Football: `I feel I'm cheating the rest of the world, waking up every morning with no real stress': Brian Viner interviews Gordon Strachan
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Monday 07 February 2005
So, to find out what his plans are, and his views on subjects as disparate as Jose Mourinho, the future of Sir Alex Ferguson, the disgrace of Ron Atkinson and the state of Scottish football, I travel to Bath University's sports centre. The guy who runs football there is a pal of Strachan's, and he has agreed to do an afternoon's coaching. Afterwards, he meets me for a cuppa; Strachan, a near-teetotaller, drinks tea like each drop will be his last.
I remind him that the last time we met he was manager of Coventry City. "Aye. I look better now, eh?" So he's enjoying his time away from the managerial fray? "Oh, it's unfair. I shouldnae be waking up every day as well as this. I feel like I'm cheating the rest of the world, waking up every morning with no real stress."
Strachan gets quite snippy when I suggest that his decision to leave Southampton, having guided the club to its most successful period in years, was construed in some quarters as mysterious. "It was only mysterious to the cynical," he says. "Nobody who knew me thought it was mysterious. I'd been in the game for 30 years, and my wife had been with me for 29 of those years. We both needed a break. We're grandparents now."
He had resolved two years earlier to take a sabbatical, he adds, although he only broke the news to Rupert Lowe, Southampton's chairman, four months before he packed his bags. Strachan still lives on the south coast and still takes a keen interest in the Saints' fortunes, not that he will tell me what he thought when Harry Redknapp was appointed manager. "After four managers in a year, I cannae say it was a surprise," is his gnomic response.
So has he made the most of his sabbatical?
"Oh aye. I've been to Australia for six weeks, I've been snorkelling, I've done sand-surfing in the desert, I went to the Edinburgh Festival, I went to the Oktoberfest, I've written bits and bobs. You name it, I have had a bash at it. And I have studied football a lot, too. It has been great to be able to watch both sides playing at the same time."
He would have cut the sand-surfing short, however, had the Scottish Football Association chosen him, rather than Walter Smith, to succeed Berti Vogts as manager of the national team. Strachan openly fancied the job, and firmly believes that it should be done by a Scotsman, just as the England manager should be an Englishman. "I like Berti, and I like Sven [Goran Eriksson]. But I would prefer to have seen Berti managing Germany and Sven managing Sweden. I believe that every nation should have a coach of the same nationality, so that they're representing their own country.
"It's different for the developing football nations, the Ivory Coast or whatever. But there's enough managerial talent in Britain. There's intelligence, inventiveness, work-rate. Saying that, the top five managers in the Premiership right now are a Portuguese guy, a Frenchman, two Scots and a Spaniard. There's a need for English managers to get involved in European football, then the FA willnae be able to overlook them."
As for Strachan himself being overlooked by the SFA, he remains sanguine. Smith, he insists, is already doing a fine job. Nevertheless, there are those who believe that the blazers missed an opportunity, perhaps unnerved by Strachan's honesty. "I've said it before and been hammered for it," he says, "but the truth is we're not very good at team sports in Scotland. Cricket's always been rotten, rugby's not very good, football's not very good, anything healthy we don't seem to be good at. We're all right at pub games, darts and snooker. And we're great at heart attacks. We're world leaders when it comes to heart attacks."
But how has it come to pass, I ask, that there are so few Scottish footballers influencing the English game when once they reigned supreme? Where are the successors to Denis Law, Dave Mackay, Billy Bremner, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Andy Gray and indeed Strachan himself?
"Well," he says, "you have to remember that when those Scottish footballers came to England, they only had to play against the best of British. It's now the best in the world. It's like going from the European Tour in golf to the US Tour."
It's a good answer, but then the above-named players were comparable with the world's best. Clearly, the production line that produced great Scottish footballers is in serious need of an overhaul, and when Strachan was interviewed by the SFA he outlined how he wanted to do it. That too might have been why they chose the less radical Smith. "I said I wanted to change the entire philosophy of Scottish football. I wanted to get kids to fall in love with the game again, to recreate the street football mentality, kids fantasising about being their favourite player. There are ways of encouraging that, and that's what the African nations do have, and it's why they'll become a force."
Listening to Strachan, who turns 48 this Wednesday, I am certain that his next managerial position is not far off. He concedes that it is likely, and that he has declined several offers already. Which clubs have approached him he will not reveal, but press speculation has attached him to just about every post that has become available in the past 12 months, including the Liverpool job.
"Aye, and it's been very gratifying," he says. "I will get involved again because it's what I do, but the job has to be right for both parties. I took over at Coventry when they were second from bottom, and the same at Southampton. I don't particularly want to do that again, using the same motivational techniques again, but I'm not arrogant enough to think I'll get a big Premiership job or even any Premiership job." A twinkle. "I'll tell you the image I have in my head. The sun is shining every day, I'm working on the best training ground in the world, with players who don't drink or arrive late and are receptive to what I say, then I have a nice lunch and work with the kids in the afternoon. That's all I want."
While he duly waits for a call from the chairman of Shangri-La FC, he will continue his punditry and tackle his memoirs, starting with his childhood in a rough part of Edinburgh, Muirhouse, where he lived a syringe's throw from the boyhood home of the author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh. He will write about the success he enjoyed as a footballer of rare grit, notably at Aberdeen, Manchester United and Leeds United, but his main focus will be on his managerial career. It is a story worth waiting for.
"I think there's only so much time a manager can spend at a club,' he tells me. "Maybe not if they're truly successful, like Alex Ferguson, or in a different way, Alan Curbishley. But eventually the fans get fed up with the same rhetoric, and so do the players. I think we need to be more like Italy, with managers spending three years maximum at a club and then moving on."
He eyes me fiercely. "The press has a lot to answer for. Sometimes they get managers sacked by publishing lies. At Southampton they wrote that Anders Svensson and Fabrice Fernandes were unhappy with my style of management. It was a lie. But it didn't hurt me, it hurt those players, because they got a reputation for causing unrest. You know, sometimes as a manager when you've been dealing with people not in the game [I assume he means agents as well as journalists] you have to go home and give yourself a shower. I saw a headline in The Sun the other day, about yob culture. It's true that there's a yob culture. There's yob footballers, yob TV and yob newspapers."
Gently changing the subject, I invite Strachan to consider whether Alex Ferguson, with whom he has had an excitingly fiery relationship going all the way back to his Aberdeen days, should stay at the United helm?
"Aye, of course. Most leaders throughout the world are in their sixties, so I see no reason why he shouldn't keep going. His knowledge of the game gets greater and greater, and it's not as if he wears himself out coaching. The last coaching session he took must have been 18 years ago. So as long as he stays full of petrol he'll keep going, and his petrol is anger."
It's another good line; Strachan has always been eminently quotable, another reason why his return to management, when it happens, will be welcomed even by those sections of the press for whom he has such disdain. If it's a Premiership job, moreover, it will be interesting to see him crossing swords with Mourinho, whom he has been studying closely.
"And I like what I see. I think his two best moves involved [Hernan] Crespo and [Adrian] Mutu. They weren't happy so he got rid of them; that's knowing what makes a squad tick. I think he's good for football and so are Chelsea. It was getting boring with Arsenal and Man United winning all the time. It's nice to have someone fresh at the top, even if it's taken pounds 300m of someone's money to do it.
"I also think it will be great if Everton can hang on in fourth. Newcastle or Liverpool should be there, with the millions they've spent, and with Middlesbrough's wage bill they should be up there as well, but you've got to hope Everton or even Charlton can finish fourth. Their problem is that if they do well, people buy their players. David [Moyes] has to keep signing good players from an ordinary transfer kitty."
Strachan has finished his cup of tea, and another, and is eyeing up yet another. I ask him, finally, for his views on the disgrace of Ron Atkinson. Big Ron, after all, was his manager at Manchester United and later his mentor at Coventry City. He knows him as well as anyone in football.
A sigh. "Well, it's been a year now. Someone said to me they'll never forgive what Ron said. I said `are you a Christian?' Yes. `So what about the forgiveness thing?' Ron's not a racist. What is a racist, anyway? Does a racist joke make you a racist? If someone calls me a Scottish twat are they a racist? With Ron it was racial stupidity, not racism.
"They talk about kicking racism out of football. What do they mean? Do they mean racism on the terracing? Or racial discrimination inside football? Because there is no racial discrimination in football. In fact, football should be used as an example of how everyone from all races get on. If they're talking about racism on the terraces, then yes, I've heard it and I hate it. But these people don't become racist at football matches. They're racist when they go to the pub, when they walk down the street. Why must football take the blame? If these people happened to work for the gas board, would anyone say `come on gas board, get your house in order'?"
It's a fair point, I say. "Aye," he says. "It is."
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