Gray pays for failing to inspire Saints

Strachan is asked to pick up the pieces after Southampton's experiment to promote a manager from within ends in failure
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The Independent Football

Gordon Strachan's appointment as the new manager of Southampton, expected to be announced officially at the club's new St Mary's stadium this afternoon, comes as a result of a well-intentioned but mis-guided experiment that failed.

When, in the middle of last season, Glenn Hoddle decided that the lure of White Hart Lane was too hard to resist, Rupert Lowe, Southampton's chairman, made a conscious decision not to replace him quickly with whoever was available, but to see if he could break the manager-go-round tradition and promote a rookie from within. Although Lowe had talks with external candidates, including Steve McClaren and Harry Redknapp, and briefly assessed the merits of others, including Kevin Keegan and David Moyes, he concluded that he already had a man on his staff who had the potential to guide the club into a new era at a new home.

"Contrary to some misinformed reports we have not being scouring the country making offers left, right and centre," he said at the end of July, after announcing that Stuart Gray's caretaking role was to be made into a permanent position. "We have chosen the best man for the job. Our decision to promote Stuart Gray to the manager's job is a reflection of our policy to breed loyalty and confidence within the club."

It was a laudable aim, but not one backed by hard evidence that Gray was up to the job. He is, according to players who worked under him when he was Hoddle's assistant and then replacement, a fine coach and a decent man. But he did not display any tactical genius or inspiration while he was caretaker, going seven games without a win at the end of the last campaign before meaningless end-of-season victories over Arsenal and Manchester United. He does not, through no fault of his own, have the pulling power to attract big names to the club. Most crucially, he has failed to inspire the team in the past few weeks when the pressure has started to mount.

Some sporadically half-decent football in the opening games has since given way to performances devoid of creativity and confidence. The 2-0 home loss nine days ago to Arsenal saw the first cries of "You don't know what you're doing". The 2-0 defeat at West Ham on Saturday (watched, incidentally, by Strachan) prompted the P45.

Two Saints wins have been carved out this season, away at Bolton and Middlesbrough, but the former was a drab encounter sealed by a fortuitous goal and the latter was against a side having their worst off-day of the season. The upshot leaves Southampton second from bottom with six points and no wins in three games at their new home. With the visit of Ipswich on Wednesday looming, it was time to call for a fresh face.

And so to Strachan, who knows better than most people about the pain of relegation, having overseen Coventry's drop from the Premiership after a stay in the top flight that lasted 34 years. Had they not gone down, a shaky start to this season may well have been considered par for the course at Highfield Road and he might still be in the job. As it was, the expectancy of an immediate return to the top division proved too much.

Strachan bowed to the inevitable at Coventry on 10 September following a third defeat in five games. The fact that the loss was at home and against Grimsby made it all the worse. The situation was exacerbated because Strachan had spent £5m over the summer to sign West Bromwich Albion's Lee Hughes. Had Strachan had a whole season to turn things around, he might well have done so. The hostility of the fans became too much, however, and he decided that it was time to go.

His departure after six years at Coventry was not, then, in the most pleasant circumstances, but that has obviously not put Strachan off the game. Six weeks after thinking the game can be too much to take, he is back in it and back up against it. He will find some moderately talented players who are capable, if not of winning any honours, then of escaping the drop. They are in need of motivation and experience and that, it has finally dawned on Southampton, is not something Gray could provide.