From Eric and Ernie to Zinedine Zidane, Davies mines rich source of inspiration

Preston's latest Scottish manager leaves nothing open to doubt in push for the play-offs. He tells Phil Shaw
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As Billy Davies recalls flat-sharing with Craig Brown when he was the former Scotland manager's coach at Preston North End, it is difficult to resist the image of Morecambe and Wise sitting up in bed in their striped pyjamas. In place of the legendary "play what I wrote", however, conversation would centre on the training video what Davies edited, or the striker what Brown wanted to sign.

Upholding a tartan tradition with the Football League founder members that includes Bill Shankly, Tommy Docherty, Archie Gemmill and David Moyes, Davies is now in charge of Preston and stands within 11 games of the play-offs for promotion to the Premiership. Yet when the 40-year-old former midfielder stops chortling at the Eric-and-Ernie allusion, it is clear he treasures the time he and Brown "ate, drank and slept football".

The friendship they forged survived the senior man's late-summer sacking. A day seldom passes without their discussing a transfer target or strengths and weaknesses of opponents, such as West Ham United in today's encounter at Upton Park between the sides placed sixth [West Ham] and fifth in the Championship. Davies values the counsel of the knowledgeable, genial Brown. Indeed, had he not heeded it six months ago, he would have followed him out of Deepdale.

In the part of Glasgow where he was raised, solidarity is a principle passed on in mother's milk. To this day, Davies's best friend, an early team-mate with Pollok United juniors, is the Scottish Socialist firebrand in the Edinburgh parliament, Tommy Sheridan. So when "Broon" was fired, five games into the campaign, his deputy's reaction was to inform the chairman, Derek Shaw, that he would also be going.

"I told him it was only right because we came as a package," Davies explains. "He said no, so I asked Craig to represent me to the board and say I wanted to leave. When they still said no, I got my lawyer to try to get me out. That didn't work and Craig urged me to sit tight and keep working. He felt it was the right thing to do because I'm a married man and had a contract. But equally, I felt it was wrong to get rid of him so early because we were on the right road."

After six matches - and four wins - as caretaker he was offered the job. Brown gave his blessing and Preston have not looked back. If the new manager seemed almost to come out of nowhere, it is simplistic to say simply that he came out of Scottish football. True, his previous employment was with Motherwell, where he became manager at 34. Yet Davies's route to Deepdale was a long and winding road, stopping off at Old Trafford and the Bernabeu.

"I'd been going down from Pollok to Manchester United since I was 12 and played for their youth team in a tournament in Switzerland. Mark Hughes was there too. They also took me to the 1979 FA Cup final at Wembley. They offered me a five-year contract, but I got homesick and went and signed for Rangers. My biggest regret is not joining United; it was a major mistake. Being 5ft 6in was a problem for me in terms of the kind of game they have [in Scotland]."

He made Rangers' first team at 17, but Graeme Souness's arrival as player-manager and tendency to recruit from England left him marginalised. After playing in Sweden and at St Mirren came a £165,000 switch to Leicester City in 1990. "A horrendous time," he said. "My wife had 13 miscarriages there and spent a lot of time in hospital.

"She went home and didn't want to come back. I needed to give it more time but the family thing was too strong and I joined Dunfermline. That's another regret because Leicester were a great club and David Pleat was a terrific manager. We stayed in touch and when Motherwell gave me the push I was privileged when he asked me to scout for Tottenham."

Davies reflects positively on his "education" as a Scottish Premier League manager. "I knew about the cones and bibs but not about dealing with directors or press. Motherwell asked me to keep them up when I first came because it would save them £3m. I did that. The second season, Hearts just beat us into Europe. The third, finances meant I had to sell. It started going wrong then, but the club made good money from players I brought through, like James McFadden and Stephen Pearson."

He used the eight months between Lanarkshire and Lancashire to "re-educate" himself, poring over his extensive coaching files. "When I was 16 at Rangers, we trained at Bellahouston Park or Gullane Sands. Any good crossing or finishing exercise, or running routine, I'd sit down when I got home, put my feet up and write it down.

"I've done that all through my career. In my twenties I got involved in coaching boys' clubs, school teams, amateur and junior sides, going out three nights a week. Those lads were my guinea pigs for lessons I'd learned. Even now, I use routines I came across 25 years ago."

Davies worked to secure his youth-coaching licence, academy director's licence and Uefa pro licence, which he took at Real Madrid. "For me, the Spanish League is the best, so I wrote letters and used my contacts to go to the best club with the best players. I had eight wonderful days there. I talked to Steve McManaman and studied guys like Zinedine Zidane. I picked up stuff there I use now at Preston.

"I wasn't thinking about whether I'd get another managerial job. I just knew I'd still contribute to football, at whatever level. I'd have been fulfilled whatever I did as long I was involved, giving out information and passing on experience."

Word of Davies's educationalist zeal clearly reached Brown, who, bizarrely, was mocked during his sojourn with Scotland for entering teaching after his playing days. "I didn't really know Craig, but he rang out of the blue to ask me to join him at Preston."

Brown was also a teenage midfielder at Rangers, as well as assistant manager at Motherwell. They shared a belief in meticulous preparation; anything that might, in Davies's words, "give us a one per cent advantage in a game". Davies even had a video-editing suite installed at home and began taking the match tape home, cutting it and adding slow-motion or replays to create material for the squad to view collectively or individually. "I've seen it lead to marked improvements," he said.

Not marked enough to save Brown, though Davies responds vigorously to suggestions that he failed to maintain the momentum generated by Moyes.

"The financial position was better when David was here. There was TV money available and the club spent seven-figure sums on transfers. At least two-thirds of the clubs in our league have a much bigger fan-base, better training facilities and [a] higher wage bill; West Ham for one, Leeds, Sunderland, Ipswich, Wolves among others.

"We're humble Preston North End. The fans think I'm talking the club down when I say that. They see us as 'Proud Preston' and so do I. But let's be realistic: finishing in the top half is success for us."

This season, when Davies has had to overcome the loss of David Healy and Ricardo Fuller while spending £600,000 on four newcomers, they are over-achieving in his terms. After one defeat in 14 games, he sees Upton Park as the first of "11 cup finals", stressing that 12 to 14 sides are in play-off contention.

And if Preston did return to the level they left in 1961? "We shouldn't really be in the Premiership. We know what we are. But we're also very ambitious. Let's get in there and enjoy ourselves."