Four months after playing at Old Trafford before the biggest crowd at any Premiership fixture last season, nudging 68,000, Coventry City return to Greater Manchester today to launch what they hope will be a First Division promotion campaign against a Stockport side whose average attendance just crept over 7,000.
Yet when your correspondent suggests to Gordon Strachan that Edgeley Park would represent a rude awakening after 34 years among the élite, as might Crewe, Gillingham and other venues the Sky Blues last visited before the 1960s started swinging, the Coventry manager flushes the colour of his trademark hair. He has swiftly tired of hearing "the likes of Stockport" dismissed like backwaters which the high rollers from Highfield Road may find beneath them.
"If anyone says they can't get themselves up for a game like this," snaps Strachan, "I'm not having that." The statement is accompanied by a sudden switch from amiable to abrasive, as if the slightest diminution of commitment were a capital offence. Which it always was when he operated as a one-man swarm for club(s) and country, and has remained during nearly five years as a manic touchline preacher with Coventry.
"That excuse won't do. Self-motivation is crucial, wherever you're playing. I played for Leeds against Stuttgart in Barcelona with 6,000 in a stadium holding 120,000, but I was oblivious to that. If we're training and there's only two people watching, I want them to go away and say I'm the best coach they've ever seen. It should be the same with the players."
Strachan believes Coventry are in the division they deserve to be in. It is hard to disagree, the team having finished eight points from safety. "Until we prove we're better than this," he adds, "we can't complain."
The opening day is "a glamorous occasion" in any setting, he argues, an assertion that sounds less fanciful in Coventry's case since Thursday's capture of the West Bromwich Albion striker Lee Hughes for £5m (and £1 -- "I put that in," quips Strachan, clearly feeling quids in). "Everyone reckons it's going to be their year," muses the 44-year-old Scot, unable to resist a mock-fatalistic punchline, "until about a quarter to five when it can seem like the whole world is against you."
In his view the first match is no guide to long-term prospects. The only full season he spent below Premiership level as a player, with Leeds, started with a 5-2 chasing at Newcastle but ended with the championship. There again, Coventry's 3-1 calamity at home to Middlesbrough 12 months ago turned out to be all too accurate a pointer to what lay ahead.
Sitting in his office overlooking a spacious training complex, surrounded by framed posters extolling the virtues of teamwork, leadership and survival that he acquired on holiday in Arizona, Strachan admits his pride was "badly hurt" by relegation. However, the mixture of frustration, anger, embarrassment and disappointment soon gave way to a sense of perspective and a determination to atone.
"When I got away from the fantasy pressure, which is built up by the media and the people about you, reality sank in: after three reasonable years when we were never in trouble, we didn't do our job properly for one season. I know where I've got to do better this year and so do the players. If you're honest with yourself, life becomes a lot easier."
Circumstances undoubtedly conspired against Coventry at times. Last summer, for instance, they could not hold on to Gary McAllister and Robbie Keane. Later, their efforts to recruit John Hartson, a regular marksman who might have kept them up, were fatally delayed through no fault of their own.
Strachan, though, is disinclined to look for excuses. "Everyone must take some of the blame. Me, certainly. The coaching staff and players too. Did the fans do enough? Can they honestly say: 'I gave the boys my backing when they were down'? If anyone feels they could have done more – from the chairman to the tea-lady – they've got to do it this season."
Speaking of honesty, some Coventry supporters may have regarded resignation as the honourable course. Did he consider his position? "No. I know what I'm good at. My job is to manage this club as well as I can. I'll do that until someone says: 'Let's have a change'."
In fact, the chairman, Bryan Richardson, remains his staunchest ally. Until they landed Hughes, the critical changes again concerned lost scoring power, with Hartson, Mustapha Hadji, John Aloisi and Craig Bellamy all leaving.
And while Strachan calls close-season upheavals "a fact of life", it is evidently one with the capacity to stir him on to his soapbox about the integrity of certain players and agents. "If someone wants to move on, you can not stop them. Even a club Arsenal's size couldn't hold on to [Nicolas] Anelka. As long as people are up front with me it's fine. Mustapha did his two years and said he'd stay if I wanted, or go if we needed the money. He did things by the book.
"What we don't like is being blackmailed. The agent now says: 'He'll come back but he won't give his best'. There's some incredible stuff coming out, with players saying: 'I want to leave because I'm ambitious to further myself and win trophies'. Then they go to a smaller club who finished below them. I just wish they'd be honest and tell us they want more cash."
Aston Villa have repeatedly and controversially plundered their Midland neighbours, so the counter-raid for Julian Joachim redressed the balance somewhat. But Joachim has scarcely figured in the pre-season due to injury, while Strachan's old Leeds colleague Phil Masinga was sidelined by red tape on joining from Bari in Italy. It became difficult to imagine Coventry scoring enough goals to challenge.
Just in time, the Hughes coup has transformed perceptions; he averages one every two games. Another manager who coveted him, Birmingham's Trevor Francis, claimed his signature would guarantee promotion. "Lee represents a good deal in today's market," Strachan purrs. "I don't see him as a gamble but as a real goalscorer."
Even before he filled the gaping hole left by Hartson, simultaneously picking up the Middlesbrough winger Keith O'Neill, Strachan felt the preparation for the season had been the best "by a million miles" in his time at Coventry. "I've gone back to basics. Character-building work. I tried out lots of theories about how to train people. Now I've gone back to the way I was trained."
It is as if, having gained a reputation as a complex individual via his idiosyncratic television interviews, Strachan is striving for greater simplicity. "There are two ways to get to the top in my line," he suggests. "One is by being an extremely good coach or manager, the other by being a shrewd political animal.
"I can only go one way because I'm hopeless at trying to cover anything up or telling porky pies. The only way I'll get to the top is by being good at what I do." A Coventry manager talking about the top rather than scraping along at the bottom? Even going down, it seems, has its up side.Reuse content