Terry Venables is unveiled as the new England manager in 1994 (Mike Hewitt/Allsport UK/Getty Images)

November 27, 2023   5 mins

Perhaps it’s just the age I was, but in the summer of 1996, life in Britain seemed pretty good. I was just finishing my first year at university, a sclerotic government was evidently coming to an end, British art and music and film were vibrant and globally relevant in a way they hadn’t been for 30 years, and England was hosting a football tournament it looked like it might win. This felt like another Sixties (often self-consciously so), a time of optimism and cultural self-confidence that with hindsight looks like an opportunity missed.

And at the heart of it was Euro 96. And at the heart of that was the England manager Terry Venables, who died on Saturday. It wasn’t so much that England played well — other than the frankly incredible 4-1 win over the Netherlands, they didn’t especially. Nor was it even that they reached the semi-final, although that helped — obviously. It was about the mood and the atmosphere. After football’s years of horror and violence, this seemed the consecration of a smarter, cheerier, less confrontational age.

Before kick-off, stadiums were full of smiling fans singing along to “Three Lions”, an anthem that, unusually for a football song, looked on defeat and disappointment and found it beautiful. This was a new sensibility: knowing, ironic, unaggressive. The post-Italia 90 gentrification of football was complete. Or at least it seemed so before another penalty shoot-out defeat to Germany unleashed anger that led to street violence, to German cars being smashed and to a Russian student being stabbed, presumed German. Disillusionment when it came, came quickly.

But that summer still exists as a heady memory of what might have been. Those were the days of youth, of innocence, of possibility. Of Paul Gascoigne lifting the ball over Colin Hendry with his left foot and volleying in with his right, of Teddy Sheringham’s disguised lay-off to Alan Shearer, of Stuart Pearce and a penalty that defined the notion of catharsis. But it was also the summer of Venables — for, without him, England would not have played as they did. For everybody who despaired of the long-ball stereotype, who had watched the anxiety-ridden football of the Graham Taylor years in frustration, this was proof that England could play sophisticated, continental football.

Yet Venables could hardly have been more London. He had been born in Dagenham, played his first football with Chelsea and achieved his greatest success as a player with Tottenham. He had begun his coaching career with Crystal Palace, performed miracles with Queens Park Rangers and then won the FA Cup after returning to Tottenham. And in the middle of it all, he had been plucked from QPR to manage Barcelona, whom he had led to their first league title in over a decade and their first ever European Cup final.

But he wasn’t just geographically London; he was temperamentally London. He lived with a grin on his face and a sense that rules were always flexible. He tried out as a lounge singer, invented a wig, devised a board game and wrote detective novels. He did his business from hotel lobbies and ran a nightclub that was frequented by football hacks and Mad Frankie Fraser. By the time Euro 96 came round, the FA, worried about some of his business interests, had decided not to renew his contract. He was later banned from being a company director for seven years. And he was also for a time arguably the sharpest tactical brain in Europe.

It would be an exaggeration to say that modern football was born amid the battle between QPR and Watford for promotion from Division Two in the early Eighties, but in their rivalry was encapsulated a key fault line that continues to shape football today. Watford were managed by Taylor, Venables’s predecessor as England manager. When he took over Watford in 1977, they were in the Fourth Division. Within six years, he had taken them to second in Division One. His football then was, as he cheerily admitted, rudimentary: he had his players knock the ball in behind the opposing full-back, then had his side press to try to regain possession in dangerous areas, relying on an aggressive offside trap to offer defensive solidity.

Taylor said that each time his side got promoted he expected to be found out, but that it wasn’t until playing Sparta Prague in the Uefa Cup in 1983 that anybody did, largely because the Czechoslovak defenders had the technical ability not to panic when put under pressure. With better players, he amended his approach to an extent, but he remained always of a school that saw football as a game of chaos, and pressing as a way of guiding that. Venables, in seeking to impose order, was the cerebral Pep Guardiola to Taylor’s Klopp.

Venables, like Taylor, relied on the offside trap, for which he was dismissed as boring by rivals, but his was part of a possession-based game rooted in a sophisticated system of zonal marking. In that, he was true to a venerable tradition. Between 1912 and 1942, the Inverness-born left-half Peter McWilliam had two stints as manager of Tottenham totalling 23 years. Raised in the Scottish passing tradition, he established a possession-based approach that was taken on by one of his former players, Bill Nicholson, who managed Spurs when Venables was a player there. Another former player was Vic Buckingham, who as a coach spread those ideas to Ajax and subsequently Barcelona. When Barcelona came calling for Venables after he had led QPR to fifth in Division One, they were appointing from within the same philosophical tradition. That was what made the appointment of Venables as England coach after Taylor’s side had failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup so exciting, even if it’s now apparent that the FA did so with a degree of reluctance and suspicion.

Taylor was unfortunate in almost every way — an uninspiring generation of players, injuries, form, refereeing — but he had always felt a slightly humdrum appointment. To turn to Venables was to turn to ambition, to say that English players were capable of more than sweat and graft, that they could do more than hump it over the top and chase it, that they could pass and move like the best in Europe. That didn’t mean they were cavalier; to pigeonhole him merely as “an entertainer” is to misunderstand his approach. Venables pressed and worked on neutering opponents as much as anybody, but he valued ability as much as he did sweat, and he had a gambler’s instinct.

It took time, but then, given the seismic nature of the change, it was always going to. Technically gifted players were prioritised. Carlton Palmer and Des Walker were disposed of, Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman brought in, Paul Gascoigne recalled. Suddenly defenders got forward, players were encouraged to take risks and England became tactically flexible in a way they had never been before and, arguably, haven’t been since.

It was a world away from the functionality and fear of Taylor’s side and, as such, it was a vital part of that golden summer. Perhaps it even helped that everybody knew Venables was leaving. He had nothing to lose, no new contract to chase, and that allowed him to be bold — not that he ever really needed much encouragement. That brought the glorious apotheosis of the victory over the Netherlands, as he pushed McManaman forward into an adventurous front three and in doing so befuddled the Dutch coach Guus Hiddink.

Venables didn’t win the tournament. Indeed, he only ever won two competitive games as England manager. But he created a vibe that matched that summer of hope, and sometimes the illusion, the feel of the thing, matters more than the reality.

Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated, the editor of the Blizzard and author of Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina.