Tel’s Tale

Ian Hamilton

  • Venables: The Autobiography by Terry Venables and Neil Hanson
    Joseph, 468 pp, £16.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7181 3827 9

‘I feel like the man who shot Bambi,’ said Alan Sugar in May 1993, shortly after sacking Terry Venables from his job as manager and ‘chief executive’ of Spurs. Sugar presumably meant Bambi’s mum. Bambi, as everybody knows, is still alive, still kicking, and now manager of England.

For a crack shot like Alan Sugar, it must be galling indeed to see his quarry frisking on the fabled Wembley sward: no longer wet-nosed and shaky-legged, perhaps, but still thoroughly adored. And all the more adored, it seems, each time Panorama or the Sunday Times unearths a new pile of dodgy paperwork. Sugar is normally a somewhat angry-looking chap but every so often over the past eighteen months he has seemed puzzled and upset. Why, he may have been wondering, does everyone so unthinkingly, so unaccountably, prefer this guy to me? Is there something so very wrong with my Bambi-like chin stubble? Don’t these people want my kind of money – that’s to say, real money, not the sort Tel likes to shift around? What do they want?

In 1992, it was Sugar’s real money that saved Tottenham Hotspur from extinction, but somehow Terry Venables got all the credit (in more ways than one). As the fans saw things, it was Tel who persuaded Sugar to chip in, and it was Tel who, by stretching his own limited ‘resources’ to breaking point and maybe well beyond, made up the crucial shortfall – enough, anyway, for him to secure for himself a number two spot on the board and a power-sharing deal with Sugar, his new chairman. It was announced at the time that Venables would look after the XI on the field and Sugar would take care of the XI at the bank: Spurs owed about eleven million, rumour said. Venables, though, made it seem as if the success of the whole enterprise depended on his business skills – or rather, on the unique way in which those skills were interfused with his deep soccer know-how. Thus, when Sugar turned on him, it was as if the host had been evicted by the guest.

For a few weeks after the sacking, there were demos and petitions. Sugar’s home was picketed, his Roller vandalised. When Venables sued for wrongful dismissal, crowds of his admirers gathered at the High Court to barrack his oppressor. Sugar pretended to take these shows of fan-power in his stride, predicting that by the beginning of the new season Venables would be just another name at White Hart Lane. He recruited Ossie Ardiles, a onetime terrace favourite (now also fired), as Venables’s replacement, headed off a rather feebly threatened player strike, and let it be known that his cheque-book would soon be available for glamorous new signings.

Sugar then set about trying to persuade the fans that Venables did not deserve their love, that his record as a businessman was speckled with illegal stratagems, most of these designed to pretend that he was much richer than he really was. According to Venables: ‘a relentless newspaper campaign continued against my associates and me. They dumped so much garbage that while I was answering one set of false allegations, another load would be heaped on me from a different direction. I was so busy defending my goal that I could not mount any attacks of my own.’

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