Football: McAllister points way to brighter future

Coventry City's inspirational leader is back to his best ready for the challenge of Manchester United today.
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EVERYONE WITH even a passing interest in football has heard of the Hand of God. Many Scots revel in the pious indignation it provokes in the English and celebrate it in song. Gary McAllister, always his own man, is probably alone among his countrymen in having fonder memories of God's Finger.

No, it is not a sex aid, although people have been known to wax orgasmic beneath its erect form. Nor is it anything to do with the "It could be you" slogan, even if it is used in the build-up to a four-yearly international lottery. And there is no direct link with Diego Maradona.

God's Finger is actually a mountain near Rio de Janeiro, at the foot of which lies Brazil's World Cup training camp. McAllister was there last spring, pitch-side for the Channel Four programme Planet Football, gazing in awe as the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and a personal favourite, Rivaldo, trained for a friendly against Argentina and the forthcoming festival in France.

While he had progressed beyond the stage of feeling forlorn about the cruciate-ligament injury which had already ruled him out of the World Cup, it was nevertheless a fillip to McAllister's morale to be recognised by Rene Simoes, Jamaica's Brazilian coach. Moreover, the sagacious Simoes knew all about his knee problem and had some unusual advice.

"He's heavily into sports psychology," McAllister explains, "and he assured me that the physical side of my recovery wouldn't be a problem. It was the mental aspect I needed to concentrate on. He suggested that every night, I should close my eyes for 15 minutes and picture all the positive things I've done in matches: great goals and free-kicks, going past opponents, and so on.

So did you do it? "I told him," he replies, unable to stifle a laugh, "I'd need at least an hour for that!" McAllister's response was the stoical humour of a player striving to keep his spirits up rather than conceit, but, whatever methods he used, Scotland's playmaker leads Coventry City today against the Premiership leaders, Manchester United, in arguably his best form since he left Leeds two and half years ago.

In the Sky Blues' last home game he dominated midfield in opposition to Liverpool's England partnership of Paul Ince and Jamie Redknapp. Last Saturday brought a deflating FA Cup exit at Everton, but McAllister scored with the kind of cunningly flighted set-piece that would occupy his mind's eye for several minutes on the Simoes scale.

Defeat at Goodison Park left Coventry in the familiar position of having nothing to look forward to except the fight to protect their 32-year tenure in the top flight. Despite a further setback at Newcastle on Wednesday, McAllister is convinced they will survive. Not because they have always done so, but "because we're good enough"; and because, in Darren Huckerby and Noel Whelan, they possess the attackers to score the requisite goals.

"I've played with some fantastic strikers - Eric Cantona, Tony Yeboah, Lee Chapman - but they were all relatively old. The exciting thing about Darren is that he's so young. There's no limit to what he could achieve.

"Snowy (Whelan) was the star of our juniors at Leeds when they beat Manchester United in the Youth Cup final and he stood out above the Beckhams and Scholes. He was very versatile then. He's definitely a forward now, with real craft."

But McAllister is at a loss to explain why Coventry have failed to build on last season's mid-table finish. "At the start of the season I had high hopes of coming back in the autumn into a side that was flowing and well up the table. It didn't happen and I wish I knew why. People say that selling Dion [Dublin] can't have helped, but he was here for the first 15 games and we were in the bottom three or four then.

Even though Coventry needed the points, McAllister was not rushed back the way he might have been at some clubs. Gordon Strachan, the manager, trusted him to say when he felt ready. The respect is mutual, says the captain, though their relationship has changed since they played together for Leeds and Scotland.

"That goes without saying when a friend becomes your boss. We still talk about football things but we don't really socialise. The other players wouldn't feel that was right, understandably."

McAllister believes that Strachan, who tends to be fiery where he is phlegmatic, is growing into the role. "Gordon certainly speaks his mind, but I've seen him count to 10 a few times lately in heated situations. Everyone says he wants us to play with the passion he shows, but that's the least he expects from us.

"His belief is that you may have special skills but you won't be able to show them unless you give maximum effort. Look at [Zinedine] Zidane for France against England last week. It might have looked as if he was walking about, but it wasn't a coincidence that every time he got the ball there was nobody near him. That was down to sheer hard graft."

McAllister, who was 34 on Christmas Day, harbours managerial ambitions of his own and has observed with particular interest the progress of another ex-colleague, David O'Leary, at Elland Road. "David always had his own ideas and was pretty shrewd. You don't last 20-odd years as a top-class defender by being naive.

"If someone told me that my first job as a manager would be with Leeds United, I'd certainly be interested. I don't know where I'll start. But all I know is football and I want to stay in it. There's pressure, sure, but it's good pressure, not stress as I understand it."

He has become accustomed to Leeds fans booing him for his supposed betrayal of their club (though he points out that he twice declined moves when they tried to offload him and was prepared to stay for a salary far smaller than Coventry were offering); and, ironically, to being barracked by Manchester United's followers for helping the Yorkshire side pip them to the championship in 1992.

Curiously, McAllister could have been part of the Old Trafford set-up himself. From the age of 12 to 16, during the reigns of Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson, he was promised to United. Every school holiday, he travelled from Bellshill - coincidentally, Sir Matt Busby's home town - to train with other wannabes such as Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside.

"In the end, United came up to Lanarkshire to our house to tell me they weren't taking me," he remembers. "A nice way to deliver bad news, I suppose."

The route that led him to Highfield Road has been strewn with epic battles with United and more than one famous victory. "To get the better of them you have to win the individual battles, stand toe-to-toe with big international players. In my case that means people like Paul Ince and then Roy Keane. Any sign of weakness and they'll go for it, but they're very enjoyable games."

McAllister, who views such encounters as ideal preparation for his anticipated return to the Scotland squad when the Euro 2000 qualifiers resume next month, is excited by the panache of Chelsea, whom he sees as a more resilient version of Kevin Keegan's Newcastle. Although he has also been impressed by the progress of Aston Villa and by the manager John Gregory's straight- talking style, he senses that the title race will boil down to a struggle between United and Arsenal.

"I reckon United will win it, but themselves, Arsenal and Chelsea are playing a different game from the rest of us. Things have moved on since we finished top at Leeds seven years ago. You could win games through power and pace then. Now there's more sophistication."

United's front two, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, combine all those attributes and more. McAllister, who believes the strike-force is the most important unit in any side, calls them "a midfielder's dream... the best pair in the country". Coventry have a mountain to climb, both today and in the months ahead, yet the man from God's Finger will be doing his utmost to point the way to brighter days on the Sky Blue horizon.