Flair, hot air and the mystery of Venables

It would be awful if football were to end up mired in depravity like, for example, cricket
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The Independent Online

Predictably, the Sunday newspapers yesterday went to town on Sven Goran Eriksson and his appointment as England coach, although to my mind the really interesting story is not so much why he got the job as why Terry Venables did not. There was, after all, a rare consensus in football circles, at least among top players and managers, concluding that Tel was definitely the geezer to lead us to the Promised Land.

Predictably, the Sunday newspapers yesterday went to town on Sven Goran Eriksson and his appointment as England coach, although to my mind the really interesting story is not so much why he got the job as why Terry Venables did not. There was, after all, a rare consensus in football circles, at least among top players and managers, concluding that Tel was definitely the geezer to lead us to the Promised Land.

Yet the Football Association's seven wise men, if I may mix my Testaments, seemed to decide early on that, even if Tel could plot a route to the Promised Land, it would pass through too many shadowy back-streets to be entirely safe.

Why was this? Why the emphatic pro-Tel consensus, and why his equally emphatic rejection? The FA claims to have sounded out Premiership managers, for instance, yet we know, not least because Harry Redknapp said so, that fully 90 per cent of them endorsed Tel. Many England players evidently wanted him back, too, and he was the overwhelming choice of the fans.

I am reminded here of my late father, a passionate horse-racing enthusiast (somewhat to the detriment of our family income), indeed a one-time bookmaker. In 1974 and 1975 he resolutely refused to back Red Rum to win the Grand National, even though Rummy lived round the corner from us and trotted friskily past our front door every morning on the way to the beach, where Ginger McCain put him through his paces. Everyone else in Southport devotedly staked their mortgages on him, while the old man watched them with a mixture of pity and contempt. Eriksson's appointment - or rather, Tel's rejection - is a similar case of a supposedly clued-up minority rejecting a powerful combination of informed opinion and dewy-eyed sentiment. My dad was wrong to go against the flow. We have five years to decide whether the FA, too, was wrong.

As for the case for and more especially against Venables, I am neither brave nor daft enough to analyse it here. There are far too many libel lawyers circling. What I will say is that the much-maligned British press has emerged with credit from the Venables-for-England debate, in that both his supporters and his detractors have argued their cases with robust eloquence. It has been splendid to follow. And whereas I don't mind nailing my colours to the mast as a firm believer that it would have been foolish to bring back Tel, I'm rather sorry, for the sake of my entertainment over breakfast if not the well-being of the England football team, that the succession has now been settled.

For Tel's supporters, the likes of Jeff Powell in the Daily Mail, it was easy to champion his cause as a coach (England 4, Netherlands 1) yet much trickier to defend his integrity. After all, here is a man excoriated for dishonesty in an official government report, and banned for seven years from sitting on the board of even W C Bogg & Son, cistern manufacturers. For his detractors, such as Pat Collins in the Mail on Sunday, it was easy to damn his integrity but trickier to belittle his widely praised coaching flair (extravagantly lauded by such authorities as Gary Lineker).

In essence, his defenders insisted that his business dealings had no relevance to his stature as a football coach, while his critics clamoured that his record as a coach was grossly inflated - barely half-decent at domestic level and downright disappointing in the international arena, with England under-achieving in Euro 96, winning only two of five games in open play despite playing them all at Wembley.

One day, perhaps one day soon, we will learn in more detail why the FA rejected Tel. In the meantime, it seems reasonable to assume, from the inclusion of the emotive word "integrity" on its list of selection criteria, that it was concerned about football's reputation being besmirched. Now that, you might think, is a pointless exercise, like worrying about EastEnders getting gloomy. But I think the FA was right. It would be awful if football were to end up mired in corruption and depravity like, for example, cricket.

On which subject, having met Alec Stewart a few times, I do not believe for a second that he is guilty of taking a backhander from an Indian bookie. It is true that there was no pillar of moral rectitude more upright-seeming than Hansie Cronje, but I still can't believe it of Stewart. Clearly, though, illegal payments are rife in international cricket. In fact, it is my belief that only one major sport remains unblemished by scam and scandal. Consider two of the latest hoo-has disrupting the world of golf. Mark James binned a telegram from Nick Faldo. And last week, Sergio Garcia walked out of a pro-am because his amateur partner accused him of giving the wrong yardages. What would cricket and football give for outrages of that magnitude?

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