Football: Strachan relaxing into his new role

FOOTBALL: As Coventry City's manager prepares to face up to his old club and his old boss, Glenn Moore spoke to him about life at the bottom of the Premiership and his own particular recipe for success at Highfield Road
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"People wonder why someone like Rod Stewart has lasted so long, whether it's because he's changed his style or something. In fact it's because he works hard and is very good. That's why people last. That's why people are successful for a long time. There is no secret."

It could be someone talking about Gordon Strachan's longevity. It is actually Strachan talking about Manchester United's consistency. Strachan, who graced Old Trafford from 1984 to 1989, hosts his old club today as manager of Coventry City.

There is no danger of sentiment clouding his approach to the task. "I'm not concerned with what they [United's supporters] think of me now, only what they think of me at Coventry," he said yesterday.

Strachan's ability to focus on what is important is one of the reasons he is still able to play in the Premiership a month short of his 40th birthday. Alex Ferguson once described him as "a winner" and, asked how he would like his teams to play, Strachan answers simply "winning". "I handle defeat badly," he said. "When I hurt, I hurt badly and it shows on my face for everyone to see."

Ferguson, the man who sold him twice, flung tea-cups at him, and admired him, said of Strachan: "He's only a diminutive guy but what a character. A strong man of a different kind. Good game or bad the bottom line was that he always wanted the ball. Exactly the mental courage I appreciate. In fact, I demand it."

Yesterday Strachan was not in the mood to talk about Ferguson. Maybe he was not in the mood after a dozen similar requests this week; maybe his Old Trafford exit, within days of a disappointing performance in an FA Cup quarter-final defeat, still rankles. He had told the Independent two years ago that "we didn't dislike each other but I wouldn't say we got on well."

He did, however, tell the Coventry Evening Telegraph: "He is up there with all the greats. Not just for what he has done for Manchester United but for what he has achieved at Aberdeen and St Mirren as well. Some people get burned out, but Alex loves it and keeps going. What he has achieved is phenomenal. His self-motivation is phenomenal."

Ferguson is one of only six club managers Strachan has played under in a glittering 22-year career - less than Paul Dickov has had at Arsenal and Manchester City this season.

The significant others were Howard Wilkinson at Leeds - "they could not have picked a better man to be technical director" - Ron Atkinson, who signed him for Manchester United and Coventry, and his first manager at Dundee, David White.

Atkinson is still around having been "promoted" to director of football when Strachan took over as manager in November. "I see the Big Man quite a lot, he's in every second day. We talk about players and different things. It's handy to have someone to bounce ideas off. He's quite involved.

"It is hard to say who's influenced me and how. The football and tactics when I set out are no longer relevant. It is just me really. The personality I project to players is me. If you try and be something else they will see through it.

"There are good days and there are days when you think there must be something better to do. On the whole it [management] is challenging, stimulating, interesting."

Strachan has said that if the strain of managing becomes too much he will walk away. "My family comes first and foremost, football a long, long way behind. I can understand why Kenny Dalglish and Kevin Keegan left.

"You never entirely switch off, your mind is ticking about this player, that player, somebody's problems. You cannot analyse everything in the game or listen to all the advice people want to throw at you. If you did that it would screw you up. It would literally send you up the wall.

"If you get totally involved with something else it's nice, but if you start day-dreaming you find you are day-dreaming about football.

"I switch off by sitting in the house watching telly. I watch all the garbage, Family Fortunes, things like that. That can really switch you off from football."

Strachan, 40 next month, appears to have taken the opportunity of putting together a team which allows him to retire yet again. "It's wonderful, I can wake up in the morning without the aches. But I'm still involved, I played for the reserves on Thursday."

Adam Dent, who covers Coventry City for the Evening Telegraph, said of Strachan: "He seems to have changed, he is so laid back. He used to jump up and down a lot. He's been good to work with."

He has also done well after a difficult start. His first match was a home defeat in the Coca-Cola Cup to Endsleigh League Second Division strugglers Gillingham. "Not the ideal start," he admitted.

Having taken over with Coventry in the bottom three they then took one point from four Premiership games to go bottom. However, four successive victories carried them to mid-table before a home draw with Sunderland and last week's 4-0 loss at Blackburn halted the surge. Dion Dublin was sent off in both matches.

"We're going well considering we are playing with 10 men most of the games," Strachan said. "Once we get back to 11 I'm sure we'll be better. I've changed one of two things and steadied the ship a little."

Dent adds: "He's changed the defence, except for Blackburn last week when he admitted he'd made a mistake by reverting to four. Playing Dublin there was a master-stroke and Paul Williams has been switched back to midfield to be a `minder' for Gary McAllister which has helped.

"The other good move was signing Darren Huckerby which has injected pace into the attack. He's done well as manager. I think supporters have been pleasantly surprised."

We have got this far without mentioning Strachan's famous dietary habits: bananas, porridge, seaweed pills, etc. Has he got the whole squad eating it now?

"The food at the training ground got changed dramatically when I first came here as assistant manger," Strachan said. "They don't have to eat it - they can eat or go hungry."