Rich legacy of a modernist

close-up: Terry Venables; England's memorable displays have silenced the detractors of their dignified coach.
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You have been roundly criticised both personally and professionally for more than two years now, the questioner began. Does it now give you satisfaction that England's semi-final place in Euro 96 has forced some people to backtrack? "Yes it does," Terry Venables said with understatement. "It doesn't make me the best coach but it doesn't make me a fraudulent one."

Those of us able to resist everything except temptation would probably have welcomed heatedly this opportunity on the flat morning after the epic night before to stick up a middle digit to the detractors. Instead, Venables savoured with a satisfied dignity his restored reputation as a coach.

Criticism of English football's figurehead is inevitable and indeed healthy much of the time; as one football writer once said in exasperation to an unhelpful Sir Alf Ramsey: "It's our team, too, you know." And some of what Venables has mostly stoically endured since becoming England's coach on 28 January 1994, has been constructive, justified and noted. More of it, however, has been personal, spiteful and wayward.

The impossible job, his predecessor Graham Taylor called it. Venables himself does not agree. By adhering to a strategy that may not always have been evident in his business life, allying intelligence and thought to the traditional virtues of morale and persistence, Venables has restored the belief that England can compete capably internationally. He may not have been the messiah, but he took the mess out of it all.

Venables was soon aware of what awaited him when he went to an international coaches' conference in Lisbon a month after taking over a job he wanted but thought had passed him by when he turned 50 three years ago. "Two people in particular were taking the piss," he recalled last week. Their assessment of the English game acted as a spur for the former Spur, as have since the descriptions of him closer to home as myth and fraud.

On Thursday Venables, in an "everyone's entitled to their opinion" mood, cheerily shook hands with some of his fiercest critics in the media centre at England's Bisham Abbey training ground, before going on to clear out his desk at the FA and pack away the Subbuteo table in his office. Then it was back to his karaoke haven, Scribes West club in Kensington - not quite the selectorial nerve centre cited by some. Venables may have been loyal and had favourite players but he recognised that this was too important a job and tournament to show misguided faith in mates.

He can probably afford to be magnanimous, not only because of England's comparative success under him. Court cases involving his former employer Alan Sugar, against whom he claims unfair dismissal from Tottenham, the Daily Mirror and Panorama may intrude on his winter but he is not likely to be short of job offers in deciding how to fill in the time around them. Porto, Napoli and Paris St Germain have been mooted.

It has been the skill on the training ground and organisation of a team that has merited them; Sugar may well have had a point when he told Venables to stick to that and stay away from the finances and running of Tottenham Hotspur. Though Venables has never been able to resist potentially lucrative ventures that stretch his interest and capabilities, he has rediscovered in his time with the national team an appetite for the hands-on.

"The year or so prior to taking on the job has helped me to become more resilient," he also believes. "In fact it has been a tough three or four years but these experiences make you stronger. If you never have a bad experience, when you get one you can't handle it."

Character and personality have been important factors. If Venables is evangelical about the game, he is from the charismatic wing. Those close to him find him utterly engaging; a source of jealousy to those not so blessed, though until latterly in his tenure he constantly refused to impart exclusive information even to favoured journalists.

He has an unignorable presence. At a hotel in Barcelona where he was working for ITV at Manchester United's Champions' League match, it was remarkable to see the lobby light up at the arrival of "Meester Terry". It counted for much in winning the respect of players. His Ramseyesque refusal to criticise his players in public - for poor performances or behaviour, both now apparently forgotten - may have annoyed those seeking morsels and morality but it enabled him to retain that respect. He was once asked if the players were worried about being exposed, and criticised, in England's more progressive approach. "I've told them not to worry because I will take the stick," he replied.

Mostly he deflected it with a sharp and ready wit to defy all but the most persistent. His favourite comic character is the ducking-and-diving Sergeant Bilko, the name Venables gave to his Pyrennean mountain dog when in Barcelona: "I know, I know. It should have been a Doberman."

Such an easy manner won him an indulgence never accorded Taylor, despite not having as good a playing record going into a European Championship finals competition. Or so said the critics. Actually, for many of us it was simply the conviction that here was a coach willing to cast aside the recent wreckage and modernise England.

It seemed that Venables had noted and learned from Ramsey's and Taylor's contrasting methods of dealing with media relations; the one too closed, the other too open. He also took from the trends in world football, seeking to instil the team spirit of Norway and the Republic of Ireland and to distill the more sophisticated elements of Brazil, Holland and Germany.

"An attractive side with common sense," was his aim, he told me in an early interview. "There is this mistaken idea that England should be some kind of Showbiz XI." He remained a pragmatist, as his respected rather than flamboyant teams at Queen's Park Rangers, Barcelona and Tottenham revealed. What did he most admire about Germany, he was asked last week? "Their results," he replied.

Mostly the good-humoured Essex boy smile was on view after the Germans' ability to find a way out of adversity had again been demonstrated. But you feel sure that when he goes on holiday this week, after watching the final, the private melancholic side of his personality said to stem from his Welsh ancestry will naturally surface.

Consolation in the grief will come with the satisfaction of a job sadly uncompleted but performed well. We await a winter of Terry Venables's name being trailed through the courtroom mire as he seeks to clear it; but it would be a brave, more probably foolish, media fraud squad or footballing jury who would convict now.

Best of times, worst of times

Highs

1 18 June 1996. England 4 Holland 1.

2 15 June 1996. England 2 Scotland 0. Faith shown in Paul Gascoigne is repaid.

3 22 June 1996. England 0 Spain 0 (4-2 on pens). Enhancing his standing at home and in the country where he enjoyed most success as a coach - with Barcelonal.

4 11 June 1995. England 1 Brazil 3. Venables's only defeat in his 23 matches, but he saw signs that the plan was coming together.

5 26 June 1996. England 1 Germany 1 (lost 6-5 on pens). Great performance.

Lows

1 17 December 1995. FA international committee's Noel White denies Venables his request for a new contract before Euro 96.

2 30 October 1994. Panorama programme that investigated Venables's tangled business dealings screened.

3. 15 February 1995. England fans riot in Dublin.

4 May 1996. Telling five of his squad in Hong Kong that they would be dropped for the championship and coming back to TV and tequila row.

5 26 June 1996. England 1 Germany 1 (lost 6-5 on pens). Bad result.

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