Watching Venables cross the street to a hotel opposite Scribes, the dining club he has in west London, I could not see any perceptible change in him. Tanned features spoke of a relaxed summer and, if anything, he looked leaner. Jaunty as ever, he waved cheerily to a group of workmen who called out his name. "So where's the fat man?" I asked. "And what's this about a complex?"
A broad smile crossed Venables's face. "That was really funny," he chuckled. "I was having a pop at someone who has written vicious things about me, but the woman who came to do the article thought I was talking about myself. Completely backfired. Well, you live and learn. But no harm done."
We were sitting in the lounge of the hotel, looking out on a bright autumn day and it was about eleven o'clock in the morning. I was watching Venables. I was watching him sit there in a straight-backed chair, dapper as ever, drawing reflectively on a cigar, and I had it all figured out for myself.
This is a guy, I was thinking to myself, who wishes that it had been possible to continue coaching England, who misses being involved at the highest level of football. "I don't regret walking away because once I realised that I didn't have the full backing of the Football Association it was the only thing to do," he said, "but when I think of what was achieved in Euro 96 and the improvements I had in mind, how keen the players are to take ideas on board, there is bound to be some sadness."
Last week Venables was in Turin to watch Manchester United play Juventus in the Champions League. Working for television he admired a lot in the play of the Italians, especially provision of support for tacklers. "It's one of the things, probably the next thing, I would have worked on with the England team," he said. "It's not just a case of sending two in after the ball because if the back-up man doesn't position himself correctly both of them can get stranded."
With time for reflection it occurs to Venables that coaches generally are far too sensitive about technical criticism from within the game. "I guess most of us have been guilty of that from time to time, it's only natural. But there is a lot to be gained from the opinions of other professionals. I don't mean off the cuff remarks that are easily drummed up into newspaper headlines, but solid stuff that can get you thinking."
As an example, there is a story from a course conducted in Sweden recently by the former Scotland manager, Andy Roxborough who is now Fifa's director of coaching. Disagreeing violently with a point Roxborough was attempting to put over, the famed Dutch coach, Rinus Michels bellowed, "Rubbish". "I'm sure Andy was upset," Venables smiled, "but where's the point in inviting someone of Michels's stature and expecting him not to be critical."
The humour subsided in Venables when he thought about a different form of criticism. His latest book The Best Game In The World (Century pounds 15.99), published last week, targets four newspapermen who have been consistently hostile. "Anybody was entitled to disagree with the teams I selected for England and the tactics, but there was some vicious personal stuff from people who did not have the bottle to front me. So I thought, what the hell, I'll name them, bring their obvious prejudice into the open."
People look for things in Venables that aren't there. Affability for sure, street wisdom too, but a common impression of brashness conceals a streak of Celtic melancholy inherited from his Welsh born mother and a serious side to his nature.
The recent death of his closest friend, the former Fulham player Bobby Keetch, was a blow from which Venables will take a long time to recover. It had a profound effect on him. "Bobby was so full of life, so warm-hearted, I still can't believe he's not there with his terrific family, that I'm never again going pick up the telephone and hear his voice, see him walk into a room and light it up with a smile," he said.
Venables last saw Keetch alive two days after Germany eliminated England at the semi-final stage of Euro 96, defeating them on penalties. "We had dinner with our wives on the Friday and I arranged to see him the Saturday night. He had a brain haemorrhage the next day. Gone. I was numb. I keep thinking about how enthusiastic Bobby was about England's performances, especially when we beat the Netherlands. He thought it was the best England had played for many years. That was really important to me. Not just because Bobby was a former professional player who did well for Fulham as a centre- half in the old First Division, but because in his many travels he'd seen a lot of international football."
A view held at the time - I happened to share it - was that the Netherlands were a team riven by dressing room strife and lacking heart. "That really pisses me off," Venables said. "For instance, I remember Tony Adams saying that Dennis Bergkamp was more physical than he's ever been for Arsenal. The Dutch didn't give us that game, we had to take it away from them by playing our best football.
"By then we had pretty much got things together. The three central defenders were comfortable playing close together and if one of the flank men had to move out and deal with danger, Paul Ince dropped back into the space. We had Teddy Sheringham in a position where he could make up the numbers in midfield but still stay in touch with Alan Shearer. There were times when we had to adapt but the players were never asked to do anything with which they weren't entirely comfortable."
Venables looks back on Euro 96 as his best experience in football. "Going into I knew that I was more deeply involved in the game than ever before, and the tournament didn't disappoint me. Of course, you can't say that you have done it all until you have coached in a World Cup, but it was very exciting. The one bad thing was the way we went out. If you lose on penalties it leaves a sense that you haven't won, you haven't lost. You're left in limbo. You haven't really lost the game, but history will show that you didn't reach the final."
Since then Venables has had time for self-appraisal. "I've had a rest, but it's not been a case of re-charging the batteries. All the enthusiasm for football is still there and once I get things sorted out [he insists that a libel action brought by Alan Sugar has been settled, but the actions Venables is bringing against the Daily Mirror and Panorama have still to be heard] I'm sure I'll get back to coaching."
Shortly after Euro 96 he rejected a tentative offer from Bilbao. "I quite fancied the idea, because I like that part of Spain and Bilbao are a club with a lot of tradition. Trouble was that I felt things here would take up too much of my time. Another club were willing to give me six weeks off to settle the legal business but I didn't think it wise to accept. Actually I've got more time than I imagined."
Meanwhile, Venables is acting as Portsmouth's director of football. "I've known Terry Fenwick since he first played for my youth team at Crystal Palace and I enjoy helping him out. We went through some things on the training ground, and despite what people may think I don't have a problem with coaching at that level. Coaching is coaching. It's my belief that all players can be improved technically and there is a great deal of satisfaction in seeing it happen"
A week ago Venables was made a very good offer to manage one of his old clubs, Queen's Park Rangers. "I was interested," he said "but they weren't prepared to give me more than a day to think about it. At this time I'd rather not make fast decisions. It would be silly to rush into anything. I enjoyed doing the book and working for television helps to keep me fully in touch with the game. It's possible that I'll go abroad again, but in any case, when the right opportunity comes along I'll be ready for it."Reuse content