Terry Venables, my first hero – Column
Tuesday, 9th Jan 2018 16:05 by Simon Dorset
As former QPR player and manager Terry Venables celebrates his 75th birthday, A Kick Up The R’s columnist Simon Dorset reviews the career of the man who made him fall in love with our club.
Many of my earliest memories of football revolve around watching The Big Match on Sunday lunchtimes. As a football mad schoolboy, not even 10-years-old, I would watch wide eyed, thoroughly absorbed in the matches but with no firm allegiance, my fidelity as fleeting as that of an alley cat. Then one Sunday afternoon everything changed, I experienced my “Road to Damascus” moment and the blinding light was provided by Terry Venables. I can’t tell you who we were playing, I can’t remember the final score, but I can say with absolute assurance that Gerry Francis scored.
That early 70s team had an aesthetic appeal befitting the era, Phil Parkes’ coiffed hair, Terry Mancini’s infectious joie de vivre, Dave Thomas’ glistening bare shins and Stan Bowles’ outrageous flamboyance, but, for me, Terry Venables stood head and shoulders above the rest of the side. It wasn’t his vision and passing that initially caught my eye, nor his orchestration of his team of willing runners, but his imagination from free kicks. Rarely were these wasted with a hopeful pot shot a goal or merely hoofed into a crowded penalty area, Venables’ had a whole playbook of incredibly innovative options at his disposal. This particular match featured what I regard as his finest creation, he adroitly lifted the ball over the wall for Francis to turn and volley passed a helpless, unprotected goal keeper. Despite knowing absolutely nothing about Queens Park Rangers Football Club, I was hooked.
At the end of the 1968/69 season QPR were relegated from the First Division with a meagre 18 points; their monumental rise from the Third Division to the top flight in English football in consecutive seasons had sadly proven unsustainable. Les Allen, who was initially appointed player manager in December 1968 but had retired from playing after only a handful of matches, recognised the fact that he needed an on-field leader for his young team, an experienced professional to help guide and direct them. Ambitiously he identified Terry Venables as that player and made a bold, but opportunistic, bid to sign him from Tottenham Hotspur for, what was then, a club record transfer fee of £70,000. Venables had been made the scapegoat by sections of the Spurs’ supporters for their perceived lack of success and so was willing to drop down a division even though, at only 26, he should have been approaching his peak. June 25, 1969, became one of the most significant days in QPR’s history; it is impossible to overstate the impact Terry Venables had on the club.
Allen immediately made Venables his captain and was rewarded as Venables, free of the inhibitions brought on by his chastening time at the hands of the Spurs’ fans, in return revealed the vision, passing and match control he was bought to provide. He played as an on-field manager, coaxing or chastening the players around him, drawing the better and better performances out of them. With Venables perfectly fulfilling his role, QPR initially stabilised in Division 2 and then purposefully built. Fellow midfield players Gerry Francis and Martyn Busby blossomed into dynamic match winners; the combination of their athleticism and Venables’ brain proved irresistible. Gordon Jago, who had replaced Allen as manager after he resigned in January 1971, bought very wisely supplementing the team with some of the most exciting young talent available and he, Bobby Campbell, the official coach, and Venables, who was now heavily involved in coaching and devising the club’s tactics, oversaw the development of the backbone of the finest QPR team of all time.
The team’s steady improvement finally resulted in promotion at the end of the 1972/73 season. In my opinion Jago’s team, so ably captained and marshalled by Venables, set the benchmark against which I have judged all subsequent QPR teams. Regardless of the fact that I was at a very impressionable age, only ever saw them on television and will always look back on that team through rose-tinted glasses, I believe that few have come close to matching the excitement of watching them, their flair and style defining what QPR should always strive to achieve. In my opinion only the 1975/76 team have exceeded that benchmark; other QPR teams have performed brilliantly against higher quality opposition, but not with the same panache.
The team impressed the wider audience that watched them in Division 1 the following season finishing a very impressive eighth and then, bewilderingly for a boy impatiently awaiting his twelfth birthday, Terry Venables was sold to Crystal Palace. The rug had been pulled away from underneath me, I was totally disconsolate. Of course young boys readily bounce back from that sort of disappointment, a new hero is acclaimed and the process starts again. Stan Bowles readily accepted that mantle and eventually Don Masson brilliantly filled the gaping hole in QPR’s midfield. Much as I liked Masson, and as magnificent a player as he was, he was no Terry Venables.
QPR lost far more than just a midfield general when Venables left and far more than his career statistics can suggest. The fact that he was captain in every one of his 179 matches barely scratches the surface of his importance, neither do the 19 goals and countless assists that he contributed. He was not only the heartbeat of the team but also the brain, the inspiration and the motivator, a great innovator and masterful tactician. A true leader. Possibly more importantly than anything else he was a massive influence on the young players. Gerry Francis described him as a father figure, his own subsequent promotion to captain did not begin to redress his disappointment when Venables was sold. In no small part due to Venables’ influence, Francis developed into an England international and had earned the captaincy of the national side before his 24th birthday.
In October 1980 Jim Gregory sacked Tommy Docherty, the latest manager paling in comparison to Dave Sexton at QPR and without delay moved to replace him with Terry Venables. Gregory had recognised a kindred spirit in Venables while he was a player at QPR and had been keeping a close eye on his burgeoning managerial career. After succeeding Allison at Crystal Palace, he had guided the South London side to two promotions in just three seasons and then onto a safe position in the First Division, however Venables had reportedly fallen out with chairman Ray Bloye and was again happy to drop down a division to join QPR
Venables immediately set about rejuvenating a jaded looking side that was slipping alarmingly towards the relegation zone. Simon Stainrod, a skilful and flamboyant striker, a natural heir to Rodney Marsh’s and Stan Bowles’ number 10 shirt, was signed to fill the void left by the unfathomable decision to sell both Clive Allen and Paul Goddard during the summer, the young guns whose goals had fired QPR to 5th position in the previous season; the 4 – 0 thrashings meted out to both of the Bristol teams at Loftus Road failed to mask the fact that QPR were not potent enough in the final third of the pitch. Venable supplemented the better players from Docherty’s squad with a few players from his old club including a promising young defender called Terry Fenwick while always keeping an eye on the players emerging from the youth team. QPR’s downwards slide was arrested justifying both Jim Gregory’s faith in Venables and the £100,000 he had to pay Crystal Palace in compensation.
The summer of 1981 saw the Venables revolution at QPR pick up speed. While the installation of a plastic playing surface to overcome the appalling drainage problems of the existing turf pitch claimed the majority of the media’s attention, I was far more excited by the return of Clive Allen, the most natural goal scorer I have ever seen playing for QPR. Venables also added John Gregory to the squad to provide some drive and goals from midfield and continued to promote youth players; both Ian Dawes and Gary Micklewhite made their first team debuts during the season. Even though the team fell tantalisingly short in their promotion challenge the season did offer some surprise compensation. On a bleak winter’s night in January at Ayresome Park few would have predicted that Terry Venables would have been proudly leading his team out onto the hallowed Wembley turf in the May sunshine, but Warren Neill’s headed winner deep in extra time was the first tentative step along that path. Clive Allen’s goals propelled Rangers through the rounds and into their only FA Cup final to date. Terry Fenwick rose gloriously at the far post to take the match against Tottenham Hotspur into a reply which an unassailable combination of bad luck and contentious refereeing saw them lose to a Glenn Hoddle penalty. Only the most ardent, one-eyed Spurs supporter believed that Spurs deserved their victory.
Venables didn’t allow his team to wallow in misery after their cup final disappointment, but used that pain and keen sense of injustice to instil a greater determination into the team as he endeavoured to drive them towards promotion the following season. The foundation of his team was their solidity at the back. The division’s tightest defence, superbly marshalled by Terry Fenwick, kept an impressive tally of 19 clean sheets in their 42 matches and only conceded a total of 36 goals in the league that season. Their mastery of the offside trap was a coach’s dream, an offside trap which youth team coach, George Graham, successfully recreated a few years later at Arsenal. Although not quite as exhilarating as the QPR team that Venables played in, the team played with a distinctive style and swagger very much in their manager’s mould. One touch passing, thrusting runs and incisive tactics backed up by sheer hard work and battling determination, sides were regularly sliced open as QPR rattled in goals from all areas of the pitch. And then, of course, Venables had re-opened his free kick playbook; these were fantastic days to be at Loftus Road. By October promotion was already starting to look like a distinct probability and a strong run of form starting in March saw QPR surge away from Wolverhampton Wanderers and leave the following pack trailing in their wake, eventually winning the division by 10 clear points as his team left an indelible impression in QPR folklore.
The players loved being coached by Terry Venables, his sessions were as inventive as his own play had been years before. He believed in mentally challenging the players, stimulating their brains, not allowing anyone to just go through the motions. All aspects of the match were covered, meticulous plans weren’t just evolved for free kicks on the edge of their opponent’s penalty area, but for throw-ins deep in their own territory, passages of play were planned, different ways of creating space and utilising it. Venables encouraged his players to offer up opinions and suggestions, always happy to discuss anything related to football, especially tactics. Venables was also masterful man manager. Every player stepped onto the pitch brimming with confidence and totally assured in his role within the team. Most importantly he created an atmosphere where all the players wanted to learn and develop as a team.
Undaunted by the prospect of playing against the best teams in the country Terry Venables kept faith with his existing team and was rewarded with another sterling campaign. His coaching methods had already prepared the players for the greater challenge of top flight football and QPR comfortably assumed their place within the upper echelons of the division; ending the season in 5th place was not flattering to his team, neither was finishing 10 points above the next highest London team. Venables’ QPR thoroughly deserved their qualification for the UEFA Cup and, but for a couple of unusual aberrations, could have matched the achievement Dave Sexton’s 1975/76 team. A personal highlight for me occurred in the 1 – 1 home draw against Manchester Untied which featured a variant of the Venables/Francis flick over the wall free kick that initiated my love affair with QPR, different personnel but the same result. John Gregory lifted the ball over the wall and Terry Fenwick gleefully buried it. Venables also continued with his policy of developing and promoting youth players, that season saw the debut of another QPR legend, Alan McDonald.
I can still clearly remember the unadulterated joy and excitement at the end of that season, virtually the whole of the crowd was on the pitch after the last home match cheering Venables and his players as they celebrated a successful season in the director’s box. The future could not have looked more promising, we had a bright, young, successful team, European football on the horizon and the best manager in the world.
All seasoned QPR supporters know that when everything is looking its rosiest that is the time to really worry. Venables’ coaching ability had not gone unnoticed around the world and before the month was out Terry Venables had become “El Tel” the manager of Barcelona. Yet again I was shattered by his departure and then dumfounded as his replacement, Alan Mullery, set about destroying Venables’ legacy as quickly and effectively as he could in the, thankfully, short time he was entrusted with our club.
Life after QPR was anything but straight forward for Venables. His coaching genius steered Barcelona to their first La Liga title in over 10 seasons, the European Cup Final the following season and the Spanish League Cup in 1986. He then achieved a rare double by leading Spurs to victory in the F.A. Cup having already won that trophy as a player with the club. England beckoned and his adaption of the “Christmas Tree” formation playing his more defensively minded midfield players in the wide positions saw England reach the semi finals of the Euro ’96 tournament. However the ramifications over his acrimonious dismissal by Alan Sugar from Spurs over financial impropriety eventually caught up with him resulting in Venables being disqualified by the high court from acting as a company director for seven years. His managerial career slid downhill from this point.
These later events cannot be allowed to overshadow Venables’ impact on the game as a whole. He developed from a technically gifted, imaginative and compelling player into a brilliant motivator, an innovative tactician and a peerless coach. Not only was he the first player to represent England at all international levels, schoolboy, youth, amateur, under-23 and full international, but he became one of England’s more successful managers. In addition to possessing one of the sharpest and most creative football brains of all time, he also enjoyed the innate ability to successfully execute his ideas. In his two spells at QPR he was not only paramount in securing promotion to the top flight of English football, but also in establishing the club at that level. Quite simply he is a living legend.
No one has had more impact on the football side of my life than Terry Venables. While some will always regard him as a typical “cockney” wide boy, a rascal with a winning smile and suspect practices, he was my first hero. He is the man who ignited my passion for QPR and the man who symbolises why I love QPR There have been so many dour individuals in football, Venables was always the antithesis to these. When he was around our football was always exciting, skilful, innovative and fun, a joy to watch. I regard Terry Venables as the personification of QPR, the man who symbolises both the excitement, enjoyment of the goods days at Loftus Road. For others it may be Alec Stock, Jim Gregory or even Gerry Francis, but for me Terry Venables will always be Mr QPR.
Pictures – Action Images
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