Terry Venables, the coach who saved English football from insularity

Terry Venables was so popular with the Euro 96 generation that senior England players consistently argued for his return to the nation’s radioactive tracksuit. Glenn Hoddle sacked? “Bring Terry back.” Kevin Keegan quits in the Wembley toilets? “Get Venners in again.”

There are only echoes of it now, but for decades after 1966 English football was racked by ideological struggle over how the national game should be played. The Route One-ists favoured howitzer football: native aggression and directness with minimal elaboration. Idealists fought for the global mainstream of sophistication. In the middle of this battle stood Terence Frederick Venables, a myth to his enemies, a prophet without honour in his own land to his disciples.

Related: Terry Venables obituary

The messiah coach who would save English football from its insularity was never in one place long enough to file a body of work sufficiently convincing to defeat his critics. His often chaotic and sometimes dubious attempts to prove himself a visionary businessman ultimately sabotaged his intermittent efforts to be the coach for which his country yearned.

But that craving was real, especially after the recidivism of the Graham Taylor years, when the progress made by Bobby Robson’s side at Italia 90 was torpedoed by Football Association mandarins with no interest in continuity of playing styles. If the meteor blaze of Paul Gascoigne exposed the fallacy that English spectators were content to see football played above head height, the entertainment conceived by Venables at the 1996 European Championship answered another deep wish.

To be loved by an English crowd in the 1980s or 90s, a manager would ideally be relatable, streetwise, twinkly and positive: an entertainer with a swagger and the same level of tactical knowledge as the best in Europe. The applause for Venables at Premier League grounds on the day of his death spoke of an inbuilt admiration for the anti‑establishment football romantic who took over Taylor’s ruined England and turned them into the swashbucklers who beat the Netherlands 4-1 at Euro 96.

Venables is miscast as a dreamer. Before that European Championship he said: “In all the debate about the state of English football, one factor is consistently forgotten. It is the character of the English player.” He gave artists and artisans equal value. The elusive, elastic running of Darren Anderton or Steve McManaman was enabled by the alpha‑maledom of Tony Adams and Paul Ince and the certainty of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham.

Art for art’s sake, it was not. Don Howe, the defensive guru, was his right‑hand man. In restaurants with the salt and pepper pots El Tel, as he came to be known in Barcelona, talked almost as much about shutting down the opposition as he did sweeping them off the pitch. The intellectual challenge of coaching and his talent for managing people – for making the job of the footballer intensely enjoyable – was the addiction that kept luring him back to the dugout while his “investment schemes” were burning up his time.

In his era, and in his character, Venables absorbed the angst of a nation hung up on 1966 but still in the early years of the Premier League revolution, before an influx of foreign players and managers transformed the English game in style, tone and spirit. In Venables’s time the conversation was still internal: the mother country arguing with itself. The choice was binary. In the industry you were either for Venables or against him. The “friends of Terry” became shorthand for the division in a media camp that hung on his every word, either in admiration or to jump on a flaw. Visionaries and reformers in other countries didn’t seem to have such complicated lives.

In retrospect, a football manager who had to pulp his own autobiography, was upbraided for “deliberately and dishonestly” misleading a jury and was banned from being a company director was never likely to be remembered solely as a tracksuit thinker. But Venables could be mesmerising company. The more time you spent with him the more you noticed his hyper‑vigilant need for knowledge. Between comic anecdotes and tactical asides he would poke and prod everyone around the table for bits of information on this player, that chairman, this or that club. Behind the lights of his smile, his love for singing Frank Sinatra songs and his wise-guy self‑regard, Venables possessed a football brain with no off-switch. He was always alive to the next opportunity, the ever-present need to stay ahead of the hounds.

An “educated” coach, as Adams called him, Venables opened the eyes of England’s players at Euro 96 to the possibility of playing like the continental powers. It was what they wanted, they all said: an escape from their own deadening history. With England and at Barcelona, in both cases briefly, Venables’s gift for understanding human nature in the pressurised context of elite football combined with the eye he had for the workings of the game to produce flourishes entirely in sync with his own character: cunning, restless, exuberant, unapologetic.

After Euro 96, nobody noticed that he had not nominated penalty takers for the semi-final penalty shootout against Germany beyond spot-kick No 5: an error that allowed Gareth Southgate to volunteer to go next, out of duty rather than judgment. Southgate failed to score, and Venables’s short reign of 24 England games from March 1994 to June 1996 was over. While lawyers salivated over fees from his legal entanglements, Euro 96 embedded itself in the English psyche as a brief enchantment, a rebirth for the national team and a riposte to the FA blazers who mistrusted Venables while trying to build a commercial revolution on the popularity of his 1996 team.

Too distracted and flighty to be a statesman, Venables nevertheless worked best in the realm of the imagination – in inspiration – which isn’t something you would say of many England managers. There was a time when his 4-3-2-1 formation seemed so exotic that people called it the “Christmas tree”. Now, it’s a standard team shape. If you didn’t like that one, Venables had others. He was never short of tricks.