How Venables’ impact on football extended to Barcelona, Guardiola

Sports

I accept that many of you won’t have either seen Terry Venables at his impish, clever best as a midfielder at Spurs and Chelsea, or perhaps even savoured how enjoyable it was to watch the teams he coached — Crystal Palace, Barcelona, Spurs, England — when they played with their tails up. Beyond an acknowledgment that someone of renown in the football world died this weekend, it might well be that you’re neither particularly moved nor inclined to stop and give much thought to his sumptuous life and career.

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That’s fine. Time passes, eroding one’s standing and at times erasing one’s immediate relevance. I fully understand that, but today I really want you to take a moment and look at Terry’s life — namely his importance to FC Barcelona and his formative impact on, and importance to, Pep Guardiola.

Given that a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words let’s start with the main image accompanying this column. It’s the 15-year-old Pep Guardiola in his second season as a Barça starlet in their La Masia academy.

As was often the case then, trainee footballers were given the chance to be ball boys. Main task: race after the football when it went out of play during a match … as long as Barça were either in top gear and confident of getting more goals. Or if they were struggling and desperately seeking a winner/equaliser before time ran out.

The main bonus: getting to sit pitch-side on nights when, for Catalan-born Guardiola, the team about whom you feel obsessive devotion, has 120,000 passionate fans roaring them on at a time in your life when the biggest crowd in front of which you’ve played might be a few hundred people at best.

Young Pep had been three years old in 1974, the last time Barça held off Madrid, Atleti, Real Sociedad or Athletic Club to win the Spanish title: he wouldn’t have been remotely able to understand or appreciate what had happened. Now here he is, an awkward, skinny, talented teenager: week after week either watching Venables, this exotic foreigner, turn Barça into a gritty, win-oriented, successful outfit on the television for away matches or, thrillingly, within touching distance of Venables, Migueli, Steve Archibald, Bernd Schuster and Victor Munoz on the Camp Nou touchline or behind a goalmouth.

When that photo was taken, the league title had been clinched the previous season, giving entry into the old European Cup — only the champions of each country competed for that grand old trophy then — and at Camp Nou, Barcelona had turned a 3-0 defeat against a superb Gothenburg side in Sweden into a 3-3 draw after extra time and gone through to the final on penalties.

Venables’ first year at Camp Nou had yielded just Barça’s 10th league title since LaLiga was formed in 1929, compared to Madrid having won 20 while Atleti and Athletic Club sat at eight Spanish league titles each. Whatever you think of FC Barcelona now, they were, in real terms, “just one of a bunch” in Spain and if not yet irrelevant in the European Cup (now Champions League), they were verging on it.

Before that night when Guardiola’s eyes shone like it was Christmas, Barcelona had been in the same number of European Cup finals (1) as Borussia Monchengladbach, Partizan, Eintracht Frankfurt, Feyenoord, Aston Villa and Malmo. And they’d never won; Madrid had won it six times by that point. It’s stunning when you think of it now.

What Venables gave Catalunya, Barca and, most specifically Pep was more than just a dramatic semifinal win and a shot at a second final, fully 25 years after their first. No, it was the idea that the club mattered on the national and international stage — something you need to understand a smidge of Spanish social history to fully get.

When Venables joined from Queens Park Rangers in 1984, Spain wasn’t yet 10 years beyond of being run by a Madrid-centric dictatorship. Think of that! FC Barcelona operated in a country that was ruled by a single, unelected man who’d been imposed on them via civil war. In due course, the charismatic Englishman who sung Frank Sinatra (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) on a Catalan TV station brought Barça’s first title win in a democratic country since the 1930s.

It was their chance to feel important and, if not independent, then autonomous. Self-determining.

Sum all this up in your mind, take a breath and now re-examine young Guardiola’s shining, awe-struck, enraptured gaze at Venables, the man who’d shown him what winning looked like, felt like, what it cost. And how much it was worth working for. It left an absolutely indelible impact on someone who has gone on, by stages, to completely redefine how FC Barcelona regards itself, how the club is regarded and — if we are frank about this — who has gone on to have one of the greatest, most nourishing impacts ever in the history of the greatest, most popular sport in human history.

By the time of his death this weekend, I had gotten to know Terry pretty well over the last 30+ years. Witty, life-loving, shrewd, stylish, playful and something of a loveable rogue, he must have seemed like a messianic figure to teenaged Pep.

Terry approached every day as if it might be full of bounty, packed with opportunities and no shortage of fun. Very little, if anything in my experience, daunted him: he preached a chest out, bet on your own talent, use your street-smarts approach to life. If you believed it, you could conquer people, players and any situation that presents itself.

A mere six years after that photo by which I’m so inspired, Guardiola was a novice midfielder in the Barca side through to its first European Cup final since Venables’ attempt in 1986 had ended so dismally — neither team scoring after extra time, then a dreadful penalty shoot out won by Steaua Bucharest. Just six short years prior.

When Guardiola was asked, before that 1992 final against Sampdoria at Wembley, he told the Catalan press that “Jeta” was a vitally important characteristic to show on a huge, potentially intimidating occasion like this. It’s a Spanish word to symbolise unshakeable self-belief, with chest and chin stuck out — a “you cannot beat us!” cockiness that stopped short of complacency or arrogance, but which ensured that nerves weren’t a threat.

I firmly believe that what Pep as ball boy saw in the magical Londoner who thought that he could tame anyone, win against any odds, who made jaunty and “chipper” seem like tame, pallid words had a big, guiding impact on Pep the young European Cup-winning midfielder. However, I don’t have to imagine everything; since he learned of Terry’s death, Guardiola has spoken about it.

“[Venables’] impact [at Barcelona] was incredible. Terry introduced some things that had never been there before. A certain type of pressing, set-pieces — for example, I don’t remember how many goals José Ramón Alexanko, the central defender and captain, scored! I watched those games and thought ‘Wow, they run a lot! How good they press, the set pieces are good, the transitions, such a physical team, how he changed to different shapes!’

“In that short time, the impact in the way they played — I remember talking to friends of mine who played with him. Not just as a manager, but as a person, he was so funny. In programmes, singing and dancing. How fun my club was then, winning games, winning LaLiga!”

But there’s no poetic licence needed here. Guardiola the grown-up became very different from Terry as a man and as a coach. Venables was clever, thoughtful, studious and adventurous as a coach and, undeniably, he was infectiously convincing and a brilliant communicator. But if you look at his overall trophy achievements, and how some of his adventures ended, you can say that other interests hampered him, and he didn’t possess the same absolute razor-sharp focus as Guardiola.

More than that, anyone who’s watched his work or listened to him knows that Guardiola has always had a compendium of influences, plus a perpetually inquisitive mind of his own. The Venables aspects in the makeup of Guardiola as coach is important, but the Catalan far outstrips his English counterpart in terms of achievement and impact.

The last time I saw Venables was in May 2016, spending a day down in his stunningly beautiful hotel in southeastern Spain. That night, Guardiola’s Bayern were eliminated from the Champions League semifinal by Atletico. His Manchester City years were in the future, but Terry had thrilled to the way Guardiola’s Barcelona had played. The way Guardiola had drawn the very best out of Lionel Messi, whom Terry certainly believed was the greatest player of the modern era.

When Venables was in charge at Barcelona, Pep hadn’t really been on the radar of a first team coach charged with “win, win and win.” His remit wasn’t really about development or dipping down into the academy to promote 15- or 16-year-olds. His employers wanted trophies — end of story.

Nor did the two men’s paths cross a great deal; it wasn’t like Venables took any proprietorial pride in how Guardiola had turned out as a player or coach, but he had been adoring what he had been watching. That day in his La Escondida hotel, Venables talked to us about entertainment, about ambition, about people falling in love with a brand of football, with flair, ambition and coaching intelligence. Guardiola the ball boy stared up with adoration that night in 1986, but for most of the rest of their lives, Venables thought of Guardiola as a keeper of the flame. He considered him one of “his” gang — if not in person, then in spirit.

And that’s not only good enough for me, but it’s made my eyes water a little bit with memories of a lovely, talented, charismatic football man.

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