Southampton's chairman, Rupert Lowe, will interview several candidates for his managerial vacancy within the next week but has not discounted the option of again hiring Glenn Hoddle, who controversially walked out on the club in March 2001 to join Tottenham.
It had been anticipated that Hoddle could have made a return to the club as early as yesterday. Instead it was announced that Gordon Strachan, who had planned to leave on a sabbatical at the end of the season, was leaving with immediate effect and was being replaced by the first-team coach, Steve Wigley, until the end of the season.
"I can assure all our supporters that we are taking the appointment of Gordon's successor very seriously and will take the necessary time to explore our numerous options," Lowe said. "An appointment will be made when we are ready."
Lowe plans to speak to two candidates in the next few days but the names will be kept secret as both are in jobs. Lowe has already sounded out the former Marseilles coach, Alain Perrin, but is not convinced about the idea of a foreigner, especially a relatively unknown one.
Wigan's Paul Jewell, Rangers' Alex McLeish and Hearts' Craig Levein are all contenders. It is also understood that Plymouth have allowed Lowe to interview Paul Sturrock. Peter Reid and Paul Hart have also had their names mentioned and are immediately available, although it now looks likely that any new manager will not arrive until the close season.
Hoddle has made it known he wants the job and would be conciliatory towards players such as James Beattie, who criticised his man-management skills after his last stint in charge. Though a significant body of Southampton's fans will take some convincing about a man now known on the South Coast as Judas, Lowe will not let that affect his decision. "Glenn is an option and my job is to look at all the options," he said on Thursday. "We haven't done a U-turn. Glenn Hoddle might still be appointed as our manager."
It could yet transpire that Lowe will attempt to soften up the supporters' stance and then appoint Hoddle in the summer, if not sooner. He will be aware that an immediate appointment followed by a fan backlash and loss of player confidence could fatally undermine the season. Southampton have won only once in their last eight Premiership matches, falling from fourth place to 12th.
Strachan's early departure, according to Lowe, was because "the club has become the focus of a great deal of press speculation about his likely successor". He added: "Gordon and I have both concluded that it is in the best interests of the club for him to step down as manager with effect from today."
The timing of the decision leaves questions. So what if the club has become the focus of attention about a successor? That will remain the case, to an even greater extent. Nor can Lowe fairly claim the players were demotivated by knowing Strachan was going. Recent performances, if not results, have been among the season's best.
One suspicion is that Hoddle's appointment was almost a done deal but Lowe backed off due to the fans' protests and Strachan, expecting to leave, went anyway. An alternative is that Strachan knew Lowe was looking for a replacement and wanted to decide for himself when he left. "This is a truly great club with a truly great squad of professionals, and it is with regret that I am leaving for my own reasons," Strachan said yesterday.
He hopes to return to football in some capacity after a break, probably of less than a year. He has spoken of not having had a rest in 30 years and of wanting to spend time with his family. One plan is to visit Milan with his wife and to watch Milan train for the sheer pleasure of it.
"Most managers would be scared stiff if they gave up their job for a short time that they'd not get back in," cautioned John Giles, who similarly walked away from a seemingly good post in 1977 when he left West Bromwich Albion. "Most would do anything for a Premiership job."
Giles added: "Maybe he hasn't been able to give his family as much time as he would like and he needs a break. But it is not a good sign as a manager to become too human."