Image sets him as a London hood planning the Wembley job with Baby-face Gascoigne and the gang.

It was a year ago last week that he began the descent into his personal lower ground floor, when Alan Sugar sacked him and sent Tottenham Hotspur into a fall of their own. Now, after just more than 100 days as England's manager, or head coach as the official hand-outs have it, life's elevator would again appear upwardly mobile for a man for whom the jargon might have been invented.

Not that he has made good his escape from the past yet. Tottenham Hotspur have a case to answer, over alleged irregular payments during his time as manager. 'I have had enough of it for a year. I am trying to put it behind me and get on with my life,' he said in wistful response. And last Thursday his company Edennote was wound up in the High Court as a result of a creditors' petition brought by Tottenham and Sugar.

We will see, too, in matches against Greece on Tuesday and Norway next Sunday, how far he is making good England's escape from the debacle of World Cup non-qualification. There remain echoes of Graham Taylor, who, like Venables against Denmark in March, began with a 1-0 win. The Venables squad has seven players over 30 and is likely to appear with one out-and-out striker. Interpretation, with Venables in the benefit-of-doubt period, is all.

Denis Healey once said of the unemployment figures that rather than how bad they were, it mattered more in which direction they were going. So it is in football. The English game has enjoyed a recent resurgence of self-esteem; now it will turn to Venables to see if the England game is rediscovering itself. From being 'disenchanted' with the game that has given him the best and, over that year, the worst of times, Venables himself has rediscovered its addictive attraction. 'There is a pull, isn't there?' he says rhetorically. 'Well, the game's always good, isn't it? It's just the problems you get with the people in and around it.'

Few people are as straightforward as their publicity would suggest. Venables is indeed a chirpy Cockney who likes a laugh, and has one that brings the late Sid James to mind, but, say those close to him, a Celtic melancholy can afflict this son of a Welsh mother.

Then there is the assumption that he will bring to England a new cavalier approach, borne out by the inclusion again of Peter Beardsley and Matthew Le Tissier in his squad for the forthcoming matches. To offset that, there is the exclusion of Andy Cole, carrier of 41 goals to Newcastle. And we have Steve Bould and Kevin Richardson, journeymen of the sort Taylor promoted in Martin Keown and Geoff Thomas.

While Venables has an open-mindedness, both in terms of personnel and formations, seeing the next two games as signposts to more stability for both, there is still a clear idea of the type of player he wants; bright and adaptable. Some of his business dealings may have been tangled but there is not the muddled thinking that beset the final days of Taylor.

'I hope it's an attractive side, but with common sense,' Venables says. 'You get the feeling that everybody wants you to pick an England team with showbiz players or entertainers. Well, it's ridiculous. You have got to have a blend of players to stop goals, to destroy and create in the middle, and then to score.

'You want to do that with as many passing players as possible. Now if they can pass the ball and are good defenders, that's a plus. In certain areas, you have to go for priorities and it's to stop goals. Jack Charlton did that as a player and he has got his team to do that.' He frequently cites the Republic of Ireland and Norway as examples of teams in harmony; Germany and Holland as those with the technical ability England should aspire to.

Thus do his teams reflect the pragmatism that made him the professionals' choice, as the FA's consultant Jimmy Armfield found when he went headhunting. Bould, he explained in announcing his squad, forms a solid partnership with Tony Adams; Richardson was the type every team needs to 'take care of the shop'. And if you are good enough, you are young enough.

Up front, it is likely that Alan Shearer will again spearhead rather than be part of a double act, Venables seeking to discover why the single-forward formation is becoming so fashionable in the world game. 'You have to have a fluid system, like all the top teams,' he says.

Those who were not unreservedly impressed by Arsenal's use of 4-5-1 in the win over Parma will doubt this way of playing, but Arsenal do not have Peter Beardsley, David Platt or Matthew Le Tissier operating as what Venables describes as 'split strikers', players who can drop off, 'to hide' and thus confuse defences. It may look as if only one striking place is available, but there could well be three, he says.

'It's about having a more accomplished person in there,' he explained. 'It gives more problems to the opposition, so if it does, we have got to consider it. And is Shearer happy in the role? 'I don't see why not. He plays like it for his club. He likes the box to himself in the way Gary Lineker did.'

It does preclude some of the more extravagant attacking talents the Premiership has thrust forward this year in remarkable abundance. 'I would say there are 10 top-quality strikers,' he said. 'But every time I pick someone, they ask about the ones I have left out.'

Is it fair to say that, conversely, there is a worrying dearth of defenders at the top level? 'No, I don't think so. What you can do with defenders, if you are lacking, is that you can organise them in such a fashion to make life difficult for the opposition. The forward play is getting quicker, the interchanging of players is getting better. It's getting intriguing. It's fascinating.'

A frequent criticism of Venables, made notoriously by his former chairman at Tottenham, Irving Scholar, is a short attention span. It is more that he is a man of curiosity, with a willingness to take risks, with a remarkable energy, who might tell you that life is not a dress rehearsal. His relaxed manner includes silk shirts worn open- necked. He has also decreed at squad get-togethers that only players and coaches, and not hangers-on, should wear tracksuits.

His approach to the job will reflect the mix of laissez-faire and authority, and his team will take account of the realities of the game. Consequently, it seems that the inclusion of Le Tissier from the start, whom he sees more as an understudy to Beardsley than the injured Gascoigne, is unlikely in the fluid formation of what may look like 4-1-2-2-1.

With the players involved in the Cup final unlikely to be chosen, the team could well be Seaman in goal; Jones, Bould, Adams and Le Saux in defence with Richardson just ahead of them, Anderton wide on the right, Merson on the left and Beardsley and Platt playing off Shearer.

Whichever 11 are chosen, however, one expects them to show the resilience that under Taylor was not always apparent, especially away from home. They should have sufficient to overcome the Greeks, who, in two World Cup warm-up matches at home last week, were beaten 3-0 by Cameroon after having their captain Tasos Mitropoulous sent off and drew 0-0 with Bolivia.

In the longer term, what would Venables want his England legacy to be? 'I'd like to give them success. I'd like to give them the beginning of something and also leave them with the benefits of me being here.' In the way England play? A bright team? 'Yeah, all that sort of stuff,' he says with the Sid James laugh taking him over again. 'I would also like us to be tough competitors, to expect a little fear from the opposition. To get that again. If someone's drawn in our group they are not too worried at the moment. I would like them to be concerned about us again.'

And what of that Spitting Image puppet? 'Seems all right. It's quite funny, actually,' he says, the smile reminiscent of his real comic hero, the schemer to beat them all, Ernie Bilko.

(Photograph omitted)

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