Steve Cotterill: I've nothing against Avram, but I would have kept Pompey up

Steve Cotterill faces an extraordinary challenge at Portsmouth: to arrest his stricken team's dramatic slide with only 15 players

Utterly shambolic through no fault of the players or the management, Portsmouth's pre-season tour of the United States and Canada was rather neatly symbolic of the club itself.

It was a freebie, offered by a sponsor after several other clubs had sensibly declined to make eight transatlantic and transcontinental flights in 14 days. During the tour, the party's United Airlines flight from Chicago was cancelled, leaving 34 players and staff stranded at the airport. When they returned to Chicago a few days later, the same thing happened again. Oh, and 14 bags went missing, including the one containing the kit. Steve Cotterill, scarcely a month into his managerial tenure, must have wondered whether he had stumbled into a football club or a farce.

Still, this National Lampoon's football tour yielded two positives. Firstly, for men so recently acquainted with San Diego, Denver, Edmonton, Washington DC and Chicago airport, being sent to Coventry – where today Portsmouth start their first season back in the Championship for seven years – must seem like an amble round the corner. More importantly, the trip generated oodles of team spirit, something Pompey need in abundance in the conspicuous absence of other assets, such as resources and personnel.

Four days ago in the canteen at the club's training ground, rented from the University of Southampton, that team spirit was palpable. Senior pros sat cheek-by-jowl with fresh-faced Academy kids and the place was buzzing, in poignant contrast with the sombre proceedings simultaneously unfolding in the High Court, where HM Revenue and Customs were demanding £37m in unpaid taxes, and challenging the Company Voluntary Agreement that Pompey need to safeguard their very existence.

After a while I was led downstairs to the changing room, where Cotterill sat, perhaps metaphorically as much as physically, in a corner. Of the court case he said he was hoping for "a 1-0 away win", and a couple of days later that was precisely what he got, Mr Justice Mann obligingly dismissing the Revenue's case; but it didn't diminish the massive footballing challenge confronting him. I brandished a national newspaper article, headlined, "Portsmouth boss Steve Cotterill has no cash, no men and no ideas ahead of the new season", and he took issue only with the bit about "no ideas".

"I have a million and one ideas," he said. He has an unflinching gaze and a strong West Country accent. "It's important that the players know I have ideas."

What the 46-year-old also has is bags of belief in his own ability, and it is well-founded. He took humble Sligo Rovers into Europe, before leading his home-town club, Cheltenham, to three promotions in five years. After a brief spell managing Stoke City, followed by a stint at Sunderland as Howard Wilkinson's No 2 and more than three years as Burnley manager, last season he steered Notts County to the League Two title, having arrived in February with the club in seventh place.

"They were 14 points off the top with 18 games left when I arrived there, and when I told them they should win the League, they probably thought, 'He's straight out of the local nut house'. But I won my first four games, which nobody had ever done before at Notts County, not even the great Jimmy Sirrel, and as time went on they started to believe. In the end we had 14 wins out of them 18 games, scored 40, conceded six. The chairman was talking about flying through League One, but there wasn't the kind of budget I was anticipating." Had there been, would Cotterill have stayed at Meadow Lane? A long pause. "I don't know, let's leave it at that."

Whatever, when asked if he would be interested in the Portsmouth job just vacated by Avram Grant, he did not hesitate. It suited him domestically – the family home has been along the coast in Bournemouth since a knee injury brought his playing career to an end there in 1995 – but dealing with the rump of a Premier League squad also suited his ambitions.

"If I'd had the players that were in this dressing room last season, I don't think they would have got relegated," he said. Given that Pompey finished 11 points adrift in bottom place, with a nine-point penalty incurred for going into administration, I ventured that this was a heck of a claim. But Cotterill wouldn't withdraw it. "It's not a pop at Avram, who I know very well, but I think they were good enough to stay up," he insisted. "Look at the players who have gone. David James, England's No 1 goalkeeper. Piquionne, good player. Dindane, a handful. Jamie O'Hara, another good footballer. Add to that the players we've just got back from the World Cup... I think I would have kept them up."

The multiple departures, though, have left him with only 15 players on the books. "And Hermann Hreidarsson and Danny Webber have long-term injuries, so 15 becomes 13. Two of them are goalkeepers, so we're not talking about not having much of a squad, we're talking about hardly having a team."

He knew, of course, that he wouldn't be sinking into a bed of roses when he agreed to take the job, and yet he didn't expect it to be quite such a bed of nails. I suggested, though, that there's nothing new about being a Portsmouth manager in dire financial straits; Ian St John, manager for a few years in the mid-1970s, once told me that the club telephones were cut off during his time there, forcing him to conduct transfer business from a phone box. "Yeah, well, we've got mobile phones these days," said Cotterill with a grim smile. "And mine hasn't been cut off probably because I'm responsible for paying that bill."

I asked what, in the seven weeks since he arrived, had shocked him most about the club's parlous situation. "There have been a few hidden gems," he said, "but I'd rather keep them to myself. At the end of the day I'm the manager, and I don't want the club to be embarrassed. I can't say there haven't been a few cold fish come up and smacked me in the face, but we've got a proud fan base here, and I wouldn't want them put through any more trauma."

He assured me, quite convincingly, that he had never regretted his decision to take what is surely, Thursday's High Court decision notwithstanding, just about the most poisoned chalice in the game. "No regrets, no. There are some days when I've been putting my head on the pillow, and I've thought, 'God, is tomorrow going to be like today?' But I have a lot to give this club, heart and soul. In fact I get involved in some things when I probably shouldn't because I think they could be done better, in all departments from [chief executive] David Lampitt down." This, I said, conjured an image of him hopping behind the counter in the canteen in the belief that the potatoes could be mashed better. A short laugh. "No, I'm not OCD, but I'm probably not far off it."

Let's just call him thorough, not that he sought Avram Grant's advice before signing on the dotted line. "I didn't, because you can never get hold of him." What about another recent Pompey manager, Harry Redknapp, whom Cotterill counts as a good friend? "I spoke to him on the night I'd come down here and agreed [to become manager], but that was because I wanted two players on loan. If Harry reads this, or Daniel Levy, please give us the green light on one of them. No, Harry was very complimentary. He said it was a great club."

If Cotterill can restore some of that greatness, if only by stabilising Portsmouth in the Championship, then he will surely get the Premier League opportunity he craves. He might even lead Pompey back there. Either way, one job that I suspect he would cherish above all others is currently occupied by an urbane, professorial Frenchman. There's nothing especially urbane, still less professorial, about Cotterill, but his late grandfather, who brought him up, and whom he worshipped, was an Arsenal fan, "and that's where my fancy for Arsenal comes from".

It is also where his work ethic comes from. He was raised by his grandfather, he said gnomically, because "I wasn't very fortunate on the parent side of things. I'd lost all my family by the time I was 38." He eyed me fiercely. "I don't want this to be a sob story. I'm a tough sod, and I don't need anyone writing nice things about me. But yeah, my grandfather was a builder and he taught me old-fashioned virtues. Hard work was one of them, and that's one of the qualities I took to football. It's what gets me rewards." Did his grandfather live to see his success? "He saw me play for Wimbledon in the old First Division, but he didn't get to see any of the managerial bits. He would have been very proud of that."

As for Arsenal, the young Cotterill's "fancy" was consummated by the 1970-71 Double, achieved with Bob Wilson in goal. "Funnily enough I bump into Bob quite often in Christchurch. We go to the same paper shop on Sundays, and we always have a bit of a chat." Had he been tempted to involve Wilson as a coach? "As a coach? If we hadn't signed Jamie Ashdown I might have signed him as a player."

Our laughter echoed round the dressing room, but he wasn't kidding by much. "People talk about Arsenal and how good they are with the ball," he continued, "but it's what they do without the ball that makes them so good with it. They press teams properly. I enjoy watching them." And what are the identifying traits of a Steve Cotterill team? "Hard work and honesty. Organisation. My teams will always be organised. And I like to play on the front foot."

His own feet are planted firmly on the ground. But what if I were to offer a fantasy – a £50m cheque – to this most pragmatic of men? Would he bid for Kaka? Schweinsteiger? No. Pragmatic even in the throes of fantasy, he said: "I'd buy a training ground first of all, whether this one or somewhere else, then I'd clear the debts. After that I'd look at players."

And finally, with half an eye on the High Court and trying to cobble together his own XI, had he had time to give much thought to today's opposition? Is Portsmouth harbour wet? "We know it will be Westwood in goal, the two centre-halves are likely to be McPake and Wood, the left-back's likely to be Cranie, the right-back Keogh. Gunnarsson came off with a rib injury last week, does he play on the right or in a midfield three with Carsley and Doyle, who played in a midfield two on Saturday with McSheffrey on the left? We know it's likely to be Eastwood up front with Jutkiewicz, the boy from Everton..."

In other words, by the time his players take the field at the Ricoh Arena this afternoon, he will have done everything in his power to effect a win. Unfortunately, it could yet be that Portsmouth need a higher power on their side.

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