Paul Sturrock: Plotting his Cup upset from off the beaten track

Plymouth Argyle are far from being an ordinary football club, but Paul Sturrock tells Mike Rowbottom that he plans to take them places – first stop Fratton Park
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The Independent Football

Seagulls wheel and cry above the whitewashed, pre-war façade of Home Park as Plymouth warms to a winter sun. The Argyle youth team players – still basking in the afterglow of their FA Youth Cup win at Portsmouth – wander back in from training, tracksuits muddied. And the spirit of enterprise is alive elsewhere on the premises as two marketing men from a local firm hand out samples of the branded ice cream – Plymouth Passion, 'Green and white to the core' – that will be launched a week after the first team faces its own challenge at Portsmouth today in the fourth round of the FA Cup proper.

The chances of the seniors matching the exploits of their juniors, and thus moving a step nearer to emulating their quarter-final place of last season, appear negligible. But you have to believe in the possibility. After all, this is the club that sells ice cream in February. And this is the club managed by Paul Sturrock.

The man is a legend at Dundee United, where he spent the whole of an illustrious playing career under the irascible, but immensely talented, Jim McLean, that saw him earn a Scottish Premier League winners' medal and 20 caps for Scotland, including two at the 1986 World Cup finals.

But even as Sturrock was making his mark in the team that McLean built, he was already preparing for life after playing, by coaching boys' and men's teams in his spare time. He earned his FA coaching badge at 26, and soon became a tutor, examining legions of fellow aspirants who, he has been reliably told, included a certain Jose Mourinho, even though he cannot specifically recall it. "I have always loved coaching, and moulding teams," he reflects as he makes short work of a plate of lasagne and pasta in the players' canteen. "I knew I was going to be a manager when I was 17. I've got the bug for it."

As a manager, this congenial Scot has earned five promotions for four different teams, guiding St Johnstone to the Scottish First Division title, then taking Plymouth from League Two to the brink of the Championship – a leap they were to make after he had accepted the chance to take over Southampton in the Premier League – before guiding Sheffield Wednesday to the Championship via the play-offs in 2005, and then taking Swindon up from League Two last season before returning to Home Park last November when Ian Holloway left for Leicester City.

"Every club I've left, I believe I have always left them in a better condition than they were when I arrived, which is very pleasing," says Sturrock, whose exploits with Plymouth between 2000 and 2004 saw him voted as the club's 'manager of the century' by the fans. "That's what makes this the hardest job in the world because of the respect I have from the supporters from last time. If I failed then that would be a huge disappointment to me. It would be a first.

"The politics of this job have changed dramatically because of the league we are now in and the expectation levels of the fans, which caused me to catch my breath early on."

His task has not been made any easier by the January opening of the transfer window, through which have fallen, among others, 17-year-old Dan Gosling, snapped up by Everton, and top scorer Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, now at Wolves. Sturrock has insisted that his star midfielder David Norris, for whom Ipswich have offered £1.5m, is not going anywhere, and has brought in new players himself in forward Steve MacLean, for whom he paid Cardiff a club record £500,000, and Hungary midfielder Gyorgy Sandor. But it still feels as if he is swimming against the tide.

"I've got a job of work to do here which I felt I didn't finish," he says. "But our fans have got to be realistic about the time frame. We seem to be a football club that is now being preyed upon by the bigger fish. I think that is going to be a scenario for us until the end of time. It means also that I could be moulding two or three teams in my time.

"It's a different transitional period for us now, with the players who have left and the age of certain players, and the January foodfest – people are communicating with my players from afar, which has caused unrest and affected results."

The club's geography, and relative lack of funding, also create difficulties.

"Location, location, location is the problem," Sturrock says. "More often than not it's the player's girlfriend or wife who doesn't want to move from her family and friends. We've lost an awful lot of players because of it. And also we can't compete in that huge wage structure that has reared its ugly head now we are in the Championship."

Yet the challenges are something Sturrock clearly relishes, in what he describes with a chuckle as "sleepy hollow". And he is setting about establishing a core of battle-hardened pros for what he describes as "a man's league".

Toying with one of the ice-cream tubs, he adds: "The only reason I left for Southampton in 2004 was because – as they say in the States – I was going to 'the show'. There would never have been a Championship team that would have persuaded me to leave. I love it here.

"When I came here in 2000 the stadium was dilapidated, we had crowds of 2,000, so we worked our tails off and brought it up. The managers who have been here since have done a fantastic job in keeping the club in the right area of the league.

"What we all want to achieve is to be very competitive in the top half of this league, and one day to taste the fruits of the Premier League. But there is no divine right. In the last 10 years there have been only two teams with a budget under £7.5m who have gone up. At the end of the day we are going to have to do something almighty. But that doesn't mean you stop trying."

There is at least less expectation on Sturrock and his men to do something almighty today against the side managed by Harry Redknapp, who filled Sturrock's place after the Scot left Southampton in August 2004 having had just 13 games in charge.

"It's a very difficult game," Sturrock says. "Portsmouth rekindled their scoring form last Saturday, but we are going to have to try and prey on complacency. We need to show a good shape and a good attitude. There have been a lot of Cup upsets this year, and I don't see why this one couldn't be another."

And so the boss who is back in town presses on, employing his own knack of getting players to do his bidding – "Jim McLean was a tactical genius, but anything he did man management-wise, I do the complete opposite" – and picking sides who make winning a habit. The ice-cream tub, meanwhile, is proving recalcitrant. Sturrock passes it to the chef, asking: "Can you take that off? Can you do it? Thanks." Delegation. Another of the key managerial arts.