Late on Wednesday night Terry Venables walked across the Wembley turf for the last time as England coach. As he moved towards the tunnel under the royal box, two policewomen, from a gathering of about 50 officers, stopped him to ask for his autograph. He signed, paused for a joke or two, and prepared to go inside. As he did so, the police broke into a spontaneous round of applause.
It was a measure of what Venables has achieved. Not all of those officers will have been football fans but all recognised that he had produced a team which had put some pride back into the country, which had created a Wembley atmosphere unmatched in the memory of many people there.
Venables was still putting a brave face on defeat when he faced the press for the last time at Bisham Abbey yesterday. Some of the men in front of him had impugned his ability, some had doubted his honesty, a few had viciously attacked his character. Yet there were no recriminations, no "I told you so"; just a sense of pride tempered with disappointment. He did not need to say anything, his players had done the talking for him.
In the two and a half years since his appointment, Venables has restored England to a position of respect in the international game. He has done so without recourse to short-term, quick-fix solutions but by changing the style of the national side, incorporating the best of British and Continental football.
It was a bold policy. Members of his own staff doubted whether he had the time, or the resources, to create an England team which could play the international numbers game. "Three-at-the back, defenders stepping into midfield, split-strikers" - Venables took the jargon of contemporary football and turned it into a flesh-and-bones achievement. His players, and the public, have been educated in the demands of the modern game.
So why is he not staying to complete the job? It was clear long before the Football Association appointed Glenn Hoddle as his successor that Venables was the best coach around. Yet forces within the FA still refused to offer him a contract to 1998 (a ridiculous one-year deal was vouched). Maybe they know something the public are yet to be told. If not, they were spiteful and foolish.
Venables, however, refused to bear a grudge. Invited to criticise Noel White and Ian Stott, the FA councillors whose doubts had persuaded him to force the issue on his future, he declined. "That's all behind us now. It was helpful that it was sorted out early on, it enabled me to concentrate on the tournament," he said.
"The FA have been criticised," he added, "but you have to remember they did appoint me in the first place." At the time, the FA was heavily criticised for doing so, Venables' penchant for attracting litigation having disturbed several observers. There is not a whisper of dissent now, instead there are calls for him to be appointed technical director.
Venables said he had not been offered the post and thought it "extremely doubtful" that he would.
He would probably not take it even if he was asked. Even though he said he has "loved" being England coach, he admitted he has missed the day- to-day involvement of club management. Being technical director would not give him any chance at all to do the things he relishes most, improving individual players and building a team.
The next move may be abroad. Porto, still searching for a replacement for Bobby Robson, have been suggested though the big clubs in Italy and Spain will be keeping a watchful eye. "I've nothing up my sleeve," he said yesterday, "just the ambition to take a holiday".
Before going to Bisham, he had said an emotional farewell to his players. Offered the chance to go home after the penalty shoot-out, the entire squad had opted to return to the team hotel for one last night together. They stayed up, discussing the game and the tournament, into the early hours.
Particular attention was paid to the unfortunate Gareth Southgate, the man who missed the fateful penalty. "He wanted to take it, he will be the better for the experience," Venables said. "We all felt for him. We came in on collective responsibility and we will go out on it."
Southgate is part of the rich legacy Venables leaves to Hoddle. An intelligent, versatile player, he epitomises the type of footballer Venables has sought. A strong character and a personable man, he should recover from Wednesday's ordeal to be an England player for years to come.
So should several others blooded by Venables. Young men like the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, Robbie Fowler, Nick Barmby, Darren Anderton, Graeme Le Saux, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp will be at the heart of Hoddle's plans.
"He has a good nucleus of players but I don't want to start saying 'he's got great players... etc' it will be hard enough for him anyway," Venables said. "What he does have is players who possess that good feeling of knowing they can equal the best. There was a time when, if we played Germany or the Netherlands, we would be thinking 'how many will they beat us by?' Now we are expecting to beat them, which is good."
Hoddle's first match is a tricky one, away to Moldova on 1 September. He becomes the sixth England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. The fourth of those, Graham Taylor, claimed it was "an impossible job". "It's not impossible," Venables said, "just very difficult."
Venables has won nothing - apart from the Fair Play Award - another parallel to 1990. Yet his achievements have been considerable. In the seven months before he took over, England had failed to qualify for the World Cup, had been beaten by the United States, and conceded a goal in seconds to San Marino. They were a joke, at home and abroad.
Under Venables they have come within the width of a post from the European Championship final and played football which stretched the Germans and bewildered the Dutch. England are no longer derided as an international anachronism, still living in the world of "kick-and-rush", they are respected as a strong and sophisticated side.
The seed has been planted for a team to win the next World Cup. It is up to Hoddle to nurture it.Reuse content