Venables feels pain of two halves

Ian Ridley considers the personal and professional trials of the England coach

THE first question to a football manager at a press debriefing is usually something along the lines of: "Any injuries?" At the end of a crowded, traumatic international week in which he also lost a court case, it was jokingly asked of Terry Venables. "Just me," he replied.

It duly got a laugh, but for the first time the England coach appears to have been seriously wounded by a judicial process. Now the FA appears less than united over a new contract for him beyond next summer's European Championship finals. Last month, an unnamed member of the international committee expressed concern at the ongoing legal wrangles; this month, the chairman of the committee, Noel White, has put his name to some minor doubts. Certain things need to be cleared up, he says.

The chairman of the FA, Sir Bert Millichip, meanwhile, wants to sit down with Venables and his chief executive, Graham Kelly, in the next few weeks to offer him a contract to the next World Cup finals and possibly beyond. "Nothing that has come out sways me from the view that Terry Venables is the man for the job," Sir Bert said. "We do not want him going into a major competition thinking about the sack."

The potential schism comes not so much from the contents of what was a fairly trivial case that somehow took in the Teddy Sheringham transfer saga. Venables was told to pay up at least part of the sum claimed by an advertising executive who had done some work for his nightclub, but what really hurt was the summing-up of the judge. Venables's evidence was described as "wanton" and "not entirely reliable, to put it at its most charitable".

Venables himself thought Mr Recorder Williams's words "a bit wild". But, he added: "I can't control what the judge says or what people think. I can only go with my own honesty." Clearly, however, it is a worry for the FA, who must be dreading Venables's libel case against the biggest hitter of all, Alan Sugar, as England prepare for a World Cup qualifying campaign.

Venables is unwilling to give in without a fight: "I have always been brought up to fight your corner if you believe things are wrong, and I have a fighting spirit. I want a team to have a huge fighting spirit; I wouldn't be much good if I didn't set an example." Despite the apparent split, Venables remains the choice of the FA's top brass, and rightly so.

England may only have managed a draw - in a week of more draws than even Reader's Digest stage - but it was apparent that the Venables strategies at least enabled them to compete with the superior, pleasing Portuguese. The ability to hold their own will encourage Venables until the domestic game yields players of a calibre to compare.

They are also developing the admirable virtue of finishing games strongly, which will be important to the World Cup campaign if England are to avoid being pilloried by the tabloids ("Roldova!" and "Pole-Axed!" spring to mind).

Doubts remain, however, and the more one contemplates Euro '96, the greater the task of reaching even the semi-finals seems. "I am an admirer of Portugal, Spain and Holland. I think these three are the modern teams who will do well," Venables said. "Then you have always got to be careful of the crafty warhorses, Germany and Italy, who know how to qualify." There are five hurdles for starters.

Individually, there are deficiencies even among England's perceived best. Nicky Barmby, for example, is among the brightest of a new generation, apparently well educated at the FA's own School of Excellence, yet he looked ill at ease. Then there is the brightest of a previous generation. Will Paul Gascoigne ever come alive again? Certainly not in the holding role Venables asked him to play.

And what of Alan Shearer, the unquestioned top striker in the English game, now without a goal in 10 internationals? Venables will persevere with him. "The only way I ever got Gary Lineker back to scoring was by not resting him," the coach said. His form is a worry, however, and the best needs to be coaxed from him. One hopes that Venables is the man to do so.

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