Soccer

While eulogies for former England manager Terry Venables describe a colourful character,  in Australia he will be best remembered for one dream-shattering night in 1997. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Terry Venables and the Socceroos’ World Cup heartbreak

Three soccer coaches on a field inside an empty stadium.
Socceroos coach Terry Venables (centre), with assistant coaches Raul Blanco and Les Scheinflug, at the MCG ahead of the second leg of the Australia v Iran World Cup qualifier in November 1997.
Credit: Tony Feder / Allsport

That day of infamy? It’s recalled like a dream now. Not only for the passage of time and the accretions of soot upon memory. And not only because, in the public memory of the Socceroos, the triumph of ’05 eclipses the mourning of ’97. It’s also because the whole thing was so strange.

It’s November 29, 1997. My team has just won an indoor soccer final and we are now desperate to check the other game’s score at the rec centre’s kiosk. Beside the boxes of crisps sits a tiny television with imperfect reception. But despite its modest size and the dusting of static, we can see Australia is 2-0 up against Iran in the second half at the MCG, with less than half an hour to play. The kiosk guy ratifies our optimism: “We’ve been all over them, too,” he says.

I wander out to the car park where my dad’s waiting, carrying my plastic trophy and bottle of Gatorade. Never have sweetened electrolytes tasted so good. We’d just won the title and now the Socceroos were going to the World Cup for the first time in my life.

It had been a while. Australia had qualified only once for a World Cup, in 1974. But now, with a decent collection of talent – not least Harry Kewell, then a teenager – the Socceroos had coasted through the Oceania confederacy, defeated New Zealand over two legs and now faced Iran in two matches: first away and then at home in Melbourne.

A week before in Tehran, before an absurdly large crowd of 128,000 – which would have been noisy anyway but had been provoked into vociferous hostility by Australia’s insensitive insistence on bringing its own food and water – the Socceroos managed a 1-1 draw. This was good. Promising. On the away-goal rule, it meant a 0-0 draw in Melbourne would suffice.

But at the MCG, we were bettering that. We were flying. It was 2-0 and our kiosk commentator had testified to our dominance. We were going to France. Or so I thought. When I got home, about 20 minutes later, I rushed to the television.

Let’s rewind. This column is, after all, about “El Tel” – aka Terry Venables, the famed English soccer manager who died on November 25 aged 80 and who, in the late 1990s, surprised the world by accepting the role of Socceroos coach.

Venables was charismatic and unblushingly ambitious. A force of will to whom fame, glory and ignominy seemed equally attracted. He was a gifted soccer player who was twice capped for England. He managed Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur and England. He was a strategic innovator who adored “the beautiful game”, but whose restless ambition compels us to look at the sum of his unusually varied résumé: a designer of board games, writer of detective fiction and creator and shill for a failed gadget designed to obscure women’s hair curlers. He was a cabaret crooner, nightclub owner and author of defamatory memoirs. A possible perjurer, impulsive investor and, eventually, a man whom the British government was compelled to bar from corporate directorships for seven years.

And yes, for 24 matches, he was the unlikely manager of the Socceroos.

Born in East London in 1943, Venables shirked school but excelled in soccer. He made England schoolboys, then juniors, then the national team. He was playing for Chelsea when he did, in 1964, but failed to make the squad for England’s triumphant World Cup in 1966. Exactly 30 years later, though, he would be there as England manager when it seemed the glories of ’66 were destined to be repeated.

It was the 1996 European Championships, hosted by England, and Venables had fulfilled his destiny. It was the summer of Cool Britannia, and the English team had swagger. They played with uncharacteristic flair and flexibility, and their mercurial midfielder Paul Gascoigne – whose creative brilliance was matched only by his talent for lurid self-destruction – enjoyed a renaissance. England dazzled an exceptional Dutch side 4-1 on their way to a semi-final defeat against Germany on penalties, and if the performance of England in that tournament is nostalgically exaggerated, so too was the warmth of the sun, the beneficence of Venables, and the health of the mighty kingdom. To this day, that period is recalled giddily like another Summer of Love.

And so, Venables remaining as England manager for the ’98 World Cup qualifiers – and then the tournament itself – would seem assured, right? But the year before, in 1995, the Football Association began negotiating a contract extension with Venables and applied what he thought to be insulting qualifications. Their faith was uncertain and they wanted to offer only a provisional extension until after Euro ’96. Venables’ pride would not allow it: he said he would quit following the tournament.

And so he did. Australia’s then soccer chief, David Hill, was watching. The story goes that an English backpacker doing administrative duties at Soccer Australia had once worked at the Football Association in England and had Venables’ number.

Connection made, Hill flew to London to meet the manager at his Kensington nightclub. It was named Scribes West, and it was said that its dance floor was made of illegally acquired timber from the Spurs’ ground. It was here that Venables liked to perform karaoke – his preference was Sinatra – and to invite certain reporters for evenings of gossip and cigars. It also became a hangout for footballers and old underworld types too – “Mad” Frankie Fraser, once a psychotic enforcer for the Kray twins who removed the teeth of enemies with pliers, was a regular.

It was here, amid the smoke and amateur crooners, that Hill made his offer. Few English hacks, if any, would have thought it remotely possible that Venables’ next gig would be Socceroos manager. But Hill insisted, then begged, then pledged to match Venables’ FA salary – then a relatively minor £200,000 but still a large chunk of Soccer Australia’s budget. Venables agreed.

But there were qualifications. Venables would not move permanently to Australia, instead working from here for just a few months of the year. There was some consternation domestically, not least from overlooked managers who would have accepted the job at a fraction of the cost. The late soccer writer Michael Cockerill wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: “We are to have a British coach who will continue to live in London and guide the Socceroos by remote control. It is, of course, a scheme which few other countries would accept. It is a scheme fraught with logistical, moral and philosophical questions … Venables will need all his barrow-boy charm to win over the doubting segment of the Australian coaching fraternity.”

Venables arrived after the pulping of his memoir was ordered by a judge but just before another admonished him for deliberately misleading a jury in the trial of his soon-to-be-convicted financial adviser. But if Venables’ reputation was vexed, he had also long found the admiration of players. He mixed an avuncular charm with tactical astuteness, and could place an arm around a player and tell them something new. After he left the England role, players were generous in their testimonies. The same would later be true of the Socceroos. “Players have always loved him,” Craig Foster, a Socceroo under Venables, once said. “He’s a charming man, he’s in touch with the players and his understanding of the game is outstanding. I remember his first-ever training session with the Socceroos – he stopped with every player in different positions and told every single one of them some tactical information that they hadn’t known.”

In the 24 matches that Terry Venables led the Socceroos, they entered, for the first time, the top 50 in FIFA’s world rankings. Then 40. Then 30. But Venables also had just one job: to secure Australia’s qualification for the World Cup.

 

It’s the 48th minute, 2-0 Socceroos. Enter: Peter Hore. You don’t hear much about Hore these days – he seems to have retired from crashing sports events, funerals and public hearings. But in his day, and for reasons still mysterious to me, he disrupted the memorial service for Michael Hutchence, breached the track on Melbourne Cup Day and hurdled the net during the men’s singles final of the Australian Open.

On this night, Hore breached the ground, ran towards the Iranian goal and ripped the net before security claimed him. There was a long delay while it was replaced, which – or so our folklore goes – both crippled the Aussies’ momentum and allowed the Iranians to “regroup”.

Hore’s malign influence is wildly overstated. It’s forgotten now, but at the time Johnny Warren said on air that he thought the delay was beneficial to Australia. Hore’s stunt seems less significant than the fact the Aussies had run their guts out, and Venables was terribly slow in replacing the most fatigued legs with some fresh, defensive ones.

Hore’s trespass occurred just after half-time; much later, in the 75th minute, Australia were still leading 2-0. But then, within five minutes, Iran scored twice. It was 2-2 and they were through to the World Cup.

It was shocking. And bitter. The late Johnny Warren – a member of the 1974 Socceroos – wept on air. Venables said it was “one of the saddest sporting moments of my life”.

Venables would soon become entangled in fraud investigations over his purchase of a controlling stake of Portsmouth Football Club, to which he signed several Australians. He then had brief, undistinguished spells as manager of Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Leeds. His time with England – the memorable summer of ’96 – proved to be the high-water mark of his managerial career. He was only 53 when the tide retreated.

There were newspaper columns, advisory coaching roles and, in 2010, he released a cover of Elvis’s hit “If I Can Dream”, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It went to No. 23 on the UK charts. It was a strange, passionate and chaotic life, and he spent the last years of it running a hotel in Spain. He told a reporter towards the end that he’d had a grand time. And so he had. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "El Tel tales".

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