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.’

Like the team he used to manage, Venables is not at his nimblest when obliged to ‘funnel back’, but Sugar’s pursuit of him since the original bust-up does seem to have been fuelled by something other, something deeper and fiercer, than mere business indignation. To most fans, though, the details of Sugar’s allegations seem unreachably arcane: lots of stuff about buy-backs and bungs, about money that is not money, loans that are not loans, pubs that might be made of paper, and so on. On Panorama last month, a Lustgarten-style presenter throbbed with gravitas as, sheet by sheet, he led us through Tel’s funny-money moves: invoices, loan agreements, letters of intent, guarantees that had gone missing, signatures Tel claims are forged. And yes, we supposed, it did look bad. But not that bad. As one fan pointed out to me, whatever it was Tel did, he did it for the love of Spurs.

And it is this kind of thinking that Sugar and his allies at the BBC seem not to grasp, and certainly won’t shift, however many bits of paper they produce in evidence. After all, the fans will say, what are they doing their whatever-it-is for? Why has the BBC’s main current affairs programme twice rearranged its schedules in order to bring us the latest on Venables’s long-ago financial juggling? According to Panorama, they have a duty to get Venables dumped from the England job because he is unfit to serve as our game’s ambassador abroad. Why then did the BBC only a few weeks before offer him a long-term contract to continue as one of their chief soccer pundits? If Tel is looking dodgy, so are some of his pursuers. And anyway, since when has the England manager seemed, or wished to seem, ambassadorial?

If Alan Sugar really does want to be loved as Tel is loved, he had better change his tactics. He could begin by studying the fans he’s trying to win over. At White Hart Lane, the stands are full of wide boys, artful dodgers, cheeky chappies of one sort or another. On match days it’s like a great army of the self-employed. Somebody once reckoned that if you shouted ‘Taxi!’ at the Lane about a third of the West Stand would want to know ‘Where to?’ And if you were to yell ‘VAT’ another third would start making for the exits. You could spend all day showing these lads off-colour invoices. Most of them would marvel that anything had actually been put on paper.

For fans like these the worst that might be said of Tel is that he got a bit above himself, out of his depth. But then again: so what? He had a dream; he had a go. And now he’s back doing what he’s good at: playing games. The really laughable idea is that, because of the money, he should be kept from doing the football. The other way round, maybe. Even here, though, surely some tribute should be paid to the boy’s chutzpah. Who else in football would have invented the Thingummywig (for putting on over your curlers), or written a book called They Used to Play on Grass shortly before installing a plastic pitch at QPR, or marketed a soccer board-game called The Manager, in which everyone starts out with a million pounds?

When Venables was at Tottenham in the late Sixties, he was viewed with deep suspicion by the fans. He liked himself too much, he put on airs, he had too many ‘outside interests’. At the same time, though, there was a residual affection, an irritated sense of fellow feeling. The fans got at him, called him Vegetables, but they knew who he was: a chancer, a flash git – in other words, what they would be if they were him.

One particular incident sticks in the mind. Spurs had a throw-in just in front of where I was standing and Venables ran over to collect the ball. It had disappeared into the crowd behind me and was not instantly returned. For a few seconds, Venables stood facing his audience head-on, the audience that had been booing him all afternoon. What would he do? Glare back at us, go deadpan, turn away? Not Tel. After a tiny hesitation, he broke into a huge grin, shifted his eyebrows up and down, went down on one knee, then topped it all with a cheesily mimed ‘Please.’ This did it. The ball shot from the crowd at brutally high speed and caught him, splat, full in the face. And along with it came a tumult of abuse. ‘Flash fucker’, ‘poofter’, ‘cunt’, ‘Get on with it, you fucking ponce.’ For a moment, Tel – all muddy-faced – looked utterly bewildered, close to tears. He picked the ball up, threw it in, and for the rest of the game did all he could to keep clear of the action.

And this was pretty much what might have been expected. The comedian had misread his audience-appeal, overrated his own charms. What happened next, though, was not quite so easy to explain. During the remaining half-hour of the match, whenever Venables did get the ball, the people around me, the ones who had just been calling him a ponce, now took to murmuring ‘Nice touch, lad,’ ‘Lay it off, son’ – stuff like that. Was this remorse; a wish to make amends? Or was it simply that these fans now felt they owned a piece of him? He had in some way become theirs. They’d seen him flinch; they’d made him flinch. And now it was ‘Good lad’, ‘Tel-mate’, and all the rest of it. Sickening, yet it revealed plenty about fan psychology, about the vast impotence they feel most of the time. It also showed how little in the way of real-life power they’ll settle for.

Tel knows all this; he learned it the hard way. Nowadays his cheeky-chappy routine is seasoned with just the right amount of ‘you-tell-me’ humility. He’s still cocky but he plays up the imperilled look – the Bambi-look, as Sugar would describe it. Venables’s new book is steadily boastful, in the way of most sports ‘autobiographies’, but lays on some extra blushes now and then. His triumphs are retailed as if they were not of his making, accidents that could not have happened to a nicer, abler bloke, perhaps, but accidents – the first English footballer to represent his country at ‘all levels’, the first to turn himself into a limited company, the first to take a foreign team to the final of the European Cup. Tel’s tale is full of firsts. For a short time he was the first manager to own (well, semi-own) the club he managed. This prize, though, was snatched from him by Alan Sugar.

On the matter of Sugar, Terry shows his fairmindedness by confessing to one or two shortcomings of his own. Here and there he lets slip an admission that maybe his trusting nature plus his love of soccer plus the underhand ways of his opponent caused a brief slackening of his customary shrewdness:

For the first few board meetings ... both Jonathan Crystal and I decided to save time and avoid embarrassment by just assuming that the minutes would be accurate and agreeing them without studying them first, and the first four or five sets slipped through on that basis. It was a serious error of judgment on my part, but I was not then aware of the real nature of Alan Sugar, nor the use to which those minutes would later be put.

‘I never bear grudges,’ says Terry early on, and he does his lovable best to rein back his hostility to Sugar. All the same, the bile keeps seeping through. About a quarter of the book is given over to Venables’s Tottenham power struggle and throughout there are too many bruised asides. Sugar even gets a mention on Day One: ‘The house in which my Mum had been living before I was born was bombed flat the night she left to stay with my grandparents. Had she stayed 24 hours longer or the Luftwaffe arrived 24 hours earlier, Alan Sugar’s future life might well have been rather less complicated.’

Another Venables bogey-man is Sugar’s predecessor, Irving Scholar: ‘Irv the Swerve’, with his ‘well-polished front’ and his ‘tangled web of secret and irregular loans and deals’. Scholar’s own autobiography, Behind Closed Doors, was anti-Tel, so this is Tel’s moment for revenge. Again he strains for the soft-pedal with irregular success. ‘I’m not bitter but a fact’s a fact’ is more or less the way it turns out. But it is hard going on the way, having to sit through Venables’s not-very-bright rebuttals of Scholar’s not-very-damaging put-downs.

One barb of Scholar’s does, it seems to me, require an answer. In his book, Scholar accuses Venables of ‘turning the key’ on an already wound-up Gascoigne, just before the 1991 Cup Final, the game in which Gazza wrecked his knee. On this, Venables supplies the following:

Irving Scholar’s ... suggestions that I had hyped Gazza up before the game are laughable and I think the players who were in the dressing-room would say the same. Gazza never needed anyone to hype him up, and all my conversations with him before any game, and the Cup Final in particular, were designed to calm him down, not wind him up ... I do not know whether he was angry or what the reason was, but he did himself no favours.

Well, we know that. Gascoigne has not been the same player ever since. But what about those pre-match ‘conversations’? Why doesn’t Venables get us in there, show us something of what actually went on? Gazza’s mad-bull conduct in that final still needs to be explained – or, shall we say, fleshed out. Venables, the player’s number one mentor in those days, must surely know more than he is saying.

But this is the way it goes with sports books. They rarely tell the things you want to know. Unless, re Venables, you are hungry for more Sugar. Perhaps – with this ungripping book – Terry will feel that he has had his say, and get on with the serious business of saving us from humiliation in the forthcoming European Nations Cup. I doubt it, though. Just as Sugar wants the fans to love him, so Tel wants them to admire his business brain. There will be extra time.