Football: Reid masters art of motivation

The manager who switched on the Stadium of Light is revelling in Sunderland's crusade on three fronts
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The Independent Online
EVEN FOR a man who has suffered the torment of relegation from the Premiership - every cruel twist of providence beamed into the nation's living rooms by a television documentary - adversity doesn't come any more vicious than when it crept up and brutally assaulted Peter Reid and his Sunderland players at Wembley, on May Bank Holiday last year. Devastated, flat, empty, the adjectives flowed, just as the beer hadn't, initially. "We went up to the bar, but it was just tears at first," Wearside's favourite adopted Scouser relived the aftermath to Michael Gray's penalty shoot-out miss which gave Premiership life to Alan Curbishley's Charlton. "There were more tears than lager in there. But we tried to have a few laughs, though it was difficult. Then, on the way home, we stopped off at a watering hole and had a party. Not the best of parties, it's got to be said. It was a sad party, but we had a sing-song, and that was the start of our recuperation, and we said, 'Let's do it next year'."

Eight months have passed, and that is precisely what Sunderland are achieving under Reid's stewardship. Now, on this Thursday lunchtime, he sits in his office in the prefabricated building at Whitburn - the club's present training base until their new headquarters is completed - clutching the biggest mug of tea you've seen, full to brimming. It exemplifies his attitude to life. No half-measures, either given or demanded in return from his men, who peer down from a safe haven, nine points above their rivals, although second-placed Ipswich might have something to say about that at the Stadium of Light today.

Reid has just returned from a five-a-side game with his squad. "Best player on the pitch, me," jokes the man who, along with Paul Bracewell, patrolled the dual championship-winning Everton's midfield with the utter ruthlessness of the most dedicated traffic warden. Last year, he completed the Great North Run, a half- marathon, in one hour 47 minutes. It was typical of a character who refuses to accept the slowed motion of managership. "I love this job, but give me 20 years off my age, hand me some boots, and while I might have to adjust my style because the game's a little bit different these days, I'd love to be back playing," says the former England international, born in Huyton 42 years ago. He rubs those gnarled features in his hands as if to clear his head, although the gale that whips off the North Sea only a mile away has probably performed that task already.

He is the archetypal enthusiast, for whom a mid-season break that has been mooted by some would be anathema. "What would I do?" he demands to know. "I don't like golf, and I don't like the sun. I just want to play football." Yet, while it might be contended that enthusiasm is a natural enough phenomenon when you're as successful as he has been, it is easy to forget that it is a success forged on an anvil of hard times. It is almost inconceivable, when the recent history of Manchester City since is assessed, that he should have been one of the victims of the Sweeney Todd of Maine Road, the late chairman Peter Swales, after the club had finished fifth two seasons in succession. That was in the Premier League, too. "Manchester United had just won their first championship since 1967 and people were too concerned about being compared with them," he recalls.

"I didn't get the backing to strengthen the side. I wanted people like John Barnes and Andy Townsend, and with the young players coming through, like Steve Lomas and Garry Flitcroft, we would have had the makings of a very good side. But it wasn't to be. But I learnt lessons from that experience, I always had belief in my ability, and I wasn't going to walk into another job that I felt wasn't right. I'm a good manager, but I'm not a miracle worker."

For two years, Reid returned to playing, for Southampton, Notts County and Bury, and rejected half a dozen managerial opportunities, before Sunderland's chairman, Bob Murray, enticed him, with the club ensnared in a relegation dog-fight. "I always felt there was a chance here, with a new stadium, a massive supporters' base and the passion. I thought, 'Yeah, I'll give it a go.' It's been a roller-coaster, but we're on the way up again. If we do make it, we now have the resources to consolidate in the Premiership. In fact, even if we don't get promoted I'll strengthen the side. We've got some excellent players, like Kevin Phillips who'll score goals at any level, Michael Gray, who I'd like to see get a chance with England, and Quinny [Niall Quinn] who is still a threat. But if you stand still in this game and start admiring what you've done, you're knackered."

Reid had arrived at Maine Road, his managerial acumen schooled by two mentors, Ian Greaves, under whom he was an apprentice at Bolton, and Howard Kendall, manager of the team of the Eighties, Everton. "I still see Ian once a week. He was responsible for my formative years, and he loved a passing game. Howard was a massive influence. He never used to panic and, tactically, in Europe he was excellent."

If Reid has a talent, other than his tactical brain, it is his strong motivational sense. Not that he believes a few bevvies are the answer to any crisis, merely that, four years after last turning out in a competitive match, for Bury, he still comprehends his players' psyche and how to turn a setback into a positive reaction. After an unbeaten run of 16 League games came to an end at Norwich, Reid brought in a crate of champagne on the following Monday morning after training. He and the players downed them, there and then. "It was to celebrate the end of a good run and we certainly needed taxis home that day," he explains, recalling the memory with a laugh that is contagious. "You see, I genuinely like footballers. Sure, they get criticism, but the majority are hard-working lads. I love the dressing-room atmosphere, the piss-taking, the wise-cracking and the difficult thing for me is being detached when I want to be part of it."

In the next 11 days Sunderland have welcome distractions from their seemingly irresistible progress to the First Division championship: the fourth-round FA Cup tie at Brian Kidd's Blackburn and the Worthington Cup semi-final against Leicester. "I played in the same side as Kiddo at Bolton when he was in the twilight of his career," says Reid. "He's a winner, he's passionate, he knows the game, and he's a working-class lad like myself. He's started well, but we don't go there with fear and it will be a great yardstick of our progress."

Reid's name has been broached as a possible successor to Glenn Hoddle; Gerry Francis, manager of last week's opponents QPR, was the last to nominate him. He pulls a face. "To be working with the top players, pitting your wits against the top coaches in international football would be fantastic, and I've got plenty of ideas about European club football from when I played in it, but the England manager's job? It's been personalised so much, there's so much baggage that comes with it it's virtually impossible."

But he will inevitably continue to be linked with other clubs. No doubt Everton - "the result I always look for first. There will always be a place in my heart for the club" - would attempt to procure him if the vacancy arose but it is evident that it will take more than money to prise him away from Sunderland, where he is linked by a lucrative share package. "I'm comfortable here," he protests. "I'm not that money-oriented anyway because I looked after it. But there's not that many clubs bigger than this. Where else can I go where there'd be 42,000 on a Sunday for a game against Ipswich?" And with that he was off. "Anyone for a game of head- tennis," he bellows. There's just no stopping Sunderland's Mr Motivator.