FOOTBALL: Atkinson lures Strachan to Coventry promise

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Atkinson lures Strachan to Coventry promise

OOTBALL

BY PHIL SHAW

Many a manager has unwittingly appointed his successor. Few, if any, can have cheerfully formalised the process, as Ron Atkinson did yesterday when he lured Gordon Strachan from Leeds United to Coventry City.

Strachan, the 38-year-old former Scotland captain, signed a three-year contract with Coventry. In it there is a clause stating that he will become manager in two years' time. In the meantime he will continue playing, mainly at reserve level, and coach the first team.

"Sort of player/manager-elect," Atkinson said when pressed on Strachan's title.

Leeds supporters, who had assumed that the captain of their championship- winning team would eventually replace Howard Wilkinson, besieged the club's switchboard. By then, though, the deal was done - on a free transfer, in recognition of outstanding service - and Strachan was being chauffeured to the Midlands in Atkinson's club Jaguar.

Atkinson, who first signed Strachan for Manchester United from Aberdeen in 1984, was pipped by Leeds when he tried to buy him for Sheffield Wednesday six years ago this week. Naturally, he considered yesterday's deal a coup.

"There were other clubs who wanted to do a similar deal with Gordon. One even tried to nick him from under our noses yesterday, but what swayed him was the guaranteee that he'll take over."

Two years "learning the business" suited Strachan, who previously turned down offers from Swindon and Barnsley, among others. "I looked at Howard some days and the pressure he was under, and I thought: `I don't fancy this'," he admitted. "But I like working with the players, and this way I can give the admin side the body-swerve yet still have an influence on the team."

There was no acrimony over his departure from Leeds. "I had farewell drinks with the manager, chairman and directors, and they were happy and I was happy."

Next Sunday, Elland Road hosts what was billed asa tribute banquet for Strachan."That now becomes my farewell dinner," he said.

Back problems prompted him to retire from Premiership action in January. The injury is now "a bit better," and Atkinson has persuaded him to turn out as and when the Sky Blues' needs dictate. "The esteem he was held in at Leeds was incredible. Carlton Palmer told me: `Why he's packed up, I don't know. He's easily our best player'."

Strachan has even taken a pay cut to reunite with Atkinson - "I'm happy as long as the fridge is full." - and the repartee suggested the pair had picked up where they left off at Old Trafford.

What would happen to "Big Ron" come 1997? Strachan envisaged him "taking over from Noel Edmonds or Jeremy Beadle." Atkinson grinned wickedly. "What will I be? A media man, " he said, turning to his new ally, "slagging him off."

The former Manchester City and Crystal Palace manager, Malcolm Allison, has been confirmed as the "big name" behind a multi-million pound bid to buy control of the ailing Third Division club, Gillingham.

Allison, 67, was not at the news conference to announce his involvement, but, in a statement issued by the head of the consortium, Ross Hemsworth, said: "If successful in our bid my aim is to oversee the footballing side of the business.

"We aim to develop a strong youth team for the future and begin immediate work on a two to three-year plan, beginning with building a strong squad that will be capable of climbing up the divisions.

"I want to find a brilliant young coach to take care of the youth coaching aspect. If successful I will want to spend time talking to Neil Smillie [the Gillingham manager] to discuss our aims and objectives.

"It's a very big job and it's going to take a lot of time and a great commitment from all concerned, but nothing succeeds without hard work."

Hemsworth, a self-confessed Gills fan, who watched the club from the terraces as a boy, said: "This is a very serious venture. We have yet to lodge our bid with the receivers running the club, but the consortium as a whole has £10m available, much of it supplied by a City of London financier."

Fellow consortium member Terry Armstrong, who runs a leading entertainment agency based in Kent, said: "Kent has already lost one football league club [Maidstone], it cannot afford to lose another.

"We want the county to sit up and take notice of Gillingham and get the club on the way up."

Among ambitious plans, if the consortium is successful, are pop concerts and boxing. Hemsworth, a former associate of Nigel Benn, said the fighter was keen to appear in a world title fight at Priestfield.

The Aberdeen goalkeeper, Theo Snelders, could be out of action for a month after suffering a broken bone in his foot during Saturday's goalless draw with Hibernian. Aberdeen have only seven games left to preserve their premier status and their caretaker manager, Roy Aitken, must now turn to his back-up goalkeepers, Michael Watt and Derek Stillie.

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