Terry's troubles

RECENTLY, on successive days, I attended post match press conferences at Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. The first was given by the Leeds United manager, Terry Venables.


RECENTLY, on successive days, I attended post match press conferences at Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. The first was given by the Leeds United manager, Terry Venables. At it, he stated quite emphatically that no offer had been received by Leeds for their England international centre-half, Jonathan Woodgate. The following evening after Newcastle United had beaten Spurs I asked their veteran manager Bobby Robson whether such an offer had definitely been received. Yes, he assured me, it had. And Hey Presto, in no time at all Woodgate, to the fury of Venables, had been sold to Newcastle United for �9 million, which left Terry in his own words feeling like "a patsy."

Terry Venables, the Leeds United manager, at a press conference, was non-committal regarding his future, after the club agreed to sell centre-half Jonathan Woodgate to Newcastle United, much against his wishes. — Pic. AFP-

You could scarcely blame him, though there were those in the press who abjured him to stop "moaning," declared that he was running only too true to form, and exhumed chapter and verse on his previous discontents with Tottenham Hotspur — where he lost a bitter battle for control with the virtual owner, Alan Sugar — Crystal Palace and so on. That article also referred to the ever-embarrassing fact that he remains suspended as a company director for a seven-year period, two judges having scathingly criticised and doubted the veracity of his evidence in court.

True enough, all of it, yet in the current case, scarcely relevant. Terry was appointed Leeds manager this season in succession to David O'Leary who was sacked, and who has just received a huge pay off from Leeds for the remaining period of his contract. I write as one who has known Terry as a teenager. I've long been impressed by his versatility. The problem is that so is he.

I still treasure the story told me by the Scottish novelist Gordon Williams, brought in by Chelsea to give some cultural tuition to their young apprentices of who Terry at that time was one. A Cockney from the London "overspill" town of Dagenham — where his illustrious predecessor as England manager, Alf Ramsey, came from — Terry became a good enough footballer to play several times for England. Indeed, he won every possible international honour at one time or another, including amateur and youth caps.

On this occasion, Williams asked the youngsters to go away and write a short story. Most of them looked bewildered, but when Terry produced his attempt, Williams was astonished. It was a thoroughly convincing piece of work, which reminded him of the celebrated American writer Damon Runyon chronicler of Broadway and its dubious denizens. When told as much, Terry responded that he had never heard of Damon (Guys and Dolls) Runyon. But in due course he and Williams collaborated on books featuring a fictional detective, Hazell, later to be made into a televisions series. When they stopped collaborating, Williams told me, there was nowhere for him, the professional writer, to go, since Terry had been the main force.

Back to Leeds. That they were in fearful financial straits was all too well known. Their debt was a whopping �77 million, and though they had a �60 million bond as something of a cushion, it incurred a heavy interest rate. So Leeds had to see. To Venables' and the supporters' grief, the first big name to leave, last summer, was the young England centre-half, Rio Ferdinand. He'd cost what many believed an excessive fee of over �18 million when he arrived from West Ham United, but now Leeds sold him to Manchester United for no less than �30 million.

Still the debt remained colossal. So just before Woodgate, a Leeds United product, went, the club transferred Robbie Fowler, whom they had bought last season from Liverpool, to Manchester City for �6 million thus losing a lot of money on the deal. To sell Woodgate was however the last straw for Terry and led to the Chairman Peter Risdale receiving death threats.

To me, one of the most extraordinary facts to emerge from this tangled affair was that Risdale over the past two-year period received no less than �983,000! For doing what, you may well have asked? And I am not the only one to look back with some nostalgia to the days when club Chairmen actually put money into their clubs, rather than taking it out. Indeed, a number of them still do. Way back in 1955, Len Shackleton, that maverick star inside-forward, scandalised the English game in his autobiography Clown Prince of Soccer with a chapter headed The average Director's knowledge of football. It was a blank page. Not wholly unfair, but in those remote times the clubs were not PLCs, which now had to defer to their various shareholders and dance to the tune of the financial City. Leeds, we were informed, now had a stock exchange value of just �15 million which made no sense at all given the high value of such remaining stars as Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Mark Viduka.

The money men on the Leeds PLC board were reportedly very satisfied with the deal done for Woodgate, which simply threw into relief the deep dichotomy between what football people and City people want. To make the money they so badly need, Leeds needed not just to sell their chief assets, but to regain a place in one of the European competitions, with its accompanying television money. And selling off your chief playing assets seems a pretty sure way of ensuring that Europe will remain as distant as ever. It was in fact the mirage of Europe, which lured Leeds into such expense on transfer fees and colossal salaries; they actually managed to reach the semi-final of the European Cup. But this season they were humiliatingly ejected from the UEFA Cup.

Thus if Venables feels the ground has been cut away from under his feet, who can blame him? I am well aware of his failings, which might perhaps be described as delusions of grandeur, a belief that he can succeed in anything and everything. A delusion, which in the exact sense has cost him so dear in his attempted business dealings in which he sometimes seemed not so much evasive as naive. Why employ a young right-hand man at Tottenham, one Eddie Ashby, who had been made bankrupt on numerous occasions, and still was at the time Terry took him on. Ashby would in fact go to gaol. Now Leeds, in a phrase, must get out of gaol. Not easy.