Football: Venables faces a leading question: Eamon Dunphy believes the England coach must choose his captain carefully

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FOR A variety of reasons, the stunning ineptitude of his predecessor being the most compelling of them, nobody is expecting miracles from Terry Venables. As the Venables era begins, England expects nothing more than a team that is coherent, coached by a man who can speak the Queen's English for purposes other than self-justification. Of course, expectations will soon be revised, upwards, but for now most in the game and on its critical fringe seem content, even a shade optimistic, that the identity crisis which has long afflicted the England team is about to be no more.

Venables is the quintessential Nineties English football man: streetwise, on good terms with the tabloids, compatible with the modern player (and his agent), unburdened by ideological baggage. Because football teams inevitably reflect the character of their leader, we can, in this instance, expect the new England to be slick, imaginative and confident. They will score goals from cleverly designed set-pieces, be busy, neat and purposeful. Venables's England won't be stupid like Graham Taylor's or tortured by self-doubt as during the Robson years.

That is a major advance. A self-assured man, a self-assured team: something you might take for granted until you consider the number of confused, demoralised national sides there are out there at present. Scotland, Wales, France, Wednesday's opponents Denmark, the European champions who failed to qualify for the World Cup finals, their campaign undermined by conceits and internal squabbling. Brazil are at the moment similarly afflicted. The Dutch are in permanent debate: who will play? Who will lead?

International football is more often than not a disaster area. The football associations appoint the wrong coach, he selects the wrong players who, playing in a strange formation, incur the wrath of commentators and public alike. Not, of course, in the Republic of Ireland, where Jack Charlton lays down the law, but, when seen in its real perspective, the big, bad world Terry Venables must now confront is not quite as formidable as it seems.

A rational assessment of the challenge he faces should encourage Venables to believe that he can transform England, make them a force once more in the international game. He might begin by remembering, and reminding his players, that, for all Graham Taylor's witlessness, England came within a couple of dodgy refereeing decisions and one defensive blunder of qualifying for the United States this summer.

There are other substantial sources of optimism. Alan Shearer is one of the world's outstanding strikers, a player the impotent Italians would die for. The innate courage and discipline of the English player is still a precious commodity, envied elsewhere in the game, embodied by men like David Batty, Stuart Pearce, Paul Ince and Tony Adams.

Common sense, the ability to think clearly amid the clamour that surrounds the England job, is the quality Venables is most in need of now. He gives every appearance of being in control despite the cloud of controversy that still lingers over him. That will blow away, or should do in the interest of the greater good, which won't be served by moralising about allegations which, in the context of the professional game, amount to nothing worse than misdemeanours.

The job, which he starts with a difficult game against the worldly Danes, is to render recognisable and coherent an England team which will amount to more than the considerable sum of its parts. If Venables succeeds in fashioning an identifiable look for his team, the individuals in it will grow and prosper. Creating a structure that suits his players, must be item No 1 on any international manager's agenda. This takes time, but poses no great problem for the coach with conviction who knows the strengths and weaknesses of his squad. There is no reason to doubt Venables in this regard.

The squad he named this week was well defined, rather than the unwieldy something- for-all-tastes trawl of the game most debutant managers begin with. There was the firm smack of conviction that characterises most successful international crusades. This, one feels, will be a crusade in the cause of imaginative attacking football, the flair of players like Beardsley, Gascoigne, Anderton and Le Saux being underwritten by more combative spirits such as Adams, Batty and Ince. Balance, the core value of all good sides, is proposed, with a modicum of risk represented by Matthew Le Tissier. On the whole this is the squad that the fan on the Clapham omnibus, and indeed the wise old hack in the press box, would have chosen. And none the worse Venables's first squad is for that. Too many men in the deep waters of international management have been beguiled by the unfathomable adventure. Too many have perished, overwhelmed by dangers that never existed in the first place.

Venables has the intellectual capacity to understand exactly where he's at and where he needs to get to. With players like Gascoigne, Platt, Shearer and Beardsley, England will be a threat to any side when they're going forward. What Venables doesn't possess at present is a commanding figure to lend poise and purpose to his team, a player, or players, by which England would be known, respected, even feared. He begins with a blank page; as yet there is no identity, like the collective resilience of Jack Charlton's Ireland, the memorable explosiveness of Bobby Charlton's England, the poetic virtuosity of Brazil, the sophistry of successive generations of Dutch teams.

Conventional wisdom insists that Paul Gascoigne will be the source of inspiration for the Venables era. While it is true to argue that defining Gascoigne's role must be a priority for Venables, it would be a serious mistake to burden this volatile and immature man with more responsibility than he can bear. Gascoigne will be an asset only if protected in a settled, well- balanced team. With the captaincy thrust upon him and each England performance measured by his contribution, Gascoigne will be exposed far more than he needs to be.

When he decides who captains England, Venables will offer a clue to his and England's future philosophy. The options for leadership other than Gascoigne are Adams and Platt. On Adams's sturdy, indomitably English shoulders or on Platt's mannered, intelligent maturity captaincy would rest more easily than on the turbulent Gascoigne, of whom enough will be required anyway.

In more prosaic terms, Venables's squad looks weak at the heart of the defence. Serious questions can validly be asked about Adams, Des Walker and Gary Pallister's ability to cope with pace and subtlety uncommon on an English winter afternoon. England are also short of quality on the flanks, possessing nobody to provide what might be described as the Ryan Giggs dimension. With more goalscorers than he can use and a balance between aggression and imagination in midfield, Venables's most urgent problem will be finding a way through opposing defences.

But even this is secondary to the mood in the camp, to the sense of discipline, composure and harmony that the right coach can inject into the odd, often surreal atmosphere that envelops a national team. There is more to football than football, the kinds of things they don't teach you at Lilleshall, balancing not simply 4-4-2 but fear, ambition, ego, absorbing the searing heat of national expectation, deflecting the criticism, rendering your men immune to the whimsy of the day. For this task, one senses, Venables is admirably equipped.

Once that is achieved, the players will begin to look forward to playing for England, to enjoy the experience rather than regard it as an ordeal. In such an environment, players like Le Tissier will grow, and normal growth is what England might reasonably expect during the Venables era. Normal growth, and a young Bobby Moore, would see England in contention once again. A hope that is far from forlorn.