Profile: Spurred from Queer Street to Wembley: Terry Venables is in a different ball game

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The Independent Online
THIS weekend is unique in British football history. Both FA Cup semi-finals will be local affairs; tribal rivalries will be transported from Sheffield and north London to be enacted in Wembley Stadium. The responsibility on the shoulders of the team managers is onerous: defeat for their side will result in painful gaggery for years to come. In charge of three of the teams will be a trio of the sharpest football managers around: a canny Scot in a blazer, a quick-witted Midlander in a natty jacket and a chirpy London wide- boy in a tracksuit.

At the helm of the fourth team, Tottenham Hotspur, will be a canny, quick- witted, natty wide-boy from Essex called Terry Venables. For a football manager, Venables has an unexpected spread of talents. He speaks Catalan and once sang 'My Way' on Spanish radio; he has written a novel and co-scripted a television series; he owns a night-club officially opened by Margaret Thatcher and has warmed the nation's heart by telling Jimmy Hill he's talking bollocks on live television.

But what really sets Terry Venables apart from the trio of his peers at Wembley this weekend, is that without him his club would not be there. In fact, without Venables, Tottenham Hotspur might not be anywhere. In 1991 they faced bankruptcy, poised on the edge of extinction with debts of nearly pounds 18million. Their only saviour appeared to be Robert Maxwell. But Venables organised a rescue package, almost bankrupted himself in the process, re-paid the debt, re-built a side shorn of its most salebale assets and emerged not simply the team manager at Spurs, but the club's Chief Executive, with 22 per cent of the equity in his trouser pocket. These days, while Messrs Graham, Francis and Bassett might be guvnor in the dressing room, Terry Venables is the gaffer in the board room.

If any man needed to be his own boss, it was the only child of Fred and Myrtle Venables, born in Essex in 1943, who was to become only footballer in history to win England caps at every representative level, including the Amateurs ('Tel an amateur, playing for no money?' says his old colleague Jimmy Greaves. 'It doesn't figure').

The Venables playing career began at Chelsea. It was 1961, just after the iniquitous minimum wage had been abolished, when agents and contracts were things actors had, when professional footballers enjoyed all the social status of toilers in a sweat-shop. But young Tel was different. In this environment, at 18, soon after turning full-time, he formed himself into a limited company. It was his late mum's idea. She was always a strong force behind his ambition and when he had a notion to market ladies' head-gear, she thought he should do things properly.

The hat venture was not a success. But on the field Terry was. Fleeter of mind than foot, what he enjoyed most about playing the game was out-smarting his opponents. Often they were within his own club. At Chelsea, the manager, Tommy Docherty, found Venables's speed of tongue in the dressing room unsettling. Docherty quickly off-loaded his young captain, and, as a parting gesture, Venables re-organised the side's entire game-plan behind the manager's back for a European tie. Chelsea won comfortably, and Venables took his organisational skills to Spurs, thence to QPR and Crystal Palace.

It was clear his brain was bigger than the average to be found in a footballer's boots. His manager at Crystal Palace, Malcolm Allison, suggested Venables could become 'one of the greatest coaches ever' when he made Terry his assistant in 1975. When Allison resigned a year later, there was only one man to replace him. Venables guided Palace through two divisions to the First. The young manager (he was 33 when he took over) had know-how, he had imagination and, because he did not treat his players like children, he had respect; he was a motivator. Moreover, with his mother's Welsh blood coursing through him, he was a romantic, believing the game should be played the beautiful way. His side was unusually sophisticated in style and was nick-named in 1980 'the team of the Eighties' (hideously prematurely as it turned out - they were relegated soon afterwards)

Not for the first time, Venables found enemies within at the Palace. The board, he felt, did not share his ambition or his passion, and he de-camped across London to QPR. Here he began to hatch a plan: since football club directors were amateurs who knew about butching or baking but nothing about football, would it not be an idea if a man who knew his soccer took over? Wouldn't such a man get the priorities right in a club? Wasn't such a man Terry Venables? Just as his negotiations to buy QPR from its chairman were entering a promising phase, he received an offer no football coach could turn down.

Barcelona are the biggest club team in the world, supported, at an average home game, by 120,000 Catalonians who regard their team as an embodiment of regional pride. When their new English manager stepped on to the pitch in the summer of 1984 and addressed them in the local dialect (Venables had started language lessons two years previously, just in case) he became an instant hero. When Barca landed their first Spanish championship for eight years in his first season in charge, he was almost deified.

No other English football manager could have taken on Barca and succeeded like Venables. He needed every ounce of his charm, diplomatic media skills and Essex nous. More than that, he had the vision, almost unknown in the insular English game, to embrace and embellish continental practices. El Tel, as he became known by the British press, was particularly impressed by the role the Spaniards cast for the team manager. In England, he is expected to be involved in every aspect of the club from wiping the juniors' noses to buying the directors a drink. In Spain, the manager works on tactics and nothing else.

The affair with Barca could not last, partly because some of the players he brought with him from Britain (he is not the most adept manager in the transfer market) were not up to the job. In 1987, after a stuttering start to his fourth season in control, he was caught up in board-room politics once more. He resigned and returned, with a huge pay- off, to England, and his old team, Tottenham Hotspur.

He came back with an ambition to own a smallish club, Barnet say, growing in his mind. In the shorter term, however, he had his eye on the England manager's job. But when Bobby Robson retired, despite a popular press campaign on his behalf, Tel was not even short-listed: the blazers and stiff upper- lips at the Football Association probably taking Tommy Docherty's view that 'he was too damn cheeky for (their) well-being.'

Then, in the middle of 1990, Venables found himself with an opportunity more substantial than any he could have imagined. Suddenly Tottenham Hotspur itself was up for grabs.

Tottenham was about the only financial institution in London not to make money out of the Lawson boom. After disastrous diversification into leisure- wear and grandstand contruction, the club was perched on the lip of bankruptcy. They were guided there by directors who were supposed to know about finance, who floated the club on the Stock Exchange and who ended up seeking Robert Maxwell's assistance to prevent it sinking.

Encouraged by fans who saw him as the club's saviour, Venables enlisted the support of Alan Sugar, owner of Amstrad. He spent a year, when he was also expected to look after the team, arranging a take-over from chairman Irving Scholar. It was a bruising encounter, during which, astonishingly, he managed to guide his team to the FA Cup. But Venables, the Dagenham boy who left school without qualifications, out-witted the hardened property speculator as skilfully as he had negotiated his way past opposing football teams. In the summer of 1991, he and Sugar emerged triumphant. Their investment and the sale of Gazza (improbably called P Gascoigne Esq in the take-over documents) wiped out the club's debt.

Venables, however, found himself less flush. To raise his contribution of pounds 3million, he engaged in some cunning financial wheeler-dealing, encouraged by a posse of wide and colourful advisors, using everything down to the fixtures and fittings in his chain of pubs as security for a massive loan. At one stage the annual interest repayments amounted to more than the pounds 250,000 salary he pays himself as chief executive.

If Spurs become the gold-mine Alan Sugar, for one, expects, it will make a change for Terry Venables. For a man with a reputation for financial acumen, Venables has had more than his share of failure off the football field. There was the clothes shop he opened and closed in Chelsea in the Sixties ('we made good suits and bad money,' remembered one of his erstwhile partners); there was the ticket agency that proved poor box office in the Seventies; and, more recently, there was the pounds 92,000 trading loss his chain of pubs registered in 1991.

His old enemy at Spurs, Irving Scholar, suggests this indifferent achievement is symptomatic of Venables's inability to concentrate. In his book 'Behind Closed Doors' Scholar accused him of having 'a grasshopper mind, unable to settle on any one project for long.' Even Fred Venables says his son flits through life at a pace he never showed as a player.

'He does everything at 100mph,' says Fred. 'He lives at that speed, works at that speed, drives at that speed. Terry's schedule frightens the life out of me.'

Venables, ever anxious to prove he is more than the slippery Cockney wide- boy with a couple of gags of public imagination, has always cast himself as something of a polymath: businessman, mine host, board-game devisor, novellist, screen-play writer, television pundit. Last year, indeed, he was too busy in the board-room to pay any attention to coaching.

But this season he appears to be much more focused. In the mornings he spends his time at the Tottenham training ground in Mill Hill, working with the players, devising tactics with his fellow coaches, deciding who should be bought and sold. He has, incidentally, delegated the nose-wiping, drink-buying duties to others. In the afternoons he is the chief executive, conducting business matters, allegedly shouting at Alan Sugar on the phone. In the evenings he retires to Scribes West, his night-club in Kensington and thinks of ways to reduce his personal over-draft.

Many believe Spurs' re-emergence this season as a real footballing force is no coincidence. They have, back on their training ground, the best coach in Britain. Perhaps, at last shorn of incompetent colleagues and meddling directors with tight wallets, Venables feels liberated enough to let his football do his talking. Tomorrow lunchtime he faces as tough a test of his resolve as he could imagine. But at least if he fails, unlike his three rivals, he knows there is no chance of picking up his cards. He cannot sack himself.