Our Terry versus the masters of ball control

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE STORY of Terry Venables - unexpectedly allowed a temporary High Court injunction against his dismissal as chief executive of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club - reminds me a little of Richard Branson and a little of the SDP. Venables is another of those visionary or foolish or egotistical Britons who have attempted to - in the words once used with dewy innocence by the Owens, Jenkinses and Steels - 'break the mould' of the world in which they work.

Like Richard Branson versus Lord King, or the SDP versus the Two Party System, Terry Venables versus Alan Sugar (the chairman who desires his departure) is a struggle of romantic quixotism and innovation against the established methods of a profession and the clout of big bank accounts. These parallels offer Venables a slain Goliath and a surviving one; one comforting model and one depressing template.

In cheeky personality and idealistic project, Venables much resembles Branson. The latter attempted the bizarre innovation of a British transatlantic airline predicated on the comfort of the customer. The former believed in the equally shocking proposition of a football club run by those with a knowledge of soccer.

Before Venables, the football manager was one of society's most reliable archetypes; normally a former player of limited articulacy and intelligence, he was the absolutely powerless hireling of a chairman or board constructed from builders, butchers, brewers or - with the entry of Robert Maxwell at Derby and Oxford - publishers.

Though usually supporters of the sport - and sometimes, in extreme cases, even of the particular club they bought - the bosses knew little of the game. They were the industrial extension of the despised rich kid who has to be allowed a kick on the school playground because he owns the ball. If the club lacked success, the chairman sacked the manager, took away the ball.

As manager of Tottenham Hotspur, Venables' unprecedented plan was to own or co-own the ball. It is easy for the middle classes to become over-sentimental about the occasional figure in the game who can string together paragraphs as they once did passes. For example, Gary Lineker, because of an articulacy and a set of liberal beliefs unusual among his breed, has come to be presented by some as a kind of Isaiah Berlin of the touchlines. Similarly, Venables, having co-authored a series of thrillers, emerges from some profiles as a sort of Tolstoy of soccer.

But these are relative judgements. Venables' reputation as the Lord Hanson of his sport should also be measured with the novelty factor subtracted. He knows his way around the Stock Exchange far better than the average football manager, but his career has featured a number of entrepreneurial flops, including an eccentric early venture selling hats with wigs attached, presumably to bald dandies.

Venables' true significance as a businessman is symbolic. Like Richard Branson, he achieved the difficult trick of giving personal ambition and accumulation a tinge of altruism. Like Virgin Atlantic, his Tottenham plc has plausibly been presented as the business equivalent of an opposition party, its owner as a sort of tycoon- for-you. It is this reservoir of sympathy that is Venables' most valuable asset in his current struggle.

And, to be fair, Venables' business record does include one demonstrably mature judgement. Faced, in 1991, with the sale of his financially troubled club to Robert Maxwell, the manager urgently made alternative arrangements. In doing so, he became the first soccer boss in history to pass a vote of no confidence in his board. With the founder of Amstrad as his Sugar-daddy - matching Venables' own borrowed cash pound for pound in a takeover - the manager became the chief executive and a major shareholder.

Whatever the outcome of his row with Sugar, Venables' opposition to Maxwell has been, to say the least, historically vindicated. But the manager's objections to the late newspaper tycoon were not principally motivated by doubts about his probity. Venables flinched from the attitude to football club ownership that Maxwell most hugely embodied: the team as executive plaything, as egotistical projection.

His 1991 victory with Sugar appeared to be a defeat of that ancient principle. His 1993 defeat by Sugar - if it happens - would be a victory for it. Venables seemed to have become the first exception to a profession of hired men; his recent troubles suggest that he was just another sackable manager.

It is here that the shadow of the SDP falls across the story. Sugar and Venables appeared to soccer fans to be the dream team, the Gang of Two, the Nice People's Club. Venables would look after the balls and Sugar the brass. But the SDP was an illustration of how rapidly idealism can sink into squabbling if more than one big ego is involved. Events at Tottenham plc, it now appears, are another.

An explanation of the rift between Sugar and Venables must wait at least until the next court hearing on 25 May, but one tempting surmise must be that Sugar, sole lord of his own business empire, found power-sharing uncomfortable, his joint custody of the club with Venables as implausible as the 'co-premiership' (of Jenkins and Steel or Owen and Steel) once surreally presented by the SDP to the electorate. It is also possible that the boardroom clash at White Hart Lane represents yet another new gradation of the English class war: nouveau riche earnt (Sugar) versus nouveau riche borrowed (Venables), the contempt of a big working-class success for a small one.

The match being played out at Tottenham has applications beyond soccer. As Venables has been attempting to change the nature of football management, the soccer model has been spreading to other industries. Television companies move into the control of those with no knowledge of broadcasting; publishers become part of conglomerates which have little comprehension of books. Venables' idea of leadership by expertise - revolutionary to football - might also give pause for thought in these quarters.

For these reasons - and for the simple guts and romance of his quest - Venables will be cheered on from the terraces of public goodwill. Logic suggests that he cannot win, but the manager's career for the last few years has been a calculated rebuke to the logic of soccer. He can look for inspiration to the case of Virgin Atlantic versus British Airways - and Venables' surprise High Court injunction was a very Bransonian move. But the fear must be that the Sugar-Venables dream team has proved to be football's version of the SDP: a reminder that ego and pragmatism will generally beat romanticism 2-1.

Comments