Football: Venables primed for the age of wisdom

Former England manager emphasises the value of experience in the key role
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The Independent Online
No matter whether you're a football-loving rock star or a karaoke- singing football manager, once you are well into your fifties somebody, somewhere, will try to convince you that you are in terminal decline.

By all accounts, Mrs Rod Stewart has evidently taken such a view of her husband, and there are probably those who believe that Terry Venables regards Crystal Palace as a comfortable pre-retirement home for a character who not only pursued the beautiful game to Barcelona, and witnessed the wonders of White Hart Lane before flying the flag for England and Australia but probably also manufactured and flogged the souvenir T shirt. Maybe it was turning 56 on Wednesday that focused that mind on that particular issue, but, as he held court after preparing for today's match at Bolton in his favourite drinking haunt in the backstreets of Knightsbridge, the Palace coach- cum-bon viveur belied any suggestion that he's heading swiftly for the sedentary sixties.

"Someone once said that it was a shame that experience is wasted on the old," said El Tel, or Hell's Tel, depending on your perspective of events at Tottenham and Portsmouth. "I used to think about that and came to the conclusion that it was also a shame that enthusiasm is wasted on the young. The young cannot get experience, but if the old could retain their enthusiasm that's the answer."

There are exceptions, though, to the perception that football, like politics, is a young man's game. There are still those managers and coaches seemingly imbued with a wisdom denied the young, those blessed with an almost Merlin-like quality of restoring vitality to an ailing club.

Why else should Nottingham Forest have approached Ron Atkinson in their quest for a saviour? Venables' clarion call might well be "long live longevity" and he is prepared to take the issue further. "There's absolutely no reason why someone shouldn't be England coach at 60," he insisted. "It's an older man's business and your experience is invaluable. You see people like Brazil's Mario Zagallo and look at Bobby Robson, still as enthusiastic as when he was a kid."

Despite a domestic championship and a European Cup final with Barcelona, an FA Cup with Tottenham, not forgetting his adventures with England, he still feels in his prime. "I believe I'm better than ever now, because I should be. I've gathered experience and I'm still enjoying it. If you've got those two things together, you've cracked it. Somebody said to me when I was a young coach that it was an older man's job. I thought 'I can see the sense of this.' It got to me, and I thought when I took my first job that perhaps I was too young and didn't have enough experience and that has always stuck with me."

Under Venables' definition of the genealogy of a coach, Glenn Hoddle, at 41, is a babe in arms. "I mean this in the nicest, most supportive way," he said. "But for me, Glenn is doing the England job at a very young age. If he'd done something else after Chelsea it might have been better. It's likely in 10 years' time, he'll think 'Christ, I wish I'd waited'. Having said that, apart from just a couple of things, Glenn's not been far away from getting it right."

This year will be a daunting one for the England coach, particularly with the departure of two of his staunchest advocates, the FA chairman, Keith Wiseman, and its chief executive, Graham Kelly. Should England fail to qualify for Euro 2000, it is likely that he will walk the plank demanded by huge national expectancy. With a lack of replacements actually willing to do the job, there would undoubtedly be a clamour - led no doubt by the Chelsea chairman, FA councillor and outside contender for the FA chairmanship - for the man who took England to the semi-finals of the 1996 European Championship to finish the job he started but failed to complete because Lancaster Gate did not extend his contract.

The fact that he emerged with reputation intact from Euro 96, and has discarded much of the baggage of litigation that surrounded that tenure, his restoration would not be out of the question. Understandably however, he doesn't encourage such a debate. "I can live with myself very happily with what I did for England and I read these things, but nothing's been said to me. It's just conjecture to fill papers. As far as I'm concerned I've got a job to do and I'm doing it."

That job, a second term at Selhurst Park, materialised after Venables combined the chairmanship of Portsmouth with coaching the Australian national side in a dual role which required him to be a kangaroo of the airlines.

Most of the time, his East End humour and natural gregariousness overcomes any irritation, but just occasionally Venables can be prickly. If there is one thing that exasperates him it is anyone questioning the wisdom of that Australia mission. "I loved it. Taking everything involved, even not qualifying, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Everybody thought that Australia couldn't play, but we proved that wasn't true."

Venables admits that he and his wife, Yvette, could happily have stayed on in Australia, but the offer from the Palace chairman, Mark Goldberg, proved irresistible. Whether it would have proved quite so attractive if he knew then what he knows now is a different matter. The Eagles are at present hovering rather than soaring and Venables admitted: "I've got to say I haven't enjoyed some parts of it. Originally, there was quite a lot of money to spend and Mark said to me 'Could you get promotion with this?' and I said 'Yes'. Well, it never materialised. But I wasn't going to run away from the challenge, although it's obviously going to take a little bit longer. Because of what's happened the up-side is that we've had, kids come through, who will take time but will be excellent players."

The younger contingent include, of course, the highly regarded Matt Jansen, the 21-year-old forward from Carlisle, who had the temerity to turn down Alex Ferguson. Not once but twice. But he has already been linked with Newcastle among others and if Palace have to sell he would be the obvious principal source of finance.

Venables won't confirm that possibility, but added: "I'm not blaming anyone for the situation. Mark had problems in his takeover and got stretched a little bit. The fact is that we can't buy at the moment and that pressurises the situation. But all relationships get pressurised and what's important is whether it breaks down or gets stronger, whether it's the girlfriend, boss or whatever. But I intend to work through this."

Venables added: "I do understand Mark's problem because I went to Portsmouth on the basis that two guys were going to put in pounds 2m each. That's the only reason I went there, but when I got there they'd disappeared. It left me in a very similar position because I'd never professed to have the money in the first place, only the expertise." Of that quality, even his most fervent critics cannot deny, there is an abundance which could yet see the Eagles flying back to the Premier League.