Venables deals nicely with the twin impostors

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The Independent Online
In the euphoric aftermatch of Tuesday's quite remarkable victory Terry Venables must have been tempted to display an air of smug satisfaction.

If vilified in newspapers, having their integrity questioned and called a fraud, as Venables was by one deeply prejudiced critic, most men, I think, would have found the temptation of raising two fingers irresistible.

Leaving aside Venables' subjective mishandling of the scandals that broke around England's squad before a ball was kicked in Euro 96 and the questionable decision to prepare with matches in China and Hong Kong, he was no less of a coach before securing a place in the quarter-finals.

Of all the appointments in sport few carry such an overwhelming sense of national responsibility as being coach of England, and as Venables has recently been called to account by avowed patriots, his predicament is precisely that identified by Alf Ramsey when coming under heavy fire after failing to qualify England for the 1974 World Cup finals. Managers get too much credit and therefore too much blame, the hero of 1966 said shortly before the Football Association fired him.

Stupidly, taking no account of the fact that Venables will hand over to Glenn Hoddle once England's fate is settled, one critic called for his dismissal after a poor performance in the opening group game against Switzerland.

Allowing for the fact that some coaches bring trouble upon themselves by going along enthusiastically with the idea that players are nothing without them, this may give you some idea of what men in charge of national teams are up against.

As with England's defeat of the Netherlands, one match can change everything. As recently as the first half against Scotland last Saturday people could be heard expressing doubts about Venables. How can the best coach in England fail to bring about improvement was, more or less, the essence of their appraisal. Some felt that False Messiah, the title of a vituperative book about Venables to be appropriate.

Consequently, Venables was in a position late on Tuesday to score off his most scathing antagonists. It must have taken a great deal not to take advantage of a situation that resulted in quite shameless hypocrisy in some quarters, but he backed off from the opportunity. A great team effort but don't let's get carried away was the tone of his response.

The point is that Venables sought the same from his players, worked on things that proved successful against the Netherlands when preparing for the games against Switzerland and Scotland. The improvement resulted probably from time spent together and the benefit of competitive experience after two years of friendly fixtures.

Expectations raised by England's superiority will not take into account factional disturbances in the Dutch camp and a general lack of commitment. It was pretty evident from their match against Switzerland at Villa Park last week that the Netherlands are not what they were cracked up to be, nowhere near the force they were in the Seventies and when winning the 1988 European Championship, but it did not come into Tuesday's excited reckoning.

Equally foolish is the suddenly rampant idea that England are a major force in the game. "Discretion is not what I expect from the press and television, nor from our supporters," Helmut Schon said when preparing West Germany for the 1974 World Cup finals. His successors, including the national hero, Franz Beckenbauer, came under even greater pressure. Berti Vogts has Germany looking good in this championship but unless he wins it he will be considered a failure.

The flags were flying high around England yesterday but what will the reaction be if they fail to get past Spain on Saturday? Certainly, Venables would not get much sympathy.

On a June afternoon in 1984 I watched Bobby Robson trudge miserably to the dressing-rooms at Wembley, withered by scorn after England had been outplayed by the Soviet Union, their third defeat in four matches. He would go on to come within a penalty shoot-out of reaching the World Cup final six years later and win the championships of the Netherlands and Portugal.

This is not to make a case for Venables but simply to enter a plea for perspective. The team Venables sent out on Tuesday showed no changes from his first selection. There have been one or two switches in deployment but no radical change of policy. That it exceeded all expectations was due to individual advances in form and confidence.

These are things the national coach cannot greatly influence but for which he is held ultimately responsible. It is like blaming the composer when a pianist hits a bum note.

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