Terry Venables inspired a generation to dream and left England wanting more

Terry Venables was the lost great England manager and, until Gareth Southgate, the last great England manager. The link between Alf Ramsey, for whom he briefly played, and Southgate, who he plucked from Aston Villa and turned into an assured international with seeming ease, Venables may have fashioned the best England team since 1966. And if that verdict comes from the slender evidence of perhaps two-and-a-half games of playing well on home soil – the second 45 minutes against Scotland, the rout of the Netherlands, the semi-final against Germany – Euro 96 will forever leave a generation with a sense of what might have been.

From the wreckage of the doomed campaign to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, Venables seemed to inspire an English enlightenment. From the plodding dullness of long-ball football purveyed by limited players, he allied technical and tactical excellence with attacking intent and a willingness to embrace all the talents at his disposal. It may have been the only time in the last half-century when England were the finest team in a tournament; it is not jingoism to think that, had Germany been worse at penalties, Venables’ team would have beaten the Czech Republic in the final.

It ought to have been the start of an era; instead, it was an interlude. On Sunday, Venables died aged 80 after a long illness. He managed England for two-and-a-half of those years and it should have been more. If the FA’s reluctance to extend his deal before Euro 96 reflected a sense of disquiet about his business dealings – Venables ended up being banned from being a company director for seven years – it was a mistake. No one else took England to a semi-final for more than two decades; even when Southgate did, no one else brought such adept man-management and tactical nous.

Euro 96 ought to have been just the start of the Venables era (Getty Images)

If Venables was England’s most charismatic manager, a throwback in that respect to Tommy Docherty, under whom he emerged at Chelsea, and Malcolm Allison, who gave him his first coaching job at Crystal Palace, he was years ahead of his time in other respects. Gary Neville recalled ostensibly playing right-back in three consecutive games at Euro 96, but actually occupying different positions in each. In an age of a lumpen 4-4-2, Venables could switch systems, adopt the Christmas tree or the back three, school the Dutch in Total Football. The managers England later imported at great expense, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello, produced less sophisticated football than the boy from Dagenham.

The tributes reflected his rare gifts. “The best, most innovative coach that I had the privilege and pleasure of playing for,” said Gary Lineker, who also played for Johan Cruyff. “The most technically gifted coach that I ever played under,” said Neville, who played 602 times for Sir Alex Ferguson.

And yet the tragedy of Venables, for him as well as England, was that his eventual achievements placed him in the category of the very good and not the great. Perhaps only penalties kept him out of the pantheon: Southgate’s tame spot-kick in 1996, the four that – ludicrously – Barcelona contrived to miss while scoring none in the 1986 European Cup final shootout.

And if there is an Anglocentric focus on the national team, it is worth noting that in the last seven decades, only one English manager has won either the French, German, Italian or Spanish league title: Venables, in his first season at Barcelona, when they had not been champions for a decade, when Diego Maradona had been sold and the man hired from QPR replaced him with Steve Archibald. They won La Liga by 10 points, topping the table from start to finish.

He was a game away from a second stunning achievement, winning Barcelona’s maiden European Cup. Steaua Bucharest defended for 120 minutes in the final before what Venables subsequently described as “the worst penalty shootout you’ve ever seen”. Yet there is a picture after the semi-final of a teenager on Barcelona’s books gazing up adoringly at Venables. If a young Pep Guardiola was influenced by Venables, he was not alone.

Yet a managerial career can be divided into two halves: before and after Euro 96. He enjoyed success everywhere in the first part of his coaching career, taking Palace to promotion and, briefly, top of the old Division 1, QPR to a fifth-place finish, Tottenham to third and the FA Cup, which he had also won as a Spurs player.

But football sometimes seemed insufficient for a man of his ideas, energy and entrepreneurial spirit. Venables was author, crooner, nightclub owner. He had a sharp intellect, a belief in his own ability, but also a willingness to aim for the boardroom when he was at his best on the training pitch and in the dugout. In a way, Venables’ other interests made him suited to international management; the nature of them made the FA uncomfortable.

What could have been: Venables is unveiled as England manager in 1994 (Getty Images)

And he left the job that suited him best. He went on to take Australia to the brink of the World Cup, denied only by away goals, and rescue Middlesbrough from relegation, but spells back at Palace, at Leeds and as assistant to Steve McClaren at England represented an underwhelming end to a coaching career that took him to the brink of history.

There was, though, a fitting element to finishing with England. Venables played for his country at every level, from schoolboy to youth, amateur, under-23 and the full senior team. He was capped just twice by Ramsey; perhaps it did not help that sons of Dagenham were very different – Ramsey the social climber who took elocution lessons, Venables the brash, wisecracking showman. He was not to be a World Cup winner; he made the provisional 33-man squad for the 1966 tournament, but not the final 22.

But the glimpse of glory as a manager was tantalising. Venables brought hope to English football, boosting its self-esteem, forging indelible memories, whether of Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland or the 4-1 evisceration of the Netherlands. He left England – the players and the fans, anyway – wanting more. Nostalgia for Euro 96 is already a cottage industry and, as no Englishman has emerged with his managerial skillset since, there will be reasons to remember Terry Venables fondly for years to come.


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