Why the FA runs scared of Venables

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The Independent Online

"Are you the Messiah?" screeched the Monty Python character in Life of Brian. It's a question likely to be heard all across Europe as the Football Association casts its net for a successor to Kevin Keegan. It is ironic that some of the men chosen by its chief executive, Adam Crozier, to help in the search are representatives of the same Premier League which looked askance when Keegan, perfectly reasonably, wanted to arrange some friendly matches in preparation for Euro 2000.

"Are you the Messiah?" screeched the Monty Python character in Life of Brian. It's a question likely to be heard all across Europe as the Football Association casts its net for a successor to Kevin Keegan. It is ironic that some of the men chosen by its chief executive, Adam Crozier, to help in the search are representatives of the same Premier League which looked askance when Keegan, perfectly reasonably, wanted to arrange some friendly matches in preparation for Euro 2000.

This problem of conflict of interest is endemic in English football. How can the Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, a member of Crozier's think tank, remain objective when Arsÿne Wenger, so crucial to success at Highbury, is one of the leading candidates to be offered the position as England coach? Crozier has made it clear that he will consider non-Englishmen, but what if the Messiah cannot be found in the ranks of the foreigners? After all, both those best qualified, the ones who know the English game most intimately, Wenger and Liverpool's Gérard Houllier, have said they are not interested.

Will he turn to the one available Englishman who has already proved himself in the job? Some observers, including even Terry Venables himself, have stated that his chances are adversely affected by a personality clash with the FA international committee chairman, Noel White. The issue actually goes much deeper than that, to the very culture of the FA and the way its senior people perceive the organisation. Not only do they see the FA as the game's moral guardians, but they also believe it should be taking on a much wider role as a force for good in society. This is all very admirable, but it makes those people particularly nervous when someone pens some sanctimonious humbug about Venables' business ethics or Glenn Hoddle's alleged crankiness.

Venables thought he had antagonised White last time round when he challenged him about some press comments attributed to White after a judge had damned Venables' evidence in court as "wanton"; or alternatively, White had taken against him because his old friend and business partner, Peter Swales, had had his fingers burned at Manchester City by one of Venables' mentors, Malcolm Allison.

None of these trivialities are relevant, for White, a gentleman and a gentle man, has merely inadvertently acted as a lightning conductor for the embarrassment his colleagues feel when Venables is portrayed as a cross between Arthur Daley and Reggie Kray or Hoddle comes across as Doris Stokes.

I know the FA will want to be seen as acting decisively, but when it went quickly for Keegan, its chairman, Geoff Thompson, knew full well its largesse could be followed by tears. And so it proved, with Keegan, surprisingly in view of his solid northern roots, wildly inconsistent and shallow in his comments to the press. First he was staying at Fulham, then he left; first nobody would have to tell him when his time with England was up, then he would have to be kicked out; then he went.

The FA should forget the notion that it is dealing with the appointment of the next Bishop of London or the Governor of the Bank of England. It is "only" a football coach, for heaven's sake. Give it to the man you know can do the job. It's not even a gamble.

Venables loves the game deeply. It is has been his life, despite the diversions which have provided so much fodder for his critics. I am ashamed to have to admit that I had my original view of him coloured by some critical images and, despite having known him since his days as a Professional Footballers' Association representative in the 1970s, did not advance his case forcibly enough when Bobby Robson resigned in 1990. Still, the FA chairman at the time, Sir Bert Millichip, was of the opinion that Venables would only join the FA over his dead body.

Venables is a much deeper, more interesting character than the chirpy personality with the ready smile we see on our television screens. He can be very prickly to the point of unreasonableness when criticised unfairly, but rarely holds a grudge for long. The last time we met we chatted amicably for some minutes, then suddenly his brow furrowed. "I've just remembered", he said, "I'm cross with you. When Hoddle left you said Jack the Ripper had more chance of getting the job than me." We soon smoothed things over, for Keegan had been in the FA's sights last time.

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