LONDON — Terry Venables has been in football long enough to know that his days at Leeds United are almost numbered before they have really begun.
After 15 Premiership games in charge the fans of Leeds have turned on Venables and when supporters decide someone “must go” — the manager, the chairman or both — the chances of turning them around are slim at the best.
Peter Reid discovered this at Sunderland as did Mick McCarthy with the Republic of Ireland, plus many other managers before them. Once the crowd makes up its mind that the club would be better off without the manager it takes a Herculean effort for the spectators to admit they were wrong.
When the team starts losing the blame is laid at the feet of: 1. The manager. 2 (tie). The chairman and bad refereeing.
The players tend to escape the worst of the criticism though the process is that the players then say it is, in fact, they who are to blame and not 1 or 2. Of course, how sincere the players, whose contracts are watertight so they cannot be fired, are with their sentiments is a matter of opinion.
In July, when Venables was appointed as the successor to David O’Leary, who is still involved in a legal case regarding unfair dismissal, Ray Fell, chairman of the Leeds Supporters Club said: “We have got a man with charisma and ability and a track record that we are looking for.”
Just four months later with Leeds hovering four points above the relegation zone — Sunday’s game against Charlton is 14th vs 15th — the lines to call-in shows are melting down as United fans vent their spleens at the manager.
Friday’s annual general meeting promises to be a livelier than usual affair, while if Leeds loses its sixth league game of the season at Elland Road — when Charlton is the visitor — expect the protests against Venables and chairman Peter Ridsdale to become nasty rather than vociferous.
The truth is that Venables walked into a football club heavily in debt after the £100 million (give or take a few quid) spent in the O’Leary era. “Hello Terry, thanks for taking the job but you’ve got to sell our best player and another top international,” could have been Ridsdale’s opening line to his new manager.
Rio Ferdinand was bought by Manchester United for £30 million and Robbie Keane was on his way to Tottenham for £7 million. Venables has been allowed to splash out just under £3 million on Nick Barmby from Liverpool and Ridsdale has made it clear that the club will have to sell six more players during the January transfer window.
“We have spent too much in the transfer market without recouping,” said Ridsdale.
This could be easier said that done because the players at Leeds are on very nice contracts, thank you, and finding would-be buyers who can afford the fee and the wages will be difficult.
Despite saying they would play for nothing the reality is — and who can really blame them? –players are often happy to not play in return for a very large salary. For instance, Winston Bogarde is picking up £40,000 a week as a Chelsea reserve, which the Dutchman probably thinks is better than earning half that sum in a first team somewhere.
“The decline of the club began six months before Terry started,” said Ridsdale which will be little consolation to the man whose surname is rarely far from a “hell for Tel” headline these days. Ridsdale fails to mention that he oversaw O’Leary’s spending.
Ridsdale also said that “results must improve” — a veiled threat which Venables responded to by replying: “The chairman is the chairman, he is my boss and must be able to say what he said.”
Which is a leading contender for the non-reply of 2002.
English football is divided on Venables. There are those who believe him to be an outstanding coach of his generation — inventive, respected and never shirking a challenge. For what it’s worth, nearly all the players he has worked with still speak highly of him.
On the other hand some say he has won next to nothing — the F.A. Cup with Tottenham — while losing the European Cup final on penalties while managing Barcelona. He also led England to the semifinals of Euro ’96 where the Germans, as they do, won on penalties.
Venables probably didn’t think he’d win the Premiership in his first (and only?) season with Leeds but it would never have crossed his mind that relegation would be an issue before Christmas.
The criticism “is justified in as much we are not getting the results we would like,” he said. “You’re going to get criticism. You expect it in this game and I’ve had it before. It’s justified because I believe we should be\pardoing better.”
Venables, who has a two-year contract, is spot-on when he says Leeds should be nearer the top than the bottom of the league. Even without Ferdinand and Keane and a growing injury list, it has enough good players to be pushing for a place in the UEFA Cup again.
But the good players are not producing the goods. Is that the fault of the manager (yes, say the fans)? Or the players (who say Venables is not to blame)?
It probably doesn’t help Venables that Yorkshire folk can be world-class grumpies. Under the former England coach Leeds won its first two games and was cheered, but when it lost its third it was booed off. The English — patient?
The blinkered, paid-up members of the “Tel Must Go” club seem not to realize how much it would cost for a cash-strapped club to sack a second manager, when the compensation — which O’Leary claims he should be paid £2 million — has not been agreed to with the first.
Also, who do you realistically bring in mid-season? Only the out-of-work tend to be available and those managers are usually out of work for a reason.
These may be bad times for Leeds and Venables but he has not lost his sense of humor. Joking that Brian Clough and Jock Stein lasted just 44 days in the Elland Road hot seat, Venables said: “Another two weeks and I’m due a testimonial.”
We have heard about players getting their team out of jail by scoring but Aaron Webster of Burton Albion almost landed in the dock after his team’s goal at Oldham in an F.A. Cup first-round tie.
When Craig Dudley gave non-league Burton a shock 2-1 lead, his celebration included a leap over the perimeter fence and into the crowd.
The elated Webster, who had already been substituted, jumped off the bench to join in only for a police officer to mistake him for a hooligan and march him away.
The police were unimpressed and unconvinced by the fact Webster was wearing a Burton jersey, shorts and socks plus shin-guards and boots. Neither did they believe the old yarn about him having scored a first-half penalty.
Eventually law and order was restored and Webster received an apology. As for Oldham, it scored a late equalizer to get out of jail, too.