Football: Venables has little choice

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY after Terry Venables took up office at Lancaster Gate it was enthusiastically predicted in one of the popular prints that he will be sending out England to play like Brazil. I'm not entirely sure what was meant by this but it indicated loose thinking on the author's part and perhaps a serious defect in his hearing.

Up to now, Venables has merely stressed that as time is short (where have we heard that before) nobody should expect miracles. Certainly, it is ludicrous to presume a transformation in style, as though flair, a rare commodity in British football, can be acquired through conversations with the coach and kept on ice for international distribution.

Venables' most successful predecessor, Alf Ramsey, understood that completely. The key was selection within a system that enabled players to comfortably function as they did for their clubs. Controversially, wingers had no place in Ramsey's scheme of things, but he encouraged a passing game and accommodated notable talents. If an English footballer could really play, which incorporates a willingness to apply exceptional gifts diligently, he was Ramsey's man.

On returning from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, Ramsey asserted that English football had nothing to learn from Brazil's memorable success, meaning that their individual fluency was unique and beyond emulation. Unfortunately, Ramsey put the point over clumsily and it is still held against him.

Venables is unlikely to make the same mistake, but the problems Ramsey, Don Revie, Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor encountered are his exactly. As Ramsey said: 'The public are fed the idea that defeats are disasters, so it is difficult to blood players.'

Craftily exploiting this, he made a number of popular changes against Northern Ireland in May, 1972. England lost 1-0, the new men proving to be technically deficient or of unsound temperament. 'I think I may have proved a thing or two,' Ramsey said privately and with more than a hint of smugness.

Nothing much had changed by the time England failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championship finals, Robson's first major setback. 'We must look closely at younger players,' he insisted. 'They will be given a chance and if that means losing here and there the public will have to try and understand.'

They did not and on a June afternoon in 1984, less than two years in the job, Robson trudged miserably to the dressing-rooms at Wembley, withered by scorn after England lost to the Soviet Union, their third defeat in four matches. 'We are all right in some positions,' he said later, 'but when it comes to real class we are thin on the ground.'

Sensibly, Venables has avoided pointing up a problem that managers in the Premiership are always going on about. There is a dearth of talent, but he reckons there is enough available, with particular reference this week to Paul Gascoigne.

Towards the end of Ramsey's momentous reign, Brian Clough argued that no sympathy could be held out for the England manager if he was incapable of producing a successful team from a pool of more than 2,000 players in the Football League.

It was a typically glib and mischievous statement which ignored, among other issues, the fact that English football supplies men to national teams of the four home countries as well as the Republic of Ireland. Concentrating on the First Division, you first had to rule out the Scots, the Welsh, players from both sides of the Irish border and the others from outside these islands who had begun to infiltrate the game in England. Further culling eliminated former internationals who had waned, failed candidates and, the largest group, those clearly not up to standard. By my reckoning, 35 contenders survived. 'Three more than I make it,' Ramsey said caustically.

With that in mind my guess is that the team Venables fields against Denmark next month will look familiar. As for attempting to look like Brazil it is, of course, nothing but an idle rumour.