Sturrock stamped by his heritage

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The Independent Football

Faith is something Southampton fans have needed a lot of in the last few years. Nine managers have come and gone in the last decade, but asking Glenn Hoddle back again was a leap too far. It would have taken a miracle for the former England manager to turn St Mary's back on his side. So Rupert Lowe's decision to seek out Paul Sturrock instead could perhaps be the answer to Saints' prayers.

The Scot may be unknown in Premiership terms, but if he eschews any divine intervention from Eileen Drewery, it will only be because he has his own hotline to a different man upstairs. Jim McLean has a reputation now as the Godfather of Scottish football, but what his players called him when he moulded Sturrock and his Dundee United colleagues into one of the best sides in Europe in the 1980s was probably unprintable.

There is no doubt, though, that McLean was God around Tannadice. He famously made Duncan Ferguson dig ditches as a punishment for missing training, while he also withheld a win bonus from Sturrock and his team after a 6-1 thrashing of Motherwell for "failing to provide enough entertainment".

Yet it is that sort of background that has shaped the Premiership's newest managerial recruit. Sturrock pledged on Friday that the shortlived Uefa Cup adventure that Southampton fans enjoyed this season would not be their last. "I want to give this club European football on a regular basis," he insisted.

If McLean's disciple follows his mentor, very interesting times could be around the corner for Southampton. Dundee United were among Europe's most accomplished sides in the 1980s: only a bizarre refereeing decision against Roma in the 1984 European Cup semi-final denied them a place in the final against Liverpool; three years later, they reached the Uefa Cup final after beating Barcelona ­ then managed by El Tel Venables ­ en route, with Sturrock's skills on the wing helping to secure a famous victory in the Nou Camp.

If McLean was God at Tannadice, Sturrock was his chosen son. So it seemed the perfect choice when he went back to the club in 1998 to succeed in McLean's footsteps where others had failed. However, he found the pressure of trying to deliver at the club he loved too great. Surrounded by players who would not have got into his Dundee United side, Sturrock resigned in August 2000 to protect his own health. He once had an anxiety attack in the dug-out during his first job at St Johnstone, that was, wrongly, built into a "heart attack" scare by the press. The label stuck.

He took a few months off but could not resist football for very long. However, he opted to get out of Scotland and went as far away as possible, to Plymouth, where his work in taking Argyle to the brink of the First Division persuaded Lowe to spirit him along the south coast.

Sturrock, though, intends to pick the brains of his predecessor. He and Gordon Strachan go back a long way. They were opponents as Aberdeen and Dundee United smashed the Celtic-Rangers duopoly, and colleagues in the Scotland side in the 1986 World Cup finals. "The wee man and I will meet to have a chat," said Sturrock. "I have seen Southampton a few times on the television and they have a good side. I know the keeper, Antti Niemi, who was at Hearts when I was with Dundee United, and they have good strikers. I believe we have players who will respond to a challenge."

That has not always been the case for Sturrock. In his first job at St Johnstone, he felt that some were not putting in a true shift. So he took them out to a building site for a day. "I sent some of them up to do roofing to show them what a real job is like," he recalled. "I am not a radical, I simply felt that some of them did not appreciate the importance of their job as a footballer. I am not sure, though, that sending Southampton's players up four storeys would be very good for the club's insurance rates." Sturrock will settle for Southampton's elevation simply by climbing the table instead.