Alan Irvine: 'I don't know, maybe it's because we're all grumpy and bad-tempered'

The Preston manager tells Sam Wallace why Glaswegians make good tacticians as his side tackle the might of Liverpool in the FA Cup today

When Everton won the FA Cup final in 1984, Alan Irvine stood and watched his team-mates walk up the Wembley steps. He had played in every game until the quarter-final but then injury intervened and he was left with that strange feeling of elation at the triumph and desolation at not being part of it. Twenty-five years later, it is FA Cup third round day and the challenge is very different.

Irvine, 50, is manager of a rejuvenated Preston North End who face the Premier League leaders Liverpool in the Cup today, a challenge that has special resonance for a great former Evertonian. He played 60 games for the club and returned in 2002 as David Moyes' assistant to help re-establish Everton as a force to reckoned with. Appointed by Preston in November 2007, he is regarded as one of the brightest managers in the Championship and, having saved Preston from relegation last season, they are currently seventh in the table. Which on Preston's relatively meagre resources is some achievement.

It is typical of Irvine that when I ask him whether he might get some stick today from the travelling support, he says that he does not think he's "that important to the Liverpool fans". "As for what's happened at Everton, they would see that as a lot more to do with David than me and rightly so. I don't think the Liverpool fans know that much about me. I think I'll have a fairly quiet day." Irvine is a modest bloke, understated about his achievements, but in football terms his stock is high. Kenny Dalglish rated him so highly he took him from Blackburn to Newcastle and made him first-team coach.

When Dalglish left in 1998, Irvine became academy director at Newcastle and when Moyes approached him to join Everton, he was offered an unprecedented 10-year contract to stay in the North-east. Irvine has never applied for any of the jobs he has been given, his reputation precedes him. If he can continue to make progress at Preston, who knows where his career might take him?

Liverpool fans at Deepdale today will sit in the Bill Shankly Kop, named after the man who won an FA Cup with Preston before he went into management, a figure who connects the histories of both clubs. Whether the away support give Irvine an easy ride is another matter. Just as Jamie Carragher pointed out in his recent autobiography, Irvine has noticed how the relationship between the two sets of fans on Merseyside has changed for the worse.

"When I came back [to Everton] in 2002 I was a bit shocked at the way it had gone, from being a player in the early Eighties," Irvine says. "I played in the [1984] Milk Cup final at Wembley which was a draw and afterwards both teams walked round and the whole crowd sang 'Merseyside'. That was an awesome experience, absolutely incredible. My memories were of families walking down to the stadium, some in red, some in blue. Everybody outside the pubs drinking together, all mixed in. There was rivalry but it was friendly rivalry.

"Nowadays it's different and maybe it is just society that has changed. There was always a fierceness and bitterness when the Merseyside teams played the Manchester teams but not when we played each other. There was the intensity but there wasn't the bitterness that shocked me when I came back as a coach."

At Everton, Moyes and Irvine formed a formidable partnership and you can see that work ethic in the Preston manager. We are talking in his office late on a bitterly cold Lancashire afternoon, a few days before new year when the rest of the country is snoozing on the settee. Irvine had plenty more left to do that day but he loves his job and he knows hard work. Before he joined Everton in 1981 he qualified as an insurance broker while playing part-time for the Glasgow amateurs Queen's Park, the club that launched Sir Alex Ferguson's playing career.

"I had a fantastic job at Everton and I was very happy so when the offer came from Preston I sat down and made a list of the pros and cons of staying at Everton," he says. "The list of pros were much longer than the cons! In the end if I hadn't taken this job I would have always questioned myself, my own ambition, drive and determination and I always felt that I had all of those things.

"I wanted to be the best coach I could be and coming to Preston was too good an opportunity to turn down. Some people say it defied logic for me to take this particular job and leave Everton. And in January [when Preston dropped to bottom of the Championship] it defied logic even more, but it has gone okay." Irvine turned his side around in the second half of last season to the extent that from January to April their form was second only to that of Hull City. On paper, his side is solid without being spectacular including players such as Sean St Ledger, ex-Liverpool man Neil Mellor, Richard Chaplow, the long-serving Paul McKenna, cult hero Jon Parkin and on-loan Ross Wallace from Sunderland. Irvine would like to sign Wallace permanently but paying top wages is a major issue at Preston.

He talks very fondly of his time as Moyes' assistant. Irvine joined at the end of Moyes' first season (he took over in March 2002) when Everton finished seventh. The next year they dropped to 17th, in 2004-2005 they beat Liverpool to fourth place. The perception from the outside was always that it was the classic good-cop-bad-cop combination favoured by so many managerial duos with Irvine, a personable, friendly character, a contrast to Moyes' harder edge.

"I don't think David was ever a bad cop but it is different as an assistant manager," Irvine says. "The lads will turn to you a bit more because they know that you haven't picked the team. Even though it may well have been that David had gone with the team that I suggested. A massive thing for the assistant manager is that the players must never feel that you disagree with the manager. In private you might disagree, and we did on many occasions, but when he made the final decision we were all behind him.

"When we first went into the job we thought everything was solved on the training ground but at that level it was probably more man-management than actually coaching. Man-management is important because the players have got to feel that when you criticise them that you still like them, that it's not personal." As a player, Irvine was a late developer. He took his Chartered Insurance Institute exams while playing at Queen's Park and kept up his CII membership even when his football career took off – just in case he ever needed to go back to the day job. He turned down a contract at Hearts to complete his qualification and then, aged 23, joined Everton in 1981 where he was an early part of the great side that Howard Kendall built in the mid-Eighties. He left in 1984 after the FA Cup final because Trevor Steven had emerged as the first-choice right-winger and, having started his professional career relatively late, he did not want to sit on the bench.

He left to join Crystal Palace where he met another young star who had come to football from a job in the working world. "After training, Ian Wright and I would stay to practise," Irvine says. "We would say: 'We can't be going home already, it's only lunchtime.' I had never found it hard coming to football as a job, I didn't find the hours hard. I have done another job that I thoroughly enjoyed. The idea of being paid to play or manage is fantastic. I did it for nothing at Queen's Park."

Palace fans will remember the classic FA Cup third-round winner Irvine scored for their club against Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in 1987 at a snowy Selhurst Park. "Forest turned up wearing tights, gloves and hats and we thought we had a chance," Irvine says as he reluctantly agrees to recreate the goal on his office tactics board. "I was wearing trainers because the ground was rock hard, they wouldn't even play the match these days." What is it about Glaswegians and football management? Irvine and Moyes are both from the city, as are Ferguson, Dalglish and Tommy Docherty. Shankly might have been from Ayrshire and Jock Stein from Lanarkshire but the traits are the same.

"There are a lot of them who have a very good managerial record, although obviously none like Sir Alex," Irvine says. "I don't know what it is, some characteristic. Maybe because we are all dead grumpy and bad-tempered. Certainly we are prepared to work and to take responsibility. We are prepared to have a go."

Today, he faces Rafael Benitez who has come a cropper before against lower-league Lancashire opposition in the FA Cup third round – against Burnley four years ago. As a fellow coaching obsessive, Irvine says that he recognises Benitez's mark on Liverpool. "They are the type of team who not only know their jobs when they don't have the ball, they also know their jobs when they do have it," he says, listing some of the less-obvious traits of Benitez's players. "All of those kind of things don't just happen, it has to be worked on and I think he has done an awful lot of work on the training ground."

Irvine also knows, from his partnership with Moyes, the pressures of managing one of the Merseyside clubs. "The big thing Liverpool have hanging over them is winning the title, that it has been such a long time since they have won it, that is where the pressure comes in. For Rafa to be regarded as a great Liverpool manager he probably is going to have to win the League, but I think he is capable of doing it." As for the furore surrounding Steven Gerrard, charged with assault and affray on Tuesday, Irvine does not think it is likely to affect today's game. "If you said to me Steven Gerrard has been in trouble I would say, 'I don't think so.' He's a fantastic player and he's a very good role model for young players and young people. He's top class." The bad news for Preston is that Gerrard's recent problems make it more likely he will feature today.

Even though this season is really all about whether Preston can last the distance to challenge for the play-offs or better, today is a welcome distraction. "It's fantastic for the club, the first thing the chairman Derek Shaw said to me after the draw was that, as long as he had been in charge, we have never had anyone like Liverpool," Irvine says. "Everyone is buzzing." It was through Moyes that Shaw made his approach for Irvine. The Everton manager was in charge of Preston before he moved to Goodison and it was Moyes who called Irvine to say his former club were interested. And thus another Scottish manager's career was launched.

"We don't have the resources of the majority of clubs in this division but the chairman is very good: he doesn't get too excited if we win, doesn't get too excited if we lose," Irvine says. "He knows that this can't happen over night, we can't throw money at it and change it. It has to be a little bit more slowly like what happened at Everton and that is what gives me hope."

My other life

I have so little time for anything else but I do play chess on my computer. I've played chess since I was at school. I'm now at a level where sometimes I win and sometimes the computer wins. I'd love to play golf but I can't justify the time. At Crystal Palace, I learned how to play bridge. The kitman taught me. We had some very long coach journeys and it was more challenging than playing cards.

Sidekicks: The Good and Bad

TONY BARTON

Joined coaching staff at Aston Villa in 1980, assisting Ron Saunders. After title win in 1981, Barton moved into the hotseat following Saunders' resignation and led the Villans to the European Cup four months later.

JOE FAGAN

In keeping with the Anfield Boot Room brigade, Fagan was appointed assistant to Bob Paisley at Liverpool in 1974. Promoted to manager after Paisley's retirement in 1983 before leading the Reds to the League, League Cup and European Cup treble.

PHIL BROWN

Worked under Sam Allardyce at Blackpool before returning to Bolton under Colin Todd and latterly Allardyce again. Left in 2005 to manage Derby, lasting just seven months before being sacked, then appointed coach at Hull. Caretaker stints led to permanent position in 2007 and he led the Tigers to the Premier League last summer.

PETER TAYLOR

Assistant to Brian Clough at Hartlepool, Derby and Brighton. Taylor took over at the Goldstone when Clough left for Leeds in 1974. Reunited with Old Big 'Ed at Nottingham Forest in 1976, helping club to the title, two League Cups and two European Cups. Took over at Derby in 1982 but left two years later with the Rams struggling.

BRIAN KIDD

Promoted to assist Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 1991 prior to period of success for Red Devils. Departed in 1998 for Blackburn but unable to prevent relegation. Further unsuccessful spells at Leeds, England and Sheffield United followed.

COLIN HARVEY

Took over at Everton in 1987 after successful years working under Howard Kendall. Led Toffees to finishes of 4th, 8th and 6th after previous finishes of 1st, 2nd and 1st. Lost 1989 FA Cup final to Liverpool a month after the Hillsborough tragedy and was sacked in 1990 with the club lying 18th.

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