Sturrock finding his pride again after the fall

Free from 'sin' of the Premiership, the Sheffield Wednesday manager discovers life more to his liking in a lower league.
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The Independent Online

It says something about modern football that Paul Sturrock, the manager at debt-ridden, underachieving Sheffield Wednesday for a month, is much more comfortable now than he ever was at Southampton.

It says something about modern football that Paul Sturrock, the manager at debt-ridden, underachieving Sheffield Wednesday for a month, is much more comfortable now than he ever was at Southampton.

For a start, he feels free from the ruinous "sin" of the top-flight game, which is how he refers to the media's obsession with England's 20 élite clubs.

Another reason is that despite all Wednesday's woes - and Sturrock admits they could get worse - he revels in the "honesty" of lower-league players, who are willing to have their faults ironed out.

The improvements he engenders give him the "wee buzz" that fuels his love for the game. You suspect that "wee buzzes" were a wee bit scarce at Southampton, not that Sturrock would ever say so.

"It's a part of my career I don't want to discuss," he says. "I enjoyed every minute of my involvement at Southampton but there were a lot of circumstances there that meant what happened, happened."

Such a cryptic statement does not discount the possibility that Sturrock was responsible for his own downfall. Rumours abounded about a lack of rapport with players, unpopular tactics, even disapproval about how he dressed. Yet it was the nature of the gossip - and nothing was ever said explicitly, accountably - that Sturrock contends is the "sin" you only find at such crushing levels in the Premiership.

"One or two bad results and it becomes an opinion of a journalist that things are not happening at your football club," he says. "Just look at the pressure Sir Bobby [Robson, at Newcastle] had at the same time. In my opinion [with me] they went for the jugular. They got opinions of players, or rather opinions of agents, who normally opinionate for their players, and put things in papers. It's the sin of the Premiership and it's to the detriment of football.

"The good thing about Sheffield is that there's a media camp but not as severe. That's much easier pressure as far as I'm concerned and a manager can handle that."

Sturrock is Wednesday's ninth managerial appointment in nine years. Achievements of the past decade may as well be ancient history. They were cup finalists twice in 1993, played in Europe in 1995, and were members of the élite until 2000, a year when they played today's opponents, Bradford, in the top flight. "This is a huge club, and it has that dreaded word 'potential', which is used all the time," Sturrock says.

The club has debts of £25m. The chairman, Dave Allen, who runs casinos, is routinely barracked by fans. There is no money to spend, and no prospect of any. Supporters are desperate for a return to their "rightful" higher status.

The key differences between the Premiership and the rest take Sturrock several minutes to recite. To summarise the élite: "Psychologists, chiropractors, dentists, doctors, physios, sports scientists, goalkeeping coaches, coaches coming out of their ears at all academy levels ... money ... you can be so organised, so methodical ... technically much better players ... fitter ... stronger ... honed athletes."

And at Wednesday? "I've got a defensive coordinator rather than a sports scientist. I'm the fitness coach. We're trying to bring nutritionists and weight trainers but we can't pay them. We're trying to be as professional in our approach as possible but the budget is the budget. We'll fit in as much as we can but not to the detriment of the playing side."

And yet, despite all this, compared to the Premiership, this is pressure he "can handle".

"Today we're statistically the 11th best team in the division and that's reality," Sturrock says. "It's a difficult circumstance to come into, but it's something that I'm looking forward to the challenge of."

There are provisos, namely being given time to rebuild. "To turn this club around we need stability. That's the key to it all," Sturrock says. "If I go by the wayside in 18 months and [the club] has personnel changes again and then a new manager comes in, there's more personnel changes, this club won't bottom off. It won't bottom off. It'll just roll along in its roller-coaster way of the last five or six seasons."

He agrees that Wolves' perilous descent from the (old, old) First Division to the Fourth between 1984 and 1986 - and long-term stagnation thereafter - is a good example of how hard giants can fall. Manchester City's plunge to Wednesday's current level offers another.

"The chairmen and the directors panic because the results are not appropriate for the size of club. And it just gets worse. Sooner or later there has to be a realism. I'm hoping I've got a chairman who's a strong-willed person who appreciates there will still be rocky days ahead. But we're going to work our tails off and I'm going to give all the energy I gave at Plymouth to the cause."

Sturrock famously took Plymouth from the wrong end of the (old) Third Division to the brink of the (new) Championship. He will be applying the same approach to Wednesday.

"I spent £70,000 in three and a half seasons at Plymouth. There's only three of 29 players that started that first day's training session left. It's just bite, scratch, nibble at a boy here, a loan or free there. That's the way we've got to go, and hope we can improve the players we have. That's the secret of it all."

And that's also where the buzz comes in, working effectively without money, improving players. "I always find an honesty about players in this league because they appreciate they have weaknesses as well as strengths. I enjoy working with players who give 100 per cent every game ... It gives me a wee buzz when I can just add something to them, working on their technical skills, on their weaknesses. We don't have the money to go splashing on players so we've got to make the boys here better."

Scouting has become an unexpected pleasure. "There's 26 league teams on the same map as Sheffield! At Plymouth I went home straight after my training. There was nowhere to go ... It's so easy to have your finger on the pulse here."

Sturrock's faith in himself is beyond doubt. "If I'm allowed the time I'm very confident I'll do the job."

He hopes he might also soon be writing restaurant reviews for the local paper, as he did in Plymouth. For the record, his best meal so far in Sheffield was an "excellent" nosh in one of his chairman's casinos. For now, it seems, both men are happy with their gambles.

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