Jozef Venglos, football manager whose clubs included Aston Villa and Celtic – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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Jozef Venglos in 1990, during his time with Aston Villa - Duncan Raban/Popperfoto via Getty Images
Jozef Venglos in 1990, during his time with Aston Villa - Duncan Raban/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Jozef Venglos, who has died aged 84, was a much-travelled football manager, notably of Celtic and Sporting Lisbon; his successes included helping his native Czechoslovakia to victory at the 1976 European Championship, but he will be best remembered in England for his ill-starred but trailblazing appointment in 1990 as the first manager in the top flight from beyond Britain or Ireland when installed at Aston Villa.

“Hands up those of you who know this man!” Doug Ellis, Villa’s owner, instructed the journalists assembled to learn who was to succeed Graham Taylor, the new England manager. A bemused silence met this demand from “Deadly Doug” and his confident assertion that Venglos – properly Dr Venglos – was “the best man in Europe”.

Even so, appointing a foreign manager was then regarded by many as a bold and unnecessary move. True, Venglos had just steered Czechoslovakia to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Italy, where they had lost by a penalty to the eventual winners, West Germany. But Paul Gascoigne’s tears aside, English football appeared to be in rude health and its clubs were due to reappear in European football after the five-year ban following the Heysel stadium disaster.

Venglos in 1968, during his spell managing in Australia - Alan Gilbert Purcell/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Venglos in 1968, during his spell managing in Australia - Alan Gilbert Purcell/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Among them were Villa, who had qualified for the Uefa Cup as runners-up in the league. Their stars included David Platt, Gordon Cowans, Paul McGrath and Tony Cascarino. Yet Venglos’s Continental innovations in diet, psychology and exercise were looked at askance by players more used to bonding in the pub, while fellow managers scoffed when he produced a Dictaphone to record his thoughts on a scouting trip.

A 2-0 defeat of Inter Milan in October caused some to revise their opinion, but the side lost the return leg by three and thereafter never regained their self-confidence. Although Peter Withe came in to assist Venglos, the team narrowly avoided relegation and the Czech, who had developed high blood pressure, resigned.

Order was restored with the arrival of Ron Atkinson; it would be another five years before Arsène Wenger began his French revolution at Highbury.

Venglos is thrown in the air by his Czechoslovakia players after their third-place play-off victory against Italy in Naples at the 1980 European Championship  - Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images
Venglos is thrown in the air by his Czechoslovakia players after their third-place play-off victory against Italy in Naples at the 1980 European Championship - Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Jozef Venglos was born on February 18 1936 at Ruzomberok, now in northern Slovakia, and grew up under Communism. At 18, he signed with Slovan Bratislava, winning the league the following year. A midfielder, he became club captain and played for the Czech “B” and Olympic teams before hepatitis ended his career prematurely at 30.

In 1955 he had been awarded a doctorate in Physical Education, specialising in psychology, by the University of Bratislava. He began in management in Australia in 1966, coaching the exiles team FC Prague Sydney (for whom Tommy Docherty had played as a guest the previous year).

By 1967, Venglos was managing the Australia national team itself. He returned home in 1969 to coach the Czechoslovak Under-23 side who won the European Championship at that level. Venglos then took charge of his former club, guiding Slovan Bratislava to two titles and two cup wins (including a league and cup double) in the mid-1970s. They also twice won Uefa’s summer tournament, the Intertoto Cup.

Greeting Villa fans in 1990 - Allstar Picture Library/Alamy
Greeting Villa fans in 1990 - Allstar Picture Library/Alamy

As assistant to Vaclav Jezek from 1973, he also helped the national side to see off Don Revie’s England on the way to the finals of the 1976 European Championship. There, they beat the Dutch in the semi-final before defeating West Germany in Belgrade to lift the trophy, courtesy of Antonin Panenka’s celebrated chipped penalty in the shoot-out.

Venglos was subsequently appointed manager in his own right, taking them to third place at Euro 1980 but resigning after a disappointing showing at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. A season at Sporting Lisbon followed before Venglos moved to Malaysia. There, he won the double with Kuala Lumpur, later managing the national set-up. He was lured back to Czechoslovakia to do the same job in the run-up to the 1990 World Cup.

After leaving Aston Villa he spent two years at Fenerbahce in Turkey, two more as Slovakia’s first manager after it had split from the Czech Republic, and then steered Oman, before unexpectedly finding himself in 1998 in the hot seat at Celtic.

With his general manager at Celtic, Jock Brown. Although Venglos’s time with the club was not a success, Brown described him as ‘the finest man I have ever met in my life’ - Bruce Adams/Daily Mail/Shutterstock
With his general manager at Celtic, Jock Brown. Although Venglos’s time with the club was not a success, Brown described him as ‘the finest man I have ever met in my life’ - Bruce Adams/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

The Glasgow giants had taken an age to line up a successor to Wim Jansen and the Scottish press greeted the appointment of Venglos with their traditional broad-mindedness. “Doctor Who?” was one headline, “Celtic sign blank Czech” another.

With little time to work with the team pre-season, Venglos had at first to endure poor results and failure to qualify for the Champions League. But he began to unleash the potential of the Swedish striker Henrik Larsson, signed the talented midfielder Lubo Moravcik, and endeared himself to the fans by presiding over a 5-1 thumping of Rangers.

Yet the title ended up across Glasgow at Ibrox and Venglos stepped aside after a year. None the less, his warmth and integrity had impressed all who encountered him, with the Celtic stalwart Jock Brown describing him as “the finest man I have ever met in my life”.

Venglos subsequently had a spell in Japan before retiring from management in 2002, although he continued to lecture and lead study groups for Fifa.

His wife Eva and their two sons survive him.

Jozef Venglos, born February 18 1936, died January 26 2021