Can Gordon Strachan save Scotland?
It's a daunting task to drag Tartan Army from the doldrums but the fans' favourite, making his debut as manager tonight, won't lack for passion
After naming his first Scotland squad last week, Gordon Strachan dropped into Pittodrie, venue for tonight's friendly with Estonia, for a cup of tea and a chat with Craig Brown, the evergreen manager of Aberdeen. Strachan is the latest tasked with managing what no Scotland manager has achieved since Brown's days in the job 15 years ago: qualifying for a World Cup or European Championship finals.
For some, Pittodrie, a footballing outpost hunkered next door to a large cemetery and permanently chilled by the North Sea, is a fitting venue to begin a job for which few hold out any great hopes. Its club and country have left their best days long behind.
Before kick-off Strachan will leave the once familiar surrounds of the home dressing room and make for the old-fashioned dugout in front of the main stand. At his side will be Mark McGhee, long-time friend turned right-hand man. This year marks the 30th anniversary of these two playing pivotal roles in bringing Sir Alex Ferguson his first European trophy, with Aberdeen in the Cup Winners' Cup in 1983. The urge in these parts is to look back, apply it to the national side – and it is a country-wide affliction.
Strachan played an Oscar-winning role in the good old days, memorably failing to get his leg over the advertising hoarding after scoring at Mexico '86. He also conjured the key goal in Sweden to set Scotland en route to Spain '82 and was chosen in that tournament's best XI. It is easy to forget what a good player he was, hugely admired by the likes of Ferguson and Bob Paisley, who once forecast he would be football's first £2m man. He won titles in Scotland and England as the fulcrum of teams not used to winning championships. He played his last game in the Premier League at the age of 40. "Ugly face", as Ferguson merrily liked to call him in his Pittodrie days, decorated the game.
Ferguson later produced a less fond – it was fondly meant – description of his former player. Strachan, Ferguson once suggested, is "not to be trusted an inch." When Strachan left his last job, a dire spell at Middlesbrough, Steve Gibson, the club's chairman, described the man he had just sacked as one of "great integrity."
Strachan ripped up his contract when he left Boro, taking no compensation for the two and a half years remaining on it. It was recompense that he felt he could not justify. There are two sides to Strachan. He himself speaks of the "inner me, the horrible one."
"He was an unbelievably vocal player and he definitely used to vent his feelings in the changing room," says Paul Telfer, who played alongside Strachan at Coventry and then spent 12 years being managed by him. "In his first couple of years in management he was still so passionate, so vocal, it was hard to make the switch.
"He was always a fiery guy but he only ever lost his temper if he felt someone wasn't giving 100 per cent. You come to realise what 100 per cent is – it's different for different players and he got to know that, what different people are about. He still loves it. I think he's brilliant for Scotland because he is so passionate."
The passion is by no means his only calling card as a manager. With three successive titles at Celtic, and an FA Cup final with Southampton in 2003, Strachan has a good record but one balanced by relegation in his first job at Coventry City in 2001 and his failed tenure at Middlesbrough.
He has spoken of being "paralysed by stress" during times at Coventry but he learnt his trade. "He loves coaching," says Telfer, himself now making the step from playing to coaching at Sutton United (having sought Strachan's advice). "He said to me soon after he took over at Coventry that [as a manager] you are a social worker, a babysitter, dealing with press, agents – coaching is actually a way of switching off from the rest of the job, all the problems off the pitch. Coaching is a relief.
"He is the best manager I've worked under. Gordon's work ethic is magic and I'm sure he must have got that off Ferguson. The work ethic on top of his ability, that's what got him where he was as a player and that translates into being a manager."
The relationship with Manchester United's manager is long repaired and there is another Ferguson trait; Strachan is meticulous, preparing individual DVDs for each of his players ahead of games, and a dedicated trainer. At Coventry he would bring back Darren Huckerby, a hapless victim of the most basic offside trap, for one-on-one sessions, practising time and time again to beat the flag.
Fitness is his other bugbear – he was shocked at the lack of it when he arrived at Southampton and instigated a gruelling regime – and once fit, staying fit. The late Gary Speed described his former Leeds team-mate as surviving on "bananas and seaweed" – the drinking days of his early career at Dundee are long gone.
The raw enthusiasm survives from those days. During last summer's European Championships in Poland, Strachan was a popular member of ITV's line-up and could not resist, despite a body suffering from his career (he was kicked plenty in an age when a good kicking was a regular experience), joining kickabouts on days off, as vocal and joyful a presence as he ever was in a football shirt.
Yet there has also always been a recognisable clear-headedness; turning down United as a schoolboy in Edinburgh, being made captain of Dundee aged 19. He walked away from both Southampton and Celtic having decided he needed a break. He is a keen reader, Scandinavian crime writers and a biography of Lenin have kept him busy on recent trips north from his home near Southampton; a passionate Scot happy to remain in the deep south. A man of two halves.
His relationship with the media – and so how the wider world sees him – has been prickly, while Celtic supporters never completely accepted him. But tonight, three days before his 57th birthday, he will be guaranteed a warm welcome from the Tartan Army – which tends to recruit from outside the Old Firm – in a city he knows all too well. His sister followed him to Aberdeen in his playing days and still lives there; another stopping off point for a cup of tea last week. Strachan has travelled a long way to get back to his footballing home for the start of what is likely to be his final footballing journey.
"He always says to players," sums up Telfer, "don't finish the game and wish you'd done this or that. Don't leave stones unturned."
Celtic's Brown given armband
Gordon Strachan has named the Celtic midfielder Scott Brown as captain for his first game in charge of Scotland, informing him just five minutes before the captain's press conference yesterday. Brown said: "I've been lucky enough to do it for Celtic and now to get the chance for this game for Scotland is a great honour."
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