Football: McAllister focused on the job in hand

FOOTBALL: Coventry are in danger of slipping out of the top flight for the first time in 30 years. Phil Shaw spoke to their captain
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Talk about tempting fate. A month ago, after Gary McAllister had coaxed Coventry City to successive wins over Liverpool and Chelsea, the club's vice-chairman remarked that they ought to change their name to Coventry Houdini.

As the Scotland captain prepares for the Sky Blues' final match of the season at Tottenham tomorrow, when anything less than victory will curtail their residency at Premiership level after 30 unbroken years, it may be pertinent to point out a little-known fact about the man whose name is synonymous with escapology.

Houdini, for all his incredible feats, met his end after inviting a spectator to test his muscle control by thumping him in the stomach.

The sucker-punch symbolism may seem painfully appropriate if Coventry relinquish a record of not having been relegated from any division since 1952. To McAllister's chagrin, their destiny is no longer in their own hands following a home defeat by Derby.

Coventry must now beat Spurs and pray, as their playmaker puts it, that Middlesbrough take no more than a point at Leeds and that Sunderland lose at Wimbledon. The scenario amounts to no more than "a glimmer of hope".

One irony in a situation riddled with them is that McAllister is looking for a favour from Leeds, whom he left for pounds 3m last summer after six seasons that included a championship medal. He is confident Boro will find them hard to beat, taking heart from the fact that he was the last visitor to score in a League game at Elland Road, way back on Boxing Day.

Although McAllister experienced the drop with Leicester 10 years ago this month - when Coventry were gearing up for FA Cup glory against Spurs, of all teams - he acknowledges that the desperation to stay up is fiercer now. The Premiership and the old First Division are, he asserts, "different planets" in terms of competitiveness, coverage and financial rewards.

"I was just a young lad in '87," he says, now 32. "As your status in the game changes, so does your personal responsibility and I came as Coventry's record buy. Expectations here are also higher than they were at Leicester."

Almost for the first time since Jimmy Hill led them into the top flight, Coventry have shown genuine ambition by splashing out on players. Before Ron Atkinson became Hill's latest successor 27 months ago, Dion Dublin was their sole seven-figure signing. Atkinson invested in a further nine, while Gordon Strachan has recruited two more since stepping up last November.

The presence of his predecessor as Leeds and Scotland captain played a major part in convincing McAllister that Coventry could banish the culture of monotonous mediocrity. Perhaps he was unaware how deeply rooted it was: this will be their 14th bottom-five finish in 30 seasons and the 23rd time they have ended up below half-way.

"The directors have put up a lot of money and backed this management team as well as any board in the country," McAllister says. "I'm sure they expected us to be nearer a place in Europe than the bottom three."

So what's gone wrong? "We started poorly by losing at home to Forest - 3-0 going on 10 - and we've never been able to pull away from trouble. We had a good run around Christmas when we won four and drew one. But then we had Dion sent off twice and suspended for seven games. That took away our most likely scorer. Even when he plays at the back he's always dangerous at set-pieces.

"There still seemed to be enough home games for us to get clear. But we drew with Wimbledon when we played well and lost to West Ham after starting brightly and going ahead. Then after winning at Liverpool and beating Chelsea, we drew with Arsenal, which would have been a good result if some of the other struggling sides hadn't started hitting championship form."

Previous scrambles to safety were achieved with what Strachan calls "hungry players" from the lower divisions. A pounds 30m outlay in three years means Coventry have arguably their most talented squad ever. Critics allege it is also one of the least committed.

McAllister, honest enough to admit that "scrapping doesn't come naturally" to him, has taken more than his share of flak from the fans. With hindsight, he would probably have needed to lead Coventry to the title to persuade them he was good value for such an unprecedented sum. Yet he disputes that there is any lack of passion.

"The players are hurting. Last Saturday was a real slap in the face. But while there's still a chance, we'll be giving it everything. I'm sure we'll know on the pitch how the other matches are going."

By another twist, he was in the Leeds midfield 12 months ago when Coventry staged their most recent nerve-shredding finale. "You could really feel the tension as the Southampton and Man City scores filtered through to Highfield Road. I also remember the joy and relief on people's faces after it ended 0-0."

Strachan's dismay at going through it all again has manifested itself in some brutally frank remarks. I suggest that his words would have been better left to the dressing-room than the press conference; McAllister disagrees. "When he's criticised us, he's told the truth rather than just slagging us off. We feel we've let him down, and that could work for us on Sunday.

"I've worked with some top managers and I'm positive Gordon has what it takes. If the worst happens, it'll only be a blip in his career. The crucial thing in management is to have the players' respect. He's got it."

With his country's World Cup prospects delicately poised, there has been speculation that McAllister will leave Coventry rather than risk his Scotland place by playing in the Nationwide League. Any decision will be made by others - he is contracted until 2000 - though it could well be that in the event of relegation the club would seek to cut the wage bill by selling their highest earners.

In the meantime he is "totally focused" on Coventry's struggle against the odds. Apart from the nine lives they have enjoyed on the season's final day, there is another promising portent. Two years ago, Strachan inspired a 3-1 success which ensured the luxury of survival in their penultimate fixture... at Spurs.

On the last Sunday, also at White Hart Lane, McAllister led Leeds to the point they required for a place in Europe. This time a draw will definitely not do. However, if the Sky Blues slip their shackles once more, even those who aspire to Houdini's mantle will begin to talk about performing "a Coventry act".