Self-sacrifice may be a masterstroke

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The Independent Online
I BLAME the lawyers. If they had shown any reasonable speed off the mark, the thicket of writs in which Terry Venables finds himself entangled would surely have been cut down to a more manageable level by now. Sadly, our legal system has proved to be even slower than the England back four and the poor man had to submit his career as national coach to a painful do-it-yourself death sentence last week to buy himself the respite he needs for the job he was hired to do.

It was a correct and courageous decision. A lesser man would have run away screaming long ago but Venables looked commendably composed when attending to his duties as assessor during ITV's coverage of the Arsenal v NewcastleCoca-Cola Cup quarter-final and he made a coherent explanation of the sensational announcement he had made earlier that day.

I thought at the time how ironic it was that, even as he spoke, members of the two club managements were fighting over his job on the touchline. It was later discovered, however, that the cause of their fractious behaviour was not the forthcoming vacancy but the sending-off of Newcastle's David Ginola for discouraging Lee Dixon's close attention by sharp use of his elbow - the same joint favoured by that other French wizard Eric Cantona.

If Napoleon is watching from some far-off place he may be reflecting that if the French had made more use of their elbows at Waterloo the course of European history could have been dramatically changed. But let us not digress from the question that divides the country - has Venables's pre- emptive strike at his own jugular harmed the cause of English football in the year they are hosting the European Championship?

The answer, I suspect, depends on which side of the argument you find yourself because it is now difficult to occupy a comfortable seat on the fence. You either consider Venables a fit and proper leader regardless of his business adventures or you feel that such an important and high-profile post requires paragon qualities that he may well possess but which he has so far failed to protect against an orchestrated storm of allegation.

I am a staunch member of the pro-Venables camp. Admittedly, this is partly because of my personal regard for him and because I can't abide most of those ranged against him. Supporting this flimsy basis for my faith is the opinion that during the last 30 or more years Venables has contributed much in thought and action to the game.

He has always had an eye for tangential development, unfortunately, and it was this that enticed him into business and into the commercial side of football where lie deep and murky waters better suited to those who have developed the right type of gills. Would that he had kept his eye on the ball and not the boardroom table. Nevertheless, the Football Association correctly identified him as the obvious man for the England job and felt that the value of his credentials shone through the clouds that were pursuing him from his torrid time at Spurs. They probably thought, as many of us did, that any legal problems would have been cleared up long before the European Championship. Fat chance.

Before the England opportunity came up, Venables had been courted by the Welsh and perhaps he would have fared better there. Managing the Welsh team is a bit like joining the Foreign Legion - no questions are asked about the past. The English, however, take themselves far more seriously and the virulence of the campaign against him could not have been foreseen. Despite the efforts of the FA to mediate, there has been no sign of reconciliation with his main adversary Alan Sugar and the public have not been allowed to forget it thankschiefly to the Daily Mirror, home of the legendary Harry Harris.

Venables's closest colleagues at the FA have been commendably loyal but if a mistake has been made it was in discussing an extension of the coach's contract beyond Euro 96 and to include the 1998 World Cup. Reports of these discussions caused a bout of bristling among the members of the international committee. One or two made public their annoyance that they hadn't been consulted. Although there is nothing wrong with preliminary discussion before a matter is put before a committee, it doesn't pay to make the committeemen feel disregarded.

There is no more dangerous element in sports administration than self- importance, and the indignation that arose was interpreted by Venables as a lack of enthusiasm for the prospect of his long-term employment. Once that inference was fixed in his mind, he determined to end it all as soon as England's part in Euro 96 is over.

There is no better solution available but it has been spoilt by an unnecessary urgency to appoint a successor to lead England into the first batch of World Cup qualifying matches that will occur while Venables is facing a bunch of barristers. Why the rush? England's performance as hosts of the European Championship is far more important than the preliminary skirmishes of the 1998 World Cup.

To appoint his successor now would disturb the equilibrium of England's morale far more than the threat of Venables's departure. Indeed, if there was a chance he would stay if they won the trophy, what better incentive could the players have? If the team develop the siege mentality that helped carry their predecessors to triumph in the 1966 World Cup, we may look on his decision as a masterstroke.

Nobody seems to want the job, anyhow. Kevin Keegan, Bryan Robson, Glenn Hoddle and Gerry Francis have ruled themselves out. This is not surprising since the lucrative future is in managing clubs rather than country and no one would want to be seen as taking advantage of the incumbent's troubles.

I suggest the FA call off the search until after the Championship. But if England were to win the title, is it not imaginable that anyone else but Venables could be entrusted with the World Cup? Come to that, how many judges, cross- examining barristers and juries would dare be beastly to a saviour. If this miracle occurs, I shall have great pleasure in commending to Venables the words of one of our big lottery winners who was asked to identify the most immediate effect of his new-found millions. "The first thing I noticed," he said, "was a rapid increase in the number of people who can kiss my arse."

W E WERE delighted to learn of Ray Illingworth's opinion that the presence of the players' families in South Africa was a telling contribution to England's failure to win the Test series. This is a quality of excuse to which Ted Dexter never aspired. It also confirms what we've always thought; behind every unsuccessful man there is bound to be a woman.

C APTIVATING headline in the Daily Mail on Thursday read: "Why This Man Must Not Be Allowed To Ruin British Sport". It was over an article on Rupert Murdoch by David Mellor. Murdoch ought to be permitted the right of reply. They could even use the same headline.

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