The working-class hero who we all wanted to believe in

David Aaronovitch on the Terry Venables case

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Just over 10 years ago, in November 1987, the manager of Tottenham Hotspur FC, David Pleat, was dismissed by the club following allegations about his private life. According to football writers Harry Harris and Steve Curry in their book Venables, the Inside Story, the Tottenham chairman, Irving Scholar, "sacked David Pleat with a particularly heavy heart. The fact that Pleat's personal problems came to a breaking point at the time that Venables was being replaced by Barcelona was merely coincidental".

Perhaps. But six weeks earlier, making a film about apprentice players at Spurs, I fell into conversation with Kate Hoey - now a Labour MP, but then a tutor on life skills to these wannabe football stars, some of whom badly needed them. Pleat, she told me, was on his way out. "The players don't like him," she said of the man who had taken the club to third place in the league and (unsuccessfully) to the FA Cup Final. "The rumour is that the chairman wants Terry Venables." And pretty soon, he had him. As one man trudged disconsolately out of the back door, his replacement - all smiles and charisma - arrived to fans' applause through the big gates at the front.

A decade on, and Pleat is back with Tottenham as director of football, and Terry Venables is neither manager nor director of anything. On Wednesday it was announced, in a statement from the Department of Trade and Industry, that Venables had reached a settlement with its lawyers, agreeing to be banned from any directorship, or virtually any other relationship with a commercial operation, for seven years. Accepting 19 charges of serious misconduct, all of which he had strenuously denied for the previous four years, Venables also agreed to pay half a million pounds of the DTI's costs. Three weeks ago, Venables' friend and business partner, Eddie Ashby, completed a four month prison sentence for breach of the bankruptcy laws.

In 1993, following the bust-up between Scholar's successor, Alan Sugar, and Terry Venables, which led to Venables' acrimonious departure from the club, the BBC's Panorama decided to investigate the feud between the two men. Mark Killick, the producer, says that he originally expected the story would be one of how a nasty, scrub-faced Thatcherite businessman ousted a working-class hero. It'd be the bastards versus the romantics.

But as Sugar told his side of the story about how Venables had run the business side of the club, the optimal anti-millionaire tale evaporated. To be replaced, as research continued, by the weird story of how - led on by an unscrupulous and plausible partner (Ashby) - Venables had broken nearly every rule in the book: first in raising money to buy a stake in Tottenham, and then in his management of the north London side. At one stage, Killick recalls, he sent a researcher down to Cardiff to look for a pub called The Miners, against which Venables had attained part of a million pound loan. When the young woman failed to find the place, he got quite shirty with her. Only after she had wandered round the Welsh capital for three days did he accept the almost unbelievable truth that this pub didn't exist at all.

The Panorama that went out on the 4 October 1993, and a similar programme transmitted days later on Channel 4, were not what the sports establishment and its journalistic arms wanted to hear. The FA regarded Sugar as a dangerous parvenu, importing unwelcome radical ideas into an industry run by chain- smokers in fur-collared coats. Venables, by contrast, was one of theirs. A source of good stories for favoured journalists, half-way through a big presenter's contract for the powerful BBC sports department, and popular with the ordinary supporters, many in football wanted the story not to be true. So, when Venables contested the Panorama version, threatened legal action and complained that documents had been forged or stolen, there were many who were ready to believe him. In some newspapers a battle ensued between the Venables-supporting back pages - home of adventure and romance - and the money men and women on the City desks. Jeff Powell, influential football commentator of the Daily Mail, wrote of a "media witch-hunt ignited by his [Venables'] bitter feud with Alan Sugar".

Gradually, as court actions loomed, the whole business lapsed into a "you pays your money and you takes your choice" period, where most people chose to believe whoever they liked best. As an executive in the BBC current affairs department at that time, I had seen the evidence, since any programme like this one was subjected to a battery of legal tests that made Volvo's safety procedures look dilatory. And I knew that they had Venables bang to rights.

With the passage of time, however, Venables began to emerge on top. Even those who thought that he had probably been a little naughty, decided - in the words of Panorama reporter Martin Bashir - that he was a "loveable rogue" in the English tradition of Minder. OK, so he was a bit fly with money, but he hadn't been found guilty of anything. And now England was calling, its football team had just failed dismally to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, and the nation wanted Venables. Under a year after his departure from Spurs, Tel was appointed by the FA as England manager.

And now no one wanted to hear him criticised. This newspaper did comment on the risk that, as the FA is a limited company, if Venables were to be disqualified, he could not under the Insolvency Act remain as England manager. In other words, if Panorama were proved right, Venables would have to be fired under the most embarrassing circumstances. Kate Hoey, now in the House of Commons, warned against the appointment, and was vilified both in the newspapers, and by party colleagues who were closer than she to the sports establishment. When Panorama put out a second programme in September 1994, some felt that it was being - as it had been during the Falklands war - vaguely treacherous. "Must you?" was the reaction of most BBC TV executives to the news that there would be another Venables show. Others spoke of a journalistic vendetta.

I don't expect any of those who criticised Hoey or Panorama to apologise. Many will have forgotten that they ever doubted the facts of the case. But the truth is that, for several years, a man of charm and charisma was allowed to hold one of the big jobs in English national life because we simply didn't want to believe that he was bent. How politicians must long for a fraction of that latitude!

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