Iain Dowie: The Churchill of south-east London embraces science in the tactical war

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The Crystal Palace manager, Iain Dowie, is a force of nature, one of those men whose mind whirrs so quickly that his words can hardly keep up with his thoughts. And as soon as Mr Wiley blew the whistle at the end of Palace's 0-0 draw with Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, those thoughts turned to Manchester United.

Next Saturday, Palace visit Old Trafford. Palace are fourth from bottom, United fourth from top, yet even this whopping gap does not adequately reflect the task facing Dowie and his team. But is he apprehensive? Is he 'eck as like, as they say in his adopted Lancashire, where his wife and two sons live while he toils six days a week in south-east London.

"It's a chance to pit my wits against the best manager this country's seen for a long, long time," he says. "Why wouldn't I relish that opportunity?"

Why indeed? After all, when Dowie took over at Palace precisely 12 months ago, they were languishing - that marvellous word that only ever seems to be used of struggling football clubs - near the bottom of the First Division. The same squad of players scraped promotion through the play-offs and have already confounded those who expected them to provide easy pickings for the big clubs, denying Aston Villa, and very nearly Liverpool, home wins, and holding Arsenal to a draw at Selhurst Park.

Before that match against Arsenal, Dowie sat the team down in front of Leon Gast's fantastic documentary When We Were Kings, about the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Hardly any of his players were alive in 1974, but they all understood what Dowie was trying to do by showing them how a guileful underdog could overcome a mighty champion.

And while they didn't quite deliver the knock-out blow against Arsenal, a 1-1 draw was unequivocally a cause for great collective pride.

Dowie grimaces when I mention his Rumble in the Jungle session. Or it might be a smile. It's sometimes hard to tell with him. "A lot's been made of that," he says, "but we've got to be careful that we don't over-egg it.

"What nobody mentions is that we also spent a lot of time looking at Arsenal's pattern of play, working out ways to negate them. We had a real edge to our game that day, and we will need it again against Man United." We are sitting in the lounge area at Palace's training ground in Beckenham. In the adjoining canteen there is a poster of the team bearing the thunderous message: "Sometimes beaten, never conquered!" And alongside it: "We will never surrender!" Dowie is not embarrassed about using Churchillian rhetoric; in fact, he would not be embarrassed to come into work in a pink tutu if he thought his players needed a laugh to put them at ease before a big match. Nothing has the power to embarrass him except the thought that he has not done everything possible to help them gain three Premiership points.

There are other managers with a similarly intense approach - David Moyes springs to mind - but probably nobody who scrutinises other sports as hard as Dowie does in search of the slightest scrap of information that might make him better at his job. He is tireless in this quest; obsessional, even.

"If you don't study other sports you're narrowing your mind to a hell of a lot of opportunities," he says. "That doesn't stop you being your own person, but I feel I need to cover all bases. I cannot come to work, put a set of cones up, put a set of goals up, let 'em play five-a-side, and say 'away you go, play like that on Saturday and you'll be fine'. Obviously there's a certain amount of that. Players will play off the cuff to a certain extent. But I need to feel that I've done my preparation from quarter past five on Saturday, to five to three the following Saturday. If I've done that right, then win or lose I can accept it, and at this level you're going to lose some games."

His quest for knowledge has even taken him to Brown University in the United States to study American football training. "There, you've got lads of 250 pounds running 40 yards in 3.3 seconds; we can learn something from that. I've also been given a lot of insight into rugby league through John Harbin [his assistant, an Australian former rugby league coach]. That's helped enormously. And I don't mind talking about this stuff. I'm passionate about boxing, so we do some of that. And I'm very interested in water, so we do a lot of swimming. Other clubs have adapted my ideas on swimming, but that's OK. You should be able to share ideas in football. In any case, people put ideas across in different ways."

To put his ideas across, Dowie embraces technology with a slightly unnerving passion. There are still football managers who prefer the chalk-generated image to the computer-generated image, but he is emphatically not one of them. Nor has he balked at asking the fans, in the form of the Crystal Palace Supporters Trust, for help in providing the latest technological wizardry. Knowing that every wizard needs wizardry - and Dowie is nothing if not a managerial wizard - they have duly dug deep.

Over the next few days, Dowie will be using the ProZone system that so discombobulated Terry Venables on ITV's The Premiership to scheme the defeat of United. "We'll be using it to look at Man U set-pieces for, Man U set-pieces against, goals for, goals conceded, their movement off the ball, their pattern of play, and it will be on a feed that will run and run so that the players can look at it any time. But we won't go over the top and forget what we should be doing ourselves.

"I'm a great believer in video analysis, in freezing frames to see where the players are, where they should be, their distance from an opponent, their distance from the ball. My biggest love in football is the tactical side, sitting here with a player talking about what he has to do. That relationship with players, that's what it's all about."

I ask him whether there is perhaps a danger of blinding his players with science, rather like Don Revie with his dossiers all those years ago? "If you preach to them, then yes," he says. "But not if you let them tell you. The key skill is listening, and it's something I'm getting better at."

He will be doing plenty of listening at five o'clock on Saturday, when he is invited into Sir Alex Ferguson's office for the customary post-match beverage.

"I really value that time with Alex. You have to listen to him. To manage for 1,000 games at the pinnacle is amazing. Others have clocked up 1,000 games - Dario [Gradi] and Lennie Lawrence, I think - but not under intense media scrutiny. And now he's in the process of rebuilding his team, yet again, and it's moulding a bit quicker than probably even he thought it would. He's very engaging, Alex. The last time we had a chat about Louis Saha. I thought it was a good signing, giving them a different option, that ability to go long over the top, to stretch teams. But it was interesting to hear how he sees it himself. Because nobody else thinks like Alex Ferguson. He's unique.

"I've got a good friend who plays for Man United and he can't speak highly enough about Alex's man management. He's firm and disciplined but he really cares. And he's stayed in touch with his roots, with his union background. I share a bit of that. My dad was a shop steward. And I think that socialist tendency is relevant in football. You want to give, and you want to share."

Of course, for all Dowie's admiration for Ferguson, he is hoping against hope to put a scowl on the great man's face on Saturday, just as he did on Arsène Wenger's.

"Arsenal play a different shape to United," he says. "They really play 4-2-3-1, and at times 2-4-3-1, with the full-backs pushing on. They're enormously fluid, there's a lot of movement in there. Man United are a more orthodox 4-4-2, with the full-backs again very prominent, with Rooney dropping into that hole and Scholes breaking beyond. But they stretch you with width, whereas Arsenal hurt you with rotation. I think the Man United tempo of passing is as good as anyone's. They move the ball very, very quickly and it will be a huge task for us to cope, especially in that cauldron, the best football stadium in the country without a doubt."

It is a stadium where Dowie would like to sit in the home dug-out. He doesn't quite say as much, and expresses no dissatisfaction with his controversial chairman at Palace, Simon Jordan, other than a rolling of the eyes when I mention Jordan's reported dismissal last weekend of all other Premiership chairmen as "tossers".

But when I ask what his ambitions are for himself, he pauses for the first and only time in our conversation, then says: "I want to be regarded as a manager who shapes a club into one that every player in the world would want to play at. I'm very ambitious. I want to be driven by the best players in the world who make me take my coaching to a different level. I don't think any manager should say it's not an ambition to manage a better club. Personally, I need to know if I can do it at that level."

As a player he never reached such heights. He was decent enough, playing for Luton, Fulham, West Ham, Southampton, Palace and Queen's Park Rangers, and winning 59 caps for Northern Ireland. But having also worked some alchemy at Oldham, he is already a better manager than he ever was a player.

If Palace stay up this season then Dowie's star will continue to rise. I wouldn't bet against him becoming the next manager at Manchester City, if not United, on the basis that he is thought to covet a job in the north. His family - wife Deb, sons Ollie, 11, and William, eight - settled there during his time at Oldham, and he is unwilling to uproot them, which led to a heartbreaking exchange when his name was associated last season with the Leeds job. "Daddy," said William, "does this mean you're coming home?"

Dowie tells me this matter-of-factly, but it wouldn't take a water diviner to find tears below the surface. "It's difficult when they say these things," he acknowledges.

"Putting them to bed on a Sunday night when you know you're going to be on the red-eye flight the next morning and they don't want you to go. But it allows me to focus on my work here. And my wife Deb is very supportive. Besides, she says that even if I was living up there I'd still be getting in at eight or nine every night."

I suppose it can only be of benefit to Crystal Palace that Dowie, denied daily contact with his sons, has found a surrogate family in his players. He has taken to going on long early-morning walks with players who are out injured, chatting about their backgrounds and tastes in music and anything but football.

"That ability to know your employees, what they like, what they're thinking, that helps in any profession," he says. He is unarguably right, although I think he downplays the strain of living away from his sons, especially as he was so influenced by his own father, who died in 1997.

"There have been certain events that have shaped my life," he says, "and maybe the major one was the death of my father and the manner in which he died. Dylan Thomas wrote about raging against the dying of the light.

"Well, my dad raged. He wouldn't let go. He even found the strength to wake up from a coma to say goodbye to my son, his grandson, and he never woke again." A deep breath. "That gave me a big motivation to be the best I can be every day."