So strong has Barcelona’s production and promotion of young talent been over the last few years, it is easy to forget that the club has traditionally had a more multinational feel to it. Of the team that started the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid in November, eight were Spaniards and the same number graduates of the famous La Masia academy.
However, during the 1980s the club briefly had a very British flavour to it as Terry Venables arrived in Catalonia to coach the region’s most recognisable cultural symbol, bringing with him a number of the finest talents these shores had to offer. His time there may not have lasted particularly long, but those three years from 1984 to 1987 are often looked back on rather fondly by many associated with the club today.
While the idea of Venables coaching Barcelona may be a rather difficult concept to grasp given current contexts, at the time it was seen as a sage decision by long-serving club president Josep Lluís Núñez. The former England international had enjoyed a promising first eight years in management, his Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers sides playing attractive football and combining intelligent signings with youth players to very good effect.
Promotion to the Second Division had been achieved by Palace in Venables’ first season at the club (1976/77), the team improving rapidly and going on to reach the promised land of the top-flight just two years later. However, the financial crisis surrounding the South London side had been worsening for some time and the young manager opted to drop down a division to join QPR in the summer of 1980.
Over a four-year spell Venables transformed the Loftus Road outfit into a force to be reckoned with, guiding them to the 1982 FA Cup final before gaining promotion back to the First Division the following season. A fifth place finish in 1983/84 confirmed Venables’ status as one of the most highly-prized managers in the English game, his coaching abilities having caught the eye of the England boss Bobby Robson.
Robson, one of the most well-connected men in European football, knew that Barça were looking for a manager in the summer of ’84 after the dismissal of the legendary Argentinian coach César Luis Menotti and so recommended Venables to his good friend Núñez. The president liked what he saw and offered the Englishman the chance to take the reins at the Camp Nou in the June of that year. Venables leapt at the chance, leaving QPR in the hands of Alan Mullery and so beginning the small-scale British revolution of Futbol Club Barcelona.
The early eighties had not been a particularly fruitful time for the Blaugrana, the club failing to secure a title despite two triumphs in the Copa del Rey and victory in the 1981/82 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. The silverware had continued to flow under Helenio Herrera and Udo Lattek, but the club was not competing strongly enough for the trophies it believed it should have been challenging for.
Venables’ appointment was a fairly bold move by Núñez, but it was felt at the time that a fresh start was needed, the team having become a little stayed and stale in the preceding years. The club’s new English manager certainly started as he meant to go on, making Tottenham Hotspur striker Steve Archibald his first signing and deploying him as the team’s focal point in attack.
It may seem something of an incongruous signing now, but the Scot had been a potent goal scoring threat for Spurs from 1980 to 1984 and was considered to be one of the best poachers on the continent. Indeed, his arrival at the Camp Nou was generally greeted with enthusiasm by the Barça faithful. Venables had the striker he had wanted, now he had to devise a system which would get the very best out of the talented pool of players he had to work with.
In his first season the man now dubbed ‘El Tel’ installed a fairly basic 4-4-2 system, building his team around the breathtaking talents of Bernd Schuster in midfield. A dynamic and offensively-oriented player, Schuster was the tireless creative hub of Venables’ team, the man who regularly supplied the likes of Archibald and Marcos Alonso with the high-quality service they demanded.
Those connections and attacking freedoms were built upon an extremely solid defence, club legends Migueli and Julio Alberto being just two of the world-class defenders the Englishman had available to him. This was an extremely hard-working team that wore the opposition down with their exhaustive pressing and high-energy football. It may not have been the most attractive of Barcelona sides, but the formula Venables had struck upon proved to be very, very effective.
So effective was it that Barça won the title in 1984/85, Archibald finishing the campaign as La Liga’s third highest scorer with fifteen league goals to earn himself the quite brilliant nickname ‘Archigol’. The most efficient team in the division by some distance, Venables’ side had left runners-up Atlético Madrid some ten points adrift, the Catalans losing just two games in what was a brilliantly successful season.
From his humble roots as manager of Crystal Palace, the former Chelsea player had risen to guide one of Europe’s biggest clubs to one of its most emphatic title victories. ‘El Tel’ could hardly have been more popular.
The title eluded Barcelona the following season, the Real Madrid of Hugo Sánchez and Jorge Valdano winning by a considerable eleven-point margin. 1985/86 hadn’t been a complete disaster for the Blaugrana, however, the team winning the Spanish League Cup as well as reaching the final of the European Cup only to lose out on penalties to Steaua Bucharest in one of the most incompetent shoot-outs of all time.
It had been a season of acute frustration, something which the manager attempted to remedy by bringing in two more big foreign names. After strong performances for England in the 1986 World Cup, Gary Lineker was bought from Everton for the sizeable fee of £2.8m, the striker being joined by Manchester United’s Welsh forward Mark Hughes (£2m).
While the new recruits (particularly Lineker) undoubtedly strengthened the Barça attack, ‘Archigol’ was left out on a limb, excluded from the squad as a result of restrictions on the number of foreign players Spanish clubs were allowed to have on their books at any one time. A loan move to Blackburn Rovers followed, and the Scot never again quite reached the heights that he had attained during his first two seasons with the Catalan club.
1986/87 saw Barcelona push Real Madrid much harder at the top of La Liga, Lineker scoring 20 league goals in his first season, but Venables and his team ultimately fell just short as Los Blancos pipped their great rivals by three points. It had been El Tel’s first trophy-less season, something that is rarely tolerated at the Camp Nou, and serious failures such as the quarter-final exit at the hands of Dundee United in the UEFA Cup had put his job in jeopardy.
Venables was given the summer by Núñez to get his house in order, but when Barça began the 1987/88 campaign in poor form the club’s first English coach since Vic Buckingham in 1971 was shown the door. Luis Aragonés was brought in but he also failed to inspire the team to greater things, Barcelona finishing the season in as lowly a position as sixth place. That summer, however, saw the arrival as manager of Johan Cruyff, the man who would usher in the era of the “Dream Team”. The rest is history.
His time at the Camp Nou may not have ended in particularly happy circumstances, but Venables had – albeit briefly – restored Barça to the pinnacle of the Spanish game and taken them all the way to the final of the European Cup. Not only that, he had also introduced to the club Archibald and Lineker, two of Barcelona’s finest goal scorers of the 1980s and cult figures in Catalonia to this day.
It may not have ended well, but Venables’ tenure is remembered with great warmth in the Catalan capital, the Englishman having been a generally popular figure amongst the hordes of Blaugrana fans. It may seem an alien arrangement now, but the Camp Nou for a short time witnessed some of Spain’s finest talents combine with El Tel’s unlikely band of British imports; la revolución de los Ingleses.