The Terry Venables I knew

Hayters TV’s Gerry Cox worked closely at Tottenham with Terry Venables, the former England manager who has died at the age of 80 after a long illness.

Terry Venables had a long and varied career, as a stylish midfielder for Chelsea, Tottenham, QPR and Crystal Palace, and then going on to manage the latter three clubs, as well as leading England to within a whisker of reaching the final of Euro ’96, losing to Germany in the semi-final on penalties.

He also transformed Barcelona from also-rans to winners, leading them to to their first La Liga title for many years in 1985 and then the final of the Champions League, then known as the European Cup . So he was in great demand when he took over at Tottenham in 1988, which is where this correspondent first met him.

I was the Tottenham reporter for Spursline, the telephone news service (also called Clubcall) that kept fans updated long before the dawn of the internet and 24-hour rolling sports news on Sky, Talksport and the like.

Back then, fans could dial a premium line to get updates from the training ground and matches, including interviews with the manager and players. Imagine the thrill – and nerves – from a young reporter given the task of speaking to Venables, Gascoigne, Lineker and the rest.

From the first day meeting him at his White Hart Lane office, he was always friendly, helpful and fun, only once losing his temper after a misunderstanding in the tunnel at Derby County’s Baseball Ground. Typically of Venables, he quickly apologised and moved on.

He always had time for the media, understanding, unlike his great friend George Graham, that you were better off having the press on your side than alienating them. Early in my career covering Arsenal and Tottenham for Hayters, the renowned sports news agency, I discovered Graham’s infrequent press conferences were combative and rarely productive, while Venables would invite you to the training ground every day of the week, and always come up with a newsline to send us reporters home happy.

He was always approachable, even away from Tottenham, when those reporters close to him would regularly gather at Scribes, the west London club he owned. With his wife Yvette taking care of business, Terry would take care of us, playing mine host and entertaining us with stories and even songs – he had a fine voice and even recorded the odd single in his playing days.

But more importantly he fostered a similar mood of inclusiveness and generosity of spirit among his players, and he achieved the near-impossible task of getting the best out of Gascpoigne with his superb man-management skills.

Gascoigne turned down Manchester United to join Tottenham from Newcastle United in 1988, and it has often been said that the livewire Geordie might have prospered better under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson.

But it is doubtful anyone could have managed Gazza better than Venables, who gave the maverick midfielder the freedom to express his full range of skills on the pitch while reigning in the worst of his excesses off the field.

Gascoigne, like so many young players, saw Venables as a father figure who might indulge them to some extent, but demand excellence when it mattered. More experience players drew on the coach’s sharp mind and innovative ideas, and his ability to communicate sometimes complex ideas in a simple and straightforward way. I still speak to many players from that era, including Lineker, who was signed by Venables for both Barcelona and Tottenham, and they all say the same thing; he was the best manager they ever played for.

Long after he retired from top level football, I used to ghost-write a column with him for a football magazine, and he once told me about his relationship with Diego Maradona, whom he had sold soon after arriving at Barcelona. Instead of being resentful, the great Argentinian respected the reasons and understood why it was to the benefit of manager and player, who both went on to great success in the ensuing years. They would keep in touch and became good friends, to the extent Maradona pesonally requested Venables be appointed manager when playing in a prestigious friendly for a Rest of the World XI.

In recent years dementia started to take its toll and he withdrew from public life. Sunday’s sad news was not a great surprise to those who unerstood his situation, but was still felt with great sadness, not only by those who knew Terry Venables, but also by the multitude of fans who loved him as a great entertainer, larger-than-life character but most importantly as a great football man.

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