Sugar feud is a bitter burden for Venables

DOWNFALL OF A COACH: Allegations of malpractice at Spurs and in business have haunted England's leader, says David Hellier
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The Independent Online
Y esterday's decision by Terry Venables to quit his job as England coach appears to signal the final chapter in a troubled era of the English game.

Venables has by and large drawn approving reviews for his work in rehabilitating the national team after the debacle of the Graham Taylor reign, but throughout his period at the helm, acclaim for his footballing achievements has been overshadowed by allegations about his business methods.

Venables' troubles began in early 1993 when he fell out with Alan Sugar, his chosen partner for a "dream team" which had earlier rescued Tottenham Hotspur from the clutches of the late Robert Maxwell, and the wrath of the Midland Bank, which was owed more than pounds 10m and threatening bankruptcy.

The Venables-Sugar partnership appeared to provide an answer to the club's financial problems. Venables, a minor businessman and proven football coach, had managed to persuade one of Britain's most successful and ruthless businessman to back his financial takeover of Tottenham.

Venables raised money for the rescue package and appeared to have the potential to make himself a rich man, and at the same time to make Tottenham supporters forever in his debt.

But it was not to be.

By May 1993, Venables' rapidly deteriorating relationship with Sugar ended dramatically; in a classic boardroom coup that had been planned over a number of weeks. Sugar, the money man, forced his chief executive, Venables out of the club, with the help of fellow directors who had turned against him.

Instead of going quietly and accepting a pay-off, Venables chose to take the case to the High Court, thereby gaining temporary reinstatement. Outside the court supporters rallied to his cause. Inside, an incandescent Sugar made allegations about Venables' business practices and anything else he could throw at his opponent. After a three-day hearing, Venables was defeated and had to pay costs.

The bust-up at Tottenham caught the imagination of the media, which was taking an increasing interest in the more controversial antics in the boardrooms of some of Britain's top football clubs. Football has always been marked by some rough and ready business practices. But in the past few years, as the game has grown rich through television deals, there is far more money to play around with.

In the autumn of 1993 Venables' public image was greatly damaged by a BBC Panorama programme and a Channel Four documentary, which appeared within days of one another and both focused on the two feuding football figures.

Venables denied the serious and detailed allegations made in the programmes, and still has two writs outstanding against the BBC (an Italian restaurateur and friend of Venables named in the Panorama programme has already accepted a substantial sum by way of damages against the corporation for this and a further programme screened in November of the following year).

The Venables camp believes that the Sugar camp provided the impetus for some of the allegations in those two programmes and, whatever the truth of that claim, there has been a stream of damaging allegations against Venables since then, which he has spent a great deal of time, effort and money attempting to refute.

Three months after the programmes, and despite considerable unease in certain quarters, the Football Association named Venables as coach of the England team on 28 January 1994. Beginning with a victory over Denmark, England were widely seen as making footballing progress under Venables, but almost immediately there were reverses on the business side. In May 1993 Venables lost a High Court battle with Sugar to have his main wholly owned business vehicle, Edennote, wound up.

In August, the police began an inquiry into allegations that Venables paid the former Nottingham Forest manager, Brian Clough, a pounds 50,000 bribe to arrange the transfer of a player from Forest. In November, a second Panorama programme made further allegations about his business dealings. The police investigation into the bribe allegation was dropped before the programme.

Officially the FA backed Venables, but in the last 12 months Venables has become increasingly unsure of the support of all members of the members of the International Committee.

Venables' problems appeared to grow in 1995, climaxing in a particularly damaging December. First, the Department of Trade and Industry wrote saying that it was to start proceedings to disqualify Venables as a director. (Venables' solicitor, Ian Burton, claimed the DTI's intention would not affect his client's preparation for the European Championship).

The DTI wrote two letters to the England coach, one advising him it was not proposing to bring any criminal proceedings against him in connection with his company, Edennote, and the other advising him it would be starting disqualification proceedings against him.

The damaging letter contained the following: "It appears to the Secretary of State that your conduct as a director of the above named companies [Scribes West, Edennote, Tottenham Hotspur and Tottenham Hotspur Football and Athletic Club] makes you unfit to be considered in the management of a company and that it is expedient in the public interest that a disqualification order should be made against you."

Then, in a court case which Venables lost against a businessman who was suing Scribes West, his west London club, the judge said some of the England coach's evidence had been "wanton" and "not entirely reliable to put it at its most charitable".

Friends of Venables were saying yesterday that the England coach had been offered a new contract - to take him up to the World Cup in 1998 - and that the contract would reflect a higher remuneration package than he is currently on (above pounds 200,000 a year, they say). But they said that he was unhappy about signing a new deal without being sure that he could count on the support of the whole committee or at least count on the committee putting on a unified public face.

"You would expect members of the committee to be rebuked for being quoted publicly questioning Terry's judgement when the FA is said to be officially backing him," a friend said last night.

The same source denied that his decision to quit after Euro 96 was influenced by a desire to have more time to continue his fight against Sugar and to continue trying to clear his name. "He has enough friends and advisers to do that for him," one source said.

The whole affair has been an extraordinary saga, with tabloid newspapers, lining up for and against Venables, and for and against Sugar. Maybe Venables is hoping that once he has quit the most high-profile job in English football, his past business affairs will command rather less attention.