Football: Serious impression of a smile-minded coach

The Harrison Show is proving a surreal success at Villa.
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The Independent Online
BIRMINGHAM Airport, Monday morning. A man in a suit and spectacles strides purposefully round and round the departure lounge as the Aston Villa squad await their flight to Spain for the Uefa Cup match with Celta Vigo.

Although the laughter increases each time he passes, he maintains the fixed expression of a statue. It is as if he is on loop, like an extra in The Truman Show. When he finally sits down, the players cheer.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Steve Harrison, coach and comedian to the court of John Gregory. Under their partnership, Villa have set the pace in the Premiership and on Tuesday took a 1-0 lead over Celta.

Gregory, with a Denis the Menace badge adorning his suit, Bruce Springsteen on his answerphone message and a disdain for the cliches of his profession, is hardly your run-of-the-mill manager. But in the double act with Harrison, whom he called Villa's "unsung hero", he is effectively the straight man.

Harrison's misfortune is that he will forever be remembered for a lavatorial prank which backfired, as it were, and cost him his place in the England set-up during Graham Taylor's tenure. The only thing that interested Gregory when he plucked him from Preston in March was his coaching prowess.

Like his surreal circuit in the airport, the appointment brought Harrison full circle. Among the three clubs at which Taylor employed him were Villa, where he stayed for seven months before being tempted into management at Watford a decade ago.

"I told my wife, Christine, that I felt I'd get one more chance at the top level because I had faith in my ability," Harrison said. "But coming back to Villa was a little more than I'd dreamed of. This club is an institution, the Arsenal of the Midlands. I felt comfortable the moment I walked into the place."

He sees it his role to ensure that the players share his sense of well- being. Jesting is probably in the genes, for his father was a stand-up comic who worked the North-west under the name of Harry Jacks.

Harrison once appeared sitting among the suitcases on an airport baggage carousel. Strolling through a foreign city with Taylor, he reputedly walked straight through a fountain, stepped out and carried on chatting as if nothing had happened.

He also does impressions - Stan Laurel and Tommy Cooper are staples - and when Villa were in Oslo last month the players came down for breakfast to see a pair of legs protruding from beneath a show car in the hotel lobby while a disembodied voice called for a monkey wrench.

"I believe you get the best out of people when they're smiling," Harrison said. "They're more receptive to work when they're relaxed, and our players do work hard. We didn't get back from Vigo until 3am on Wednesday but we had them in later in the day and they're also in on Sundays."

Formerly a full-back with Watford, Charlton and his home-town team, Blackpool, Harrison concentrated on defensive organisation during the summer. The clean sheet in Vigo was the ninth in 12 games.

"We prepare them as a unit, but also individually and with video clips," he explained. "But the first priority is having good players in the right positions. Yes, John inherited some good defenders, but what he did was revert to a back three and look for a balance of right- and left-footers, pace, strength and experience.

"Once you've got those raw ingredients, it's all about keeping it simple and interesting in training. It's vital not to overload the players with information. We keep it to a maximum of two topics per session."

England's Gareth Southgate, the Villa captain, worked with Harrison at Crystal Palace. "A lot of coaches in this country ignore the defenders, as if we're supposed to get on with it ourselves," he said. "Steve takes us as a group, picking up on details of our performances and giving us pointers about coming opponents.

"As a day-in, day-out coach, he's fantastic. Talented and hard working as well as great fun. The airport thing was his way of keeping spirits up. Sometimes he says: 'Goodness me, I'm 45, I'll have to grow up at some stage'. I hope he doesn't."

The challenge now for Harrison is to enhance Villa's strike rate. "There's room for improvement," he admitted, "but I'm convinced we've got the people who can score the goals."

Stan Collymore for one. Harrison detects signs of the form which persuaded Brian Little to lavish pounds 7m on him. "Stan's a smashing fella. When you get to know him he's a big, sensitive man who wants to be a success at football. Once he's comfortable, he'll perform and we'll see the best of him. There's a lot more under the bonnet."

Having endured his share of bad press when he became part of England's past, Harrison has a forthright take on the recent media clamour for Gregory to be England's future. "It was unfair and unethical. We should get behind the manager we've got and give him the chance to succeed."

For all that, his endorsement of Gregory echoes that of many pundits. "John's so positive, and concise and economical. He handles situations with the minimum of fuss, which is what management is all about. He's doing a great job at Villa and long may it continue."

The feeling is mutual. Reminded of his description of Harrison, Gregory suggested it was time to dispense with the word "unsung".