Bonham Road in Dagenham is an ordinary terraced street in the self-styled Corned Beef City, home to the sprawling Ford car plant and countless Londoners bombed out by the blitz. But it also became a hothouse for talented players as the local leagues flourished.
Incredibly, Bonham Road was home to two future England internationals and a free-scoring striker. Ken Brown was a fixture at centre half for West Ham across two decades, while Les Allen was a key member of Spurs’ double-winning side in 1960/61 scoring 27 goals that season. And living just opposite at 170 Bonham Road was Terry Venables, the cerebral playmaking midfielder who would become one of England’s greatest managers. And the continental coach with a cockney accent was inquisitive about the game from an early age.
As a youth he played for Chelsea on a tour to the Netherlands and they would trounce opponents 5-0 or even 10-0. But Venables wasn’t enthralled by the margin of victory, it was more the Dutch focus on coaching and strategy that fired his imagination. Venables witnessed the first glimmer of total football and would emulate the Dutch 40 years later as a national-team manager. He had the distinction of being capped at every level for England and broke into the Chelsea first team as a 17-year-old. Venables was later subjected to the unique management style of Tommy Docherty. He was the kingpin of an exciting young team dubbed Docherty’s Diamonds, but the dressing room would not be big enough for both of them.
The pair clashed on a regular basis and was abundantly clear Venables had greater tactical acumen than Docherty. In 1965, Chelsea were drawn against AS Roma in the first round of the Fairs Cup. They took a 4-1 lead into the second leg, but faced an intimidating atmosphere when the game was switched to a smaller venue in Rome. Docherty instructed the team to play their normal attacking game, but his 22-year-old captain disagreed and felt they should keep it tight and play with a sweeper. Chelsea ground out a 0-0 draw as Marvin Hinton dropped deep into the sweeper role. If there was a bottom line, the players trusted their captain more than the manager: Terry Venables the master tactician had received his baptism.
He was transfer listed the following season, ostensibly because the team had grown too predictable with Venables as the creative fulcrum. Public statements and private thoughts are different creatures and the Doc had got his own way. The kid from Dagenham gained his FA coaching badges within two years and would cut his managerial teeth in South London.
Venables joined the coaching staff at Crystal Palace after a brief stint as player in 1974. He perfected his craft under the tutelage of manager Malcolm Allison. Master and apprentice were a formidable combination as they enjoyed a run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1976. However, Allison took a progressively less active role and left Venables to manage in all but name.
He eventually replaced the ebullient Allison, who presided over successive relegations but still entered into club folklore. There were many similarities between the fedora-wearing Allison and chirpy Venables. Both were hugely charismatic and favoured the passing game. But Allison’s chaotic style of management fell short of Venables’ more thoughtful approach which marked him for distinction. The side Venables inherited was workman-like but far from outstanding. Star player Peter Taylor had just been sold to Spurs for £200,000 and had narrowly missed promotion finishing 5th for the last two seasons.
Venables was emphatic as ‘back to basics’ and ‘keep it simple’ became key features of his philosophy. He favoured a collegiate approach with both coaching staff and players. All were encouraged to voice their opinions and none doubted what was expected of them. Allan Harris was appointed as his assistant and John Cartwright was in charge of the youth team. With a blend of talented youngsters and seasoned pros an exciting team began to emerge. He took Palace from the third tier to first in four seasons and nurtured the fabled Team of the 80s. Kenny Sansom, Vince Hilaire, Jerry Murphy and Jim Cannon all flourished under his leadership. But nothing lasts forever and Venables would soon be on his way.
Crystal Palace had won the FA Youth Cup twice during his tenure and would be a rich source of talent, but Venables still needed money to sign new players. The club was unable or unwilling to provide the war chest that all managers need. Ominously the board were also planning his removal in the autumn of 1980. He was later appointed manager of QPR and joined forces with chairman Jim Gregory, a kindred spirit who shared his sense of innovation. They became the first club to install an artificial pitch and burnish the Venables dream of one-touch football. He was moderately successful at Rangers, winning promotion, reaching the FA Cup final and achieving a 5th place finish in the top flight. However, he would soon swap a cosy Loftus Road for the Catalan splendour of the Camp Nou.
Venables’ departure from QPR was not without rancour or intrigue. His stormy relationship with Gregory was capped when an offer from Barcelona dropped in his lap. Even now, it seemed a gamble given the level of elevation. He had managed two small football clubs who flitted between the top three divisions and had nothing like the track record of predecessor Cesar Luis Menotti. Barcelona were one of the biggest clubs in the world and the burden of expectation had never been greater. But it was a hunch that paid off handsomely for all concerned. They wanted a young, innovative manager who was hungry for success and Venables was meticulous in his preparation – he watched endless videos to probe the strengths and weaknesses of players and convinced a traditional 4-4-2 would work.
He was feted when Barcelona won La Liga in 1984/85 for the first time in 11 years. They also reached the European Cup final the following season but were defeated on penalties by Steaua Bucharest. El Tel’s Spanish holiday ended in 1987 but had proved himself in one of football’s bear pits. He melded the traditional strengths of English football to continental fluidity. An ill-starred association with Spurs later ended in an ugly battle with Alan Sugar and legal baggage he could well have done without.
The job Venables coveted most came his way in January 1994. After a protracted interview that made the Pope’s election feel like a cakewalk he was finally appointed England’s coach. Note the emphasis on Coach and definitely not Manager. The FA were already running scared of Venables’ perceived reputation. A reluctant acquiescence would fatally undermine their relationship but for now was in post. He was no stranger to the England set-up and served as a member of Ron Greenwood’s coaching staff in the early 80s. It chimed perfectly with Venables’ core beliefs as a think tank drove the manager’s vision.
It was an approach he eagerly carried forward as the troops gathered around him. Don Howe was an outstanding coach who had worked with Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson; Ted Buxton came in as scout while Mike Kelly was recruited as goalkeeping coach. Bryan Robson would form a vital link with the players and Dave Sexton was appointed manager of the U21s. Players immediately bought into Venables’ plan. He sought out senior members of the national squad including Tony Adams and David Platt. They provided assurance from the outset that players were behind him.
They quickly took to the genial and likeable head coach; training sessions were lively and instructive. A team spirit steadily grew as Venables got the best from players. Simplicity was still the watchword but wasn’t beyond scientific application. Venables used his own system known as TTPP (Tactical, Technical, Pace, Personality) when assessing players. It served him well as a familiar mantra was stressed. He reminded players exactly what drove them to become footballers, the childhood dream of playing at Wembley, scoring the winning goal and lifting the trophy.
They had to conquer their fear of failure and show the bravery to recover from setbacks. In the 2014 autobiography Born to Manage he elaborated further, “Bravery is about wanting the ball when the crowd is getting onto you…if you pass badly go and look for it again,” he wrote.
There was an encouraging build-up to Euro 96 as England lost just once in 18 games. But the FA was stalling on the extension of Venables’ contract. They wanted to review the position after the tournament, although it was perfectly reasonable to give the manager security and space to plan, while the players would feel more settled with continuity of management. But the FA wouldn’t budge and neither would Venables. He would step down after Euro 96 and it was a perverse decision as Glenn Hoddle got the nod in May 1996.
Coach and team pulled together as they weathered the Far East tour and infamous China Jump escapade. Venables dealt with the culprits including ringleader Paul Gascoigne. However, he realised they were cut from the same cloth and would find a way to accommodate the genius of Gazza. There were memorable moments that summer as football very nearly came home. Gazza’s goal against Scotland, the nail-biting shoot-out victory against Spain and desperately unfortunate semi-final defeat to Germany.
But it was the final group game against the Netherlands that lingers most strongly in the memory. For Terry Venables it was fulfilment of a cherished dream; to not only beat but outplay the Dutch at their own game. A team that included Dennis Bergkamp and Ronald de Boer were humbled by a dazzling England performance. Alan Shearer and Teddy Sherringham each bagged a brace in a 4-1 victory.
The come down arrived all too soon as Venables departed with dreams of what might have been. He later took over as coach of the Australian national side and a glorious opportunity had been missed. The England job represented his greatest success and greatest failure as manager. Failure belonged to the FA who lacked the guts and common sense to extend his contract. One can only wonder what he might have achieved with England’s golden generation of footballers. How might Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham Michael Owen and many others have developed under his guidance? Perhaps the torch lit by Venables has been picked up by Gareth Southgate; a former student who apparently listened to his teacher?