Football: Strachan learns to absorb the strain

Nick Townsend talks to Coventry's manager about the pressure points
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The Independent Online
For once rocking rather than rollicking, Gordon Strachan switches off the Elvis Presley track playing on the radio of his office stereo system. "Keeps me sane," he replies cheerfully to the unasked question, while relaxing back in his chair, behind which the window frames the Sky Blues' training ground.

Clad in slacks, topped by denim shirt and pullover, and seemingly on exceedingly good terms with the world, this is the Coventry manager that he conceals from public view; one rather more redolent of Edinburgh gentility than the Highland terrier he can metamorphose into at the raise of a linesman's flag. "Oh, you see me on TV, but that's me enjoying myself," he says with a shrug. "I was like that as a player, too. But here, with the players, I don't lose my temper ... well not much."

Not that it takes long to disturb that sense of equilibrium and for those Celtic hackles to rise, "when I have to deal with this garbage from agents". He brandishes a sheet of paper faxed by the representative of one of his players, aged 18. It contains precise details of what a contemporary of his midfielder is earning at another club.

"This clown comes along, after only knowing my lad for four weeks, while I've been coaching him for three and a half years and he's telling me that I'm not treating him right," snorts Strachan. "He tells me this other lad gets pounds 2,218 a week plus starting appearances of pounds 1,500, which means he's on nearly pounds 4,000 when he gets a game."

A tricky one, you suggest. Strachan shakes his head to the contrary. "I've phoned the agent already, said I've already offered his player a new contract and more than doubled his wages. I told him 'Take it or leave it, but don't phone me, don't even come near me'. Sometimes after dealing with some of these people you just want to go home and have a shower. They're like parasites with these kids, but they feel naked without an agent."

The manager adds, conspiratorially: "It's part of the players' accessories nowadays. You need the watch, the car, the agent and the mobile phone. If you've not got that your celebrity standing goes down in the dressing room. When I was a young player, managers never had these problems. Now players are bigger than the club and you can't just wield the big stick like Alex Ferguson did at Aberdeen, where he put the fear of God into everybody."

It's a wonder that men like Strachan still queue up to enter management, even when it carries a warning message: this occupation can seriously damage your mental and physical health. Indeed, had the Scot been inclined to surf the airwaves on Thursday morning we met, he would have discovered a cacophany of broadcasts disseminating opinion about the impending departure of Liverpool's Roy Evans. That came a week after Strachan's best friend, Mark McGhee, was dismissed by Wolves.

Currently, the former Scotland midfielder is still in the ascendancy, and he enjoys the total support and financial backing of his chairman Bryan Richardson. But nearly 25 years in the game has taught him that the line between the comfort zone and the torture chamber is a perilously narrow one. Last season, Coventry finished an admirable 11th. This season, despite attempting to supplement their undoubted industry with finesse - as exemplified last week by the acquisition of pounds 1.3m Belgian Under-21 player Laurent Delorge, who has played just a handful of games in third division Ghent's first team - they have won only three of their 12 Premiership games. The protracted saga of Dion Dublin's transfer has not aided morale, although Saturday's victory at Blackburn will have, as they contemplate today's visit by equally troubled Everton.

He adds: "At moment I'm just looking to survive, to give myself a plateau from which to enjoy myself. But I wouldn't like to be a manager too long. I enjoy the coaching side far more. That's where you see players improve. The best thing about that for me has been Dion Dublin getting an international cap, when people were laughing at the suggestion two years ago." That the colossus, transferred to Aston Villa, will be missed, he does not dispute, but Strachan has faith in what he describes as a "young, honest, hard-working team" which includes the still not completely tapped potential of strikers Darren Huckerby, 22, and Noel Whelan, 23. Yet, he concedes, with the exception of Gary McAllister there are too few voices in the team to organise that pair and their colleagues. "Apart from Gary, it's silent, so I've got to be near them to guide them. It's amazing what you can do with this voice of mine." He smiles ruefully, all to aware of his irascible reputation. "I've mellowed. I don't say things about refs and I don't react when we miss chances. All I get involved in is when people begin to get tactically tired and sloppy on the mental side."

He adds self-depracatingly: "I'm still learning and you just have to hope you can get by with hard work, a wee bit of luck, and a bit of knowledge till you get to the point where you can get the hang of this game, like George Graham and Alex Ferguson have."

He speaks regularly with his mentor Howard Wilkinson, Leeds manager when he was a player at Elland Road. "If I've got a problem I normally go to him. Sometimes he phones me when he sees a couple of results haven't gone my way. When I ring he always says, 'Where are you?' I reply, 'I'm just on the edge of a cliff, in my car.' If we've had a poor run, I make a bubbling sound, and tell him, 'I've gone over. I'm in the water now'." He adds, in rather more serious tone: "It's surprising how strong you can be. When I took over I had been in the game for 23 years and I thought 'how long will I be able to take all this stress', and will it change my personality? Of course, you get depressed after games, but by Monday I'm ready for the challenge again."

Yet, he stresses that it is purely a love for the game that is driving force; not naked ambition. "I would never go around saying I want to be as great as Ferguson, for example. If you don't make it, you'll probably end up being a sad old man sitting in a pub. It can screw you up inside." Which probably explains why he winds down, sitting on the settee with his wife, "drinking Coca-Cola and watching westerns". Like his hero John Wayne, the little man plans to walk tall for a lot longer yet.