‘The Dream is Dead’: Terry Venables and Australia’s Heartbreak

Posted: October 27, 2021 in Uncategorized, World Cup
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On being sent the script for notorious flop Jaws: The Revenge, the story goes that Michael Caine opened it, saw the words ‘Ext: The Bahamas’ and signed up for the film on the spot. It’s not difficult to imagine Terry Venables’ thinking being similar when he answered a call from Soccer Australia in 1996.

Few would’ve begrudged him a bit of sun. England’s run to the semi finals of Euro ’96 had raised his stock to its highest level in many a year, and while he could have waited for a high-profile club job to come his way, he had unfinished business in international football. Embittered by the FA’s inability to offer him unanimous backing prior to the tournament and the subsequent premature departure from his dream job, he harboured a longstanding ambition to have a crack at the World Cup. It was a dream shared 12,000 miles away…

Australia had only appeared on football’s grandest stage once, in 1974, where they were eliminated at the group stage without a goal to their name. The intervening years had seen them inch closer and closer, routinely topping the Oceania qualifying group before coming a cropper in the subsequent play-off, always against a relative heavy hitter. In 1985 they were denied by the Scotland of Dalglish and Souness; four years later by Valderrama’s Colombia; then by Argentina in 1993, an occasion for which Diego Maradona returned from the international wilderness.

By the mid-90s however, there was a sense that the Socceroos were on the cusp of a breakthrough. They had a talented young squad, some of whom were finding opportunities in Europe’s top leagues. They’d put together some commendable performances, most notably shocking the Dutch and Sweden en route to fourth place 1992 Olympics and in giving Argentina a real run for their money over two legs in that USA ’94 play-off. The sport nevertheless still had something of an image problem in Australia. There was a lack of pizzazz, with coaches like Scotsman Eddie Thomson perceived as dour. One man made it his mission to change that.

Despite being born in London, you could fuse Mick Dundee with Alf Stewart and still not produce anyone more Australian than David Hill. Though every homespun pronouncement from the Soccer Australia Chairman, who’d moved to the Antipodes as a child, was delivered in the manner of a Barry Humphries creation, Hill was deadly serious in his determination to attract a high-profile coach. He wanted someone who could take Australian football – which still struggled to make the back page of the country’s newspapers – and put it on the front page.

By chance, an English backpacker temping at Soccer Australia had spent time working at Lancaster Gate, and happened to have Venables’ phone number. In a matter of days, Hill was in London, sitting in Scribes West, Venables’ nightclub. He agreed to match the manager’s £200k England salary – 10% of Soccer Australia’s entire budget – and all that remained was the obligatory culturally insensitive photoshoot, complete with didgeridoos and boomerangs. El Tel was heading down under.

‘El Telephone’

The early days of Venables’ reign were something of a phony war. He spent so little time in Australia that wags in the press dubbed him ‘El Telephone’ and ‘El Telepathy’, and the Sydney Morning Herald accused him of ‘guiding the Socceroos by remote control’. Tunes soon changed, however, once his impact on the exciting young group he had at his disposal – including Marks Bosnich and Viduka, Lazio sweeper Paul Okon and a teenage winger by the name of Harry Kewell – became clear.

The players took to Venables immediately. Defender Craig Foster recalled during an interview with The Age that in Venables’ first training session, “he told every single player something tactical that they hadn’t known”. Veteran full back Robbie Slater concurred. “I was 32 and he taught me things I’d never heard of,” he told the same publication. Those world-class man-management skills that coaxed the best out of Paul Gascoigne were soon put to use again. Aurelio Vidmar was a livewire forward who could score and create, but was enduring a miserable spell in Spain, ostracised by his manager at Tenerife. Venables made him captain, and was rewarded with three goals in two games as Australia beat Macedonia and Hungary.

Unexpected gems were uncovered too; Venables was impressed enough with a quintet of his charges – Foster, John Aloisi, Robbie Enes, Hamilton Thorp and Paul Harries – to take them to the English second tier with Portsmouth, the club he’d bought for just £1 in 1997. The venture would end incredibly messily for all concerned, but it was at least further evidence of the doors opening for Australian players.

There were challenges too of course. Though the club v country battle wasn’t anywhere near as fierce as the one Venables encountered with England, it nevertheless created tensions – after Mark Schwarzer chose playing in a League Cup semi final for Middlesbrough over a place on the bench for a friendly against Bosnia, Venables never picked him again. Many of the Europe-based players were in a similar position to Vidmar, struggling for playing time, while Okon, perhaps the best player in the side, was rarely available, continually wrecked by a debilitating knee injury.

Even the crown jewels of the team posed problems. At one point, Viduka went AWOL, and was found days later in a Croatian holiday resort. Bosnich meanwhile, had a notorious taste for the high life. Hill recalled one occasion during a training camp in Dubai when he and Venables wandered past a hotel bar and were greeted cheerily by the goalkeeper, cigar in one hand, goblet of cognac in the other.

None of that prevented the Socceroos topping their qualifying group with customary ease, neglecting to drop a single point and rattling in 32 goals, conceding just two. Venables, however, hadn’t been appointed to see off the likes of Tahiti and the Solomon Islands. Where his Australia were impressing was in friendlies against stronger opposition; four teams who would be heading to France ’98 – Mexico, Tunisia, South Korea and Norway – were all vanquished in no little style. There was a real verve and energy about this side, particularly in contrast to stodgier Socceroos outfits of previous years. A feeling was growing that this time – this time – they would not be denied. France ’98 was beckoning.

Welcome to Tehran

Those hopes were fostered further when their play-off opponents were revealed. Iran had some quality in their ranks, not least the effective little and large strike combo of future record international goalscorer Ali Daei and reigning Asian Player of the Year Khodadad Azizi. Yet they had spectacularly blown automatic qualification, losing their last three games to fall from first to third in the Asian section, then losing to Japan in the play-off for the remaining automatic place in France. The play-off with Australia was their last chance, and they appeared to be spiraling into it in disarray, even replacing their manager shortly before the game with the fairly unheralded Valdeir Vieira – who had himself been binned by Costa Rica on the eve of Italia ’90.

A hot reception for the Socceroos in Tehran was guaranteed when Hill managed to spark an international incident. His revelation at the pre-match press conference that the squad were shunning local hospitality in favour of taking their own food and water so offended their hosts that the Iranian Consulate in Canberra called for his sacking.

129,000 home supporters packed into the Azadi Stadium, but an unfazed, mature Australia silenced them when the 19-year-old Kewell put the visitors ahead. Though Azizi would equalise, Venables tightened things up in the second half to see out the game at 1-1. A goalless draw in Melbourne would be enough to take the Socceroos to their first World Cup in nearly a quarter of a century.

Melbourne

At long last, football had captured the Australian imagination. 85,000 crammed into Melbourne Cricket Ground – a stadium that had hosted virtually every major sport apart from football – expecting to see history made. It was almost double the previous record crowd the game had attracted down under. Pomp and circumstance only heightened the atmosphere, as the 1974 squad was paraded around the pitch in a Rolls Royce fleet pre-match.

Immediately, any fears that the Socceroos would approach the game conservatively were demolished as they steamrolled Iran from the first whistle. They missed three glorious chances in the opening 10 minutes, two of them falling to Aurelio Vidmar, the other seeing Kewell’s effort hacked desperately off the line. Australia were relentless, Venables’ 3-5-2 allowing Stan Lazaridis on the left to blow holes in the visitors’ back line with nitrogen-heeled raids. That they would open the scoring was inevitable, and the goal duly arrived just after the half hour mark, Kewell meeting Vidmar’s cross at the far post, then sprinting in the direction of the scorching, writhing bedlam he’d created. Though they weren’t able to add to their lead before half time, Australia stepped up the pressure immediately after the restart and the second goal followed swiftly, Aurelio’s cool finish no more than his performance had deserved. “Pack your bags, Basil. We’re going to Paris”, Hill told his assistant, Basil Scarella.

Then an unwanted guest crashed the party and changed everything.

Petering out

Peter Hore was known in Australia as a perennial pain in the arse, an attention junkie who got his fix by disrupting high-profile (preferably televised) events. He’d interrupted the Australian Open, disrupted the Melbourne Cup and broken into parliament. He’d even managed to cause a scene at the funeral of INXS singer Michael Hutchence weeks earlier. Following Australia’s second goal, the bedraggled, dirty blonde wildman suddenly appeared, hurtling towards the pitch and launching himself full pelt at one of the goal nets, tearing a section of the netting in the process. The delay while Hore was ejected and repairs to the goal were carried out took six minutes. To the Australian players it must have felt like an hour. While they waited, Iran huddled in the centre, reorganising, galvanising.

When the match got underway again, Australia looked noticeably leggier, the lack of minutes with their club sides beginning to tell for several players. While Venables opted not to make changes, Iran made two crucial ones, removing a defender for a midfielder in Mansourian to exert more control in the middle and introducing a flying winger in Tahami. That extra pep in their step against the wearying Australians saw the momentum begin to shift. With 15 minutes to go, Azizi got to the byline on the right, his low ball taking out two defenders and catching Bosnich out of position, leaving captain Bagheri with the simplest of finishes. Now the Socceroos were hanging on against emboldened opponents, their confidence visibly draining.

With five minutes to go, centre backs Steve Horvat and Alex Tobin made a calamitous pig’s ear of an attempted offside trap, allowing Azizi to run onto Daei’s through ball unchallenged, calmly rounding Bosnich and stroking the ball home. The tie was level on aggregate, but this second away goal gave Iran the advantage. Awful silence engulfed the stadium.

Australia’s panic had by now developed into hysteria, and even Venables seemed afflicted. Having finally got round to warming up some subs to protect the lead in centre back Tony (brother of Aurelio) Vidmar and defensive midfielder Ernie Tapai, he strangely opted to bring them on at 2-2 anyway, despite the shift in circumstances. Some hope lay in the 10 minutes of injury time added for Hore’s transgression, but Iran were canny timewasters, and the seconds ticked away.

Unpack your bags, Basil. Australia, almost unthinkably, would not be going to the World Cup.

The final whistle brought a downpour of chaos. The stadium PA, to Hill’s horror, blared out ‘We Are The Champions’ in error. A number of Australian players were simply unable to rouse themselves from the turf. Lazaridis recalls hurling his boots and “wailing like a banshee”. Johnny Warren, star of the 1974 side and on co-comms for the TV broadcast, wept openly on air. In his post-match interview, Vieira seemed almost bemused to have qualified, admitting that his side had been a distant second best for much of the contest. Venables went as far as to say that the first 70 minutes of his side’s performance was better than England’s at Euro ’96 against the Netherlands. It counted for nothing.

Football was indeed finally on the front pages of the following day’s newspapers. The headline of the Sydney Morning Herald read, simply, ‘The Dream is Dead’.

Aftermath

There was criticism of Venables in the unbelievably raw few days that followed. Some even called for his sacking. His selection of scapegoat Horvat at the expense of the more cultured sweeper Mario Ivanovic came under particular scrutiny, while his game management was also questioned. In Tehran, Venables had made prudent second half changes to protect the away goal. In Melbourne, he hadn’t reacted soon enough, and yet at 2-2 still made the defensive changes he’d planned at 2-1, leaving more attacking options like Aloisi and Josip Skoko on the bench.

The players had to rouse themselves for the Confederations Cup just a week later, boarding what was termed ‘the grief flight’ to Riyadh. There, to rub salt in their wounds, they demonstrated what a good side they could be, making it all the way to the final. Hill wanted Venables to stay and coach the team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but Tel was itching to go home. His final match in charge, a week before France ’98’s opening game, was a friendly against Croatia, and should have been a big deal given the numerous members of the Socceroos’ squad with Croatian heritage, including Viduka, Horvat, Bosnich and Skoko. Instead, the 7-0 thrashing served only to underline how much all involved had lost interest in the project.

In the short-term, Melbourne was a disaster for Australian football. Just as the public prepared to belatedly fall for the game’s charms, the brutal manner of defeat seem to convince them that never having loved at all was in fact preferable to having loved and lost. The national league went into decline, the sport returned to the doldrums. The defeat would haunt the players for years, and many have never been able to watch the game back. “The Iran game will be with us for the rest of our lives,”, Slater said in ‘The Mourning After‘, an SBS documentary about that night.

So was Venables a failure? He had one job, which ultimately went exactly the same way as it did for his predecessors, and against less formidable opposition to boot. However, it can’t be denied that he really did put Australian football on the map in a way nobody previously had. The Socceroos had never troubled the top 50 of FIFA’s rankings; under Venables they cracked the top 30. The game’s popularity may have dipped again post-Iran, but lessons were learned from his time at the helm. Hill believes there would never have an A-League without El Tel, while the profile of Australian players was raised further and opened even more doors for them overseas – by the mid-2000s, Australia seemed to have replaced Scandinavia as English football’s go-to for cheap, dependable talent. Perhaps most importantly of all, Venables’ appointment was proof that Australia could attract top managerial names – something that would eventually pay off eight years later, when Guus Hiddink became the man to finally take Australia to the World Cup.

Venables returned to England, lampooning his Australian adventure in a TV ad for the soft drink Oasis. In a matter of weeks he was back in management with Crystal Palace…who were almost immediately beset by severe financial difficulties.

Open, pour, be yourself once more.

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