Pain still a Spur for Steve, the favourite son

He is the Michael Palin of football. From Brentford's Griffin Park to Exeter City's St James Park, by way of Watford's Vicarage Road, Tottenham's White Hart Lane, Norway's Start FC, Japan's Shimizu S-Pulse and Kashiwa Reysol - Steve Perryman's near-20-year nomadic and exotic managerial journey has entailed cramming into his backpack a compass, foreign phrase books, cultural guides and a world atlas. In his head, he carries the condensed collected wisdom of Bill Nicholson and Ossie Ardiles.

Yet wherever he has established base camp, the road for the current director of football at Exeter City, who has a luc-rative third-round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford in six days' time to contemplate, leads inexorably back to Tottenham, where he still epitomises the virtually extinct breed of one-club man. During his 17 years there he set a record of eight seasons ever-present before finally moving on, briefly to Oxford United and then to Brentford as player-manager.

It is inevitable that his views of the club he graced initially as an inspirational midfielder with the sobriquet "the baby-faced assassin", and later as a vigilant defender, are still tainted with chagrin. A decade ago, the "Lane" witnessed fantasy football from the original dream double, Ardiles and Perryman. The acute accent on attack was initially beloved by the faithful, but not always reflected in results. The then chairman, Alan Sugar, ousted Ardiles as manager; Perryman departed after one match as caretaker.

"I'll never believe that was the right decision," maintains Perryman, now 53. "I'm still sour about it in a way, because that's the club we both loved. Every time Ossie wins a trophy, and please God he wins one in Tokyo [with his present club, Tokyo Verdy, in the Japanese equivalent of the FA Cup final] this weekend, and every time something good happens in my career, like our game at Old Trafford, I regard it as another finger up to Tottenham for that decision to let us go." The duo proved as much when Spurs' favourite sons became Rising Suns in the Far East.

The Argentinian and the Londoner proceeded to combine successfully as manager and assistant of Shimizu S-Pulse, a club whose management Perryman was bequeathed when Ardiles departed. "We turned a new club, the only one without a major sponsor like Yamaha or Nissan, into champions, winning the Asian Cup, going into the Super Cup and being one goal away from going into the World Club Championship," says Perryman. "Even [Arsène] Wenger could not do that."

Money is decidedly limited at Exeter, who could benefit by £750,000 from the tie. In recent years, the Grecians have been in administration and have been relegated to the Conference. Now there is some stability, with the club being run by a supporters' trust. "When the trust took over, the club was losing £60,000 a month and was £4.5m in debt," says Perryman. "Now the club's losing about £20,000 a month. The financial problems are not solved, and we're still living from month to month, but this Manchester United game will help in a major way."

Perryman first came to Exeter's assistance in 2001 after four years with Shimizu S-Pulse. City were bottom of the League. He helped out the then manager, Noel Blake, a couple of days a week. The club survived. But by the time he had returned from Japan a second time, in August 2003, Exeter had descended to the Conference.

He became director of football, and when City lost their manager, Eamonn Dolan, to the Reading back-room staff, Perryman was largely responsible for installing Alex Inglethorpe. "I knew him as a player from my days at Watford," says Perryman. "He's only 32, but it's a terrific appointment. He's a very good thinker, very organised and educated."

He adds: "Alex's his own man, although we do communicate a lot. That doesn't mean I'm a threat. I will never be manager of Exeter City. I'm director of football because I was given the title. I didn't ask for it. I never want to be in a position where if I've given some advice to a manager his eyes are looking back at me, saying: 'You bastard. You want my job'. I can get a job on my own beliefs and ethics, not by f***ing jumping into someone else's shoes."

You interject that it's curious that Exeter and Tottenham should both employ a director of football. "Yeah, except Arnesen's not quite earning nothing, like me," he says ruefully. "If I'm late for a meal, I just say, 'Fine me 10 per cent then. Take a zero off my salary'."

He adds: "The fact that I'm at Exeter is not because I'm desperate. I'm 900,000 per cent not. Some will say, 'Oh, he's moved down to Exeter for the soft life'. Well, it's true that my wife, Kim, and daughters, Ella and Jo-Jo, love the place, but you're not soft going to Japan, getting on with a different culture, and managing players from different countries, including Brazilians, some world-class, some crap, some greedy, some lazy bastards."

Exeter have their own Brazilian, the defender Santos Gaia, one of a back line which also includes the former Premiership player Scott Hiley, detailed to negate the threat of Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo, though not the suspended Wayne Rooney. Behind them is a 19-year-old goalkeeper, Paul Jones, a YTS player on loan from Leyton Orient. "They sent him to us for experience," says Perryman. "Some experience this will be!"

Defeats of League sides Grimsby and Doncaster have produced this reward. "Our approach will be to do everything professionally, and no razzmatazz," insists Perryman, who as Spurs captain lifted the Cup in 1981 and '82. "We are going to fly up there - but then we do have Flybe [the local airline] as our sponsors."

Perryman adds: "If I was in charge of a Premiership team, I'd say United would have more shots on target, more off target, more corners. But it's how we use what they leave us. If we do it right on the day, who knows? Of course, you don't want to get a hammering, but I think we're organised enough not to. No one rolls us over easily."

The following afternoon, he will be at Loftus Road, where Yeading - adjacent to his birthplace, Northolt - face Newcastle. His elder brother Bill is commercial director of the non-Leaguers. "I've been a Yeading vice-president for 25 years," says Perryman. "It's all rather a shame, because if it wasn't for Exeter I could have gone and put all my efforts in there for a month. Bill could do with a bit of help..."

One suspects that Exeter could do with a miracle. However, both the club and their distinguished director of football can only emerge winners. For City, it provides the financial stimulus that they crave. For Perryman, it puts him firmly back on the football map... one with which he is already remarkably familiar.

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