Stunned Venables has smile wiped from his face by Swiss

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The Independent Online
In his public appearances last week Terry Venables managed to look like the popular idea of a man who has things worked out to his satisfaction. Bets on England to win Euro 96 were probably struck on the strength of his sunny disposition.

Saturday brought about a dramatic change in Venables's demeanour. The smile went from his face, the twinkle from his eyes; a man stunned by reality.

Things may yet work out the way Venables must have imagined but his expression was one of serious disappointment. Not just with the result, two points dropped, but a renewed awareness of shortcomings, individual and collective.

It has been fashionable recently to make a comparison between England's participation in Euro 96 and events 30 years ago that resulted in their only major championship.

As I remember it now, there were a number of critical differences. For example, because a number of countries had to travel vast distances, coming up against difficulties in adjustment, playing on home soil provided England with a greater advantage than they enjoy presently. Another was that Wembley invariably had an intimidating effect on the opposition. "You could see it in their eyes when they came out on the field," Jack Charlton said.

After Saturday's match I spoke about this with the former Celtic and Scotland hero, Billy McNeil, who is following Euro 96 as a radio analyst. "There are so many great football stadiums around the world now, so many international matches, that teams are no longer nervous about playing at Wembley," he said. "I don't think it bothered Switzerland at all."

A similarity between now and then is that Venables began with an unsatisfactory draw as Alf Ramsey did in 1966, against Uruguay. Next day, coming under heavy fire in newspapers and on television, the England squad visited Elstree film studios where they met up with Sean Connery who advised indifference to criticism. "For Christ's sake, you didn't lose," he said.

Going on from there, and with a couple of changes in complement, England defeated Mexico and France to qualify comfortably for the quarter-finals.

A big difference now is that qualification looks a lot more difficult, especially as Venables does not have the core of outstanding players Ramsey could call on. Before the 1966 World Cup got under way Gordon Banks, Ray Wilson, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton would have been difficult to dislodge from a world XI but when the Coventry manager, Ron Atkinson, was asked last week to select a team from the Euro 96 players, Paul Ince was the only Englishman.

England's record - just one championship in 46 years compared with Germany's six and a total of 10 appearances in major finals - hardly justified the expectations that accompanied them into Saturday's opener.

The chief technical problem confronting Venables is that action in the Premiership does not allow for the patience required in international football and that the public are conditioned to more urgent activity than they witnessed on Saturday. When Venables spoke last week about patience he was not thinking only of his players.

Walking away from Wembley you got the impression that England's supporters were more puzzled than disgruntled. This, I think, is because they have been influenced by the quite ridiculous stridency of television promotion, and subjective punditry.

Goodness knows where all this will lead, but on the evidence of England's second-half performance, the surfacing of bad habits that allowed Switzerland space in which to seize the initiative, there was an unavoidable sense that it could all end in tears.

We are not talking about strategy here, formations and tactical deployment, issues that are all too often irritatingly central to today's thoughts about football.

It is about fundamentals, mainly passing the ball to someone in the same coloured shirt. "Come on, we can all do that," I remember an England international complaining when told to take part in a simple passing practice. The answer was as obvious as it should be to any of the England players who do not think that Saturday's performance justifies a swift return to basics.