Lessons of the long goodbye

The night before the European Championship draw, Terry Venables told Graham Kelly he intended to resign from the England job. Twenty-five days later the country was let in on the secret. Ian Ridley pieces together a dramatic story
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The Independent Online
SATURDAY 16 December 1995 was not to be Graham Kelly's day. Nor, it was to transpire, English football's.

Outside Villa Park, the chief executive of the Football Association could not find a taxi to take him back to the Hyatt Regency hotel. Four Coventry City fans, who had just seen their team beaten 4-1 by Aston Villa, obligingly offered him a lift. When the group reached the car, they found it vandalised and Kelly sat in the back with the chill assaulting him through a shattered window. It was a good preparation for the feelings he was about to experience.

After gratefully buying the group a drink back at the hotel, Kelly went up to Terry Venables's room to say hello, the England coach having not long arrived in Birmingham for the next day's European Championship finals draw.

There he learnt that Venables did not feel able to stay on after Euro 96 in the summer. Kelly was as stunned and saddened as the rest of the nation's footballing community appears to have been over the past four days - with the probable exception of Matthew Le Tissier.

"My response was 'Have you made your decision or are you telling me your concerns?' " Kelly recalls. "He said: 'Well, I've talked it over with my wife and I have made my decision.' I told him that he had better let me think about it."

The following evening, after the draw, a meeting was arranged at Venables's request with Noel White, the chairman of the FA's international committee. Sir Bert Millichip, the FA chairman, and Kelly were also there. Though Sir Bert and Kelly repeated their desire to see his contract extended, Venables remained unconvinced that he had the full backing of the 15-man international committee.

The roots of the trouble were laid in October in Oslo. Before England's match against Norway, Venables discussed the prospect of a new contract with Sir Bert and Kelly. He was not especially concerned by the press questioning whether he had told the truth about an approach from Internazionale of Milan, but reactions from the international committee caused him "reservations on certain issues".

They were to grow over the next two months. White and another committee member, the chairman of Oldham Athletic, Ian Stott, publicly expressed their concern over continuing litigation concerning Venables, as did another who was quoted anonymously. They became more worried after a comparatively short and minor case in which a judge damningly and damagingly questioned Venables's evidence.

Venables was also worried. If they were "wobbly" now, how might it be next autumn? There were more involved cases to be fought, against Alan Sugar for wrongful dismissal from Tottenham Hotspur, and Sugar's libel action against Venables and the publishers of his autobiography, as well as libel actions against the Daily Mirror and Panorama.

He voiced such thoughts to Kelly on 21 December but again the chief executive asked him to reconsider. Venables was going on holiday to the Middle East state of Oman on 2 January for a week and Kelly suggested they met again after the break.

When Venables returned early last Tuesday he felt no different and told Kelly as much in a midday meeting at Lancaster Gate. A solicitor, Charles Woodhouse, had been engaged by the FA as a mediator in an attempt to resolve the differences between Sugar and Venables. He was about to meet the Tottenham chairman again and Kelly asked Venables to hold off for another 24 hours.

On Wednesday at 10am, Kelly and Venables sat through a one-hour meeting about dates for World Cup qualifying matches, then two and a half hours of a technical control board meeting. Finally, at 1.40pm, they got some time together. "I gave Terry a summary of the mediator's report," Kelly said. "In Terry's mind, insufficient progress had been made. We had reached the end of all considerations. We shook hands and he offered to help his successor. It was all over in five minutes. There was nothing else to discuss."

And so at 4.15pm, at the Royal Lancaster Hotel near FA headquarters, Kelly and the director of public affairs, David Davies, announced to the press that Terry Venables would not be seeking an extension of his contract as England coach beyond Euro 96. In other words, he was resigning the job that he had begun almost two years previously, on 28 January 1994.

It is tempting to look for villains at the end of the episode, to suggest that three men who have never kicked a ball at the highest level - Alan Sugar, Noel White and Ian Stott - have contributed to the downfall of a promising coach who might have brought the nation some sporting success this summer and who might have gone on to restore some credibility in the World Cup.

And indeed there is a sadness on the part of this correspondent at Venables's impending departure. There may be gripes about a player here, a selection there, but Venables had begun to bring a more thoughtful approach to the England team in line with the tactical nuances employed by more enlightened and successful nations.

Whatever the questions surrounding his business ventures, dealings and acumen, his ability to mould a football team to face differing challenges presented by differing opposition has brought progress. It was an ability championed by those within the game, even if football is far too important to be left to experts. Certainly his players believed in his more sophisticated ideas, though the public jury may still be out.

But one can hardly blame White and Stott for seeing it as their duty to raise issues, even if some of their concern was that their powers might be bypassed by Kelly and Sir Bert's negotiation of a new contract for the coach. Venables has not had charge of a competitive match yet, but he could not be expected to wait for the outcome of Euro 96 before being rehired. And what would have been the reaction had England lost a World Cup qualifier this autumn with him otherwise engaged, court in the act?

Then there is Sugar. Both he and Venables are strong and proud characters bound on wheels of fortune and one is tempted to say that what they could benefit from having their heads knocking together. Venables may be the more charismatic figure but Sugar may also have a case that extends beyond the pages of the Daily Mirror. We will not know until later this year.

There is no real villain, it seems, only pockets of blame scattered through the whole business. Compromise has not been sufficiently countenanced by any party and once again English football looks murky.

GRAHAM KELLY left his home near Peterborough at 6am last Thursday to suffer - with some grace - the advice and arrows of a phone-in on Radio 5 Live. Soon after the programme's end, with an invitation to "come into the bunker and talk to besieged of Lancaster Gate", he was sipping from a coffee mug inscribed "It's a funny old game" in his office at the FA and outlining the succession.

Early this week a sub- committee comprising Kelly, Sir Bert Millichip, Noel White and two members of the FA council will be formed to decide on a new coach. "Yes, it will be a coach not a manager," Kelly said. "We see it as a tracksuit job. That was a policy decision, it wasn't just because it was Terry Venables, as some people suggested."

Kelly is also likely to talk to Jimmy Armfield, who was taken on by the FA as a technical consultant to canvass opinionwhen a successor to Graham Taylor was sought.

They are also likely to tap into Venables's experience, starting this week in Warsaw. The coach will travel to the fixtures meeting of the countries in qualifying Group Two for the World Cup - Italy, England, Poland, Georgia and Moldova - even though he will not be involved in the matches. "We need his input," Kelly said. "We need to know what time of year a coach wants to play certain opponents, what pattern of fixtures he would want."

The FA expects to make the appointment before the start of the European Championship finals, though the new man will have no input into the team until afterwards - unless, of course, the man is Venables's assistant, Bryan Robson. "He needs to be watching Italy," Kelly said. "And with a qualifying match likely on 1 September, he needs to be thinking about Moldova, Georgia and Poland."

The prospect of Sir Bert helping to choose a coach has drawn criticism, since the chairman is expected to stand down this summer. Kelly counters: "His experience and guidance will be invaluable but his will not be the only voice in the discussion and debate.

In what is a potentially momentous year for the FA, there is also the recruitment of a technical director to consider. "There are four or five candidates, not all from this country," Kelly said. Though there is now a more urgent vacancy to consider, the hope remains to have him in place for the start of next season.

CONTINUITY has been the buzzword in the aftermath of Terry Venables's resignation, so impressed have the FA been with the coach's modernisation programme. Graham Kelly said: "The new man will definitely be an Englishman." They would like to make a smooth transition in terms of style of play as well as personnel, which would make Bryan Robson the leading contender. He has been working as a coach under Venables for the past two years.

With sharp, shuttling players such as Nicky Barmby and Juninho playing off a lead striker, his pattern of play at Middlesbrough is influenced by Venables's ideas. Not only that; as a former England captain and now coach, he has witnessed at first hand the various demands of the job.

"There are certainly few who appreciate the pressures until they have done the job or observed it at close hand, the way he can be pulled in this direction or that," Graham Kelly said. "It can be Bisham Abbey and the training ground one minute, TV the next, press conference here, team meeting there, standing by the carousel at Luton airport."

So Robson brings the necessary baggage, and his making the right noises last week - flattered, but just an apprentice; happy at Middlesbrough - did not include the response "definitely not interested". It does occur, though, that Venables need not go at all: if Robson is deemed capable enough, he could take care of the team in the short term, for a couple of matches in October and November. And hang media criticism. There is precedent at a lower level: Dave Sexton was unable last season to take charge of the Under-21 team for personal reasons for a while and Kevin Keegan stepped in.

Amid all the routine "not-me-guv" statements by such as Gerry Francis and Glenn Hoddle last week, it was only Keegan's that carried any real conviction. Howard Wilkinson also said two years ago that the job would not be to his taste.

But for all the potential turbulence of "the impossible job", and Terry Venables has probably experienced more than even Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor, it should remain a task that any brave and ambitious football man would want, indeed might live to regret not taking. When England call, surely the right man will answer.