Strachan the victim of market forces

The Coventry manager's long-term plans were undermined by a need to sell players
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The Independent Football

Mark McGhee, whom Gordon Strachan telephoned at breakfast time yesterday to warn of the tidings of gloom about to become public, recalls the first time he benefited from his friend's courtesy.

It was the late 1970s and McGhee, just 21, had signed for Aberdeen from Newcastle United. "I was up there on my own and he and his wife looked after me. Gordon was not there all that long from Dundee himself, and when he took me to his house, it was a massive place, crammed full of antiques, in a very prestigious part of Aberdeen," the Millwall manager said. "I thought to myself: 'I've clearly sold myself short in my signing-on fee here.' It was only some time later that he admitted to me he was house-sitting for a friend."

The two Scots became pivotal figures in Alex Ferguson's all-conquering Aberdeen team and have remained the best of friends ever since. Strachan has always prided himself on good house-keeping. He has endeavoured to keep Coventry City's books balanced with much the same tidy attitude he utilised to keep himself in such good shape as a veteran player. But while the bananas and the pasta enabled him to keep playing until the age of 40, the profit he has made in the transfer market over the past five years could not elongate his managerial tenure at Highfield Road.

For all the supporters' aggravation on Saturday, when Coventry's first spell beneath the top level of English football for 34 years hit a new low with a 1-0 home defeat to Grimsby Town, market forces have precipitated Strachan's departure from the Midlands club. He may have been a whimsical character, whose post-match press conferences as his team veered towards relegation last season descended into the realms of the surreal, but it was Coventry's financial plight that, ultimately, brought about yesterday's dismissal.

"He phoned me at 7.30 to let me know what was going on and he sounded very disappointed but, as always, very mature," McGhee said. "He'd have taken as much aggro as anybody was able to throw at him in order to turn it around. I don't think he's ever been a quitter and that's what kept him playing as long as he did in the way he did. He has this inner belief, this determination, and he'd have stayed there as long as he could.

"The turning point for Gordon was the sale of Robbie Keane [to Internazionale for £12.5m] last year. You don't make lots of brilliant signings in your managerial career, but you do make some critical ones, that galvanise what you're attempting to do, and that was Gordon's. While other clubs dithered, he went and put his money where his mouth was [purchasing Keane from Wolves for £6m two years ago] and Robbie was the catalyst for Coventry going on and being better than they had been. The sale of Robbie cost Gordon a lot of heart in the sense that he had to wrack his brains to replace him. It undermined his whole long-term plan."

From Keane to Craig Bellamy to Lee Hughes, Coventry's downscaling has prompted a bad start to life in the Nationwide League First Division, with only one goal and one point since Hughes, the £5m newcomer, scored in the opening-day victory away to Stockport County. The last published accounts, however, for the year ending May 2000, revealed debts of £30m and, with plans to relocate to the £172m development at Arena 2001 within two years, something had to be done.

For all his big-money signings – and Keane, Gary McAllister, Mustapha Hadji have been among the outstanding successes – Strachan has recouped £64m since he succeeded Ron Atkinson in November 1996, at a net profit of £12m. Narrowly avoiding relegation has traditionally been Coventry's cross to bear but they finished 11th and reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 1998.

Atkinson, who signed Strachan for Manchester United in 1984 and ushered him into management as his assistant at Coventry in March 1995, admits the angry demonstrations on Saturday will have played a part in the decision of Bryan Richardson, the chairman, to twist now. "It makes it hard for people to hold their nerve," Atkinson said. "It has never helped that Gordon has had to get rid of his best players. If they had held onto them, who knows where Coventry would be now?

"There will be no one sadder than the chairman because I know in what high regard he holds Gordon. But I'm sure the wee man will bounce back, he's a resilient character, and he will be all the stronger for this experience. I still think Coventry will go up. Saturday's result obviously doesn't help but with two away games this week, I thought they might have seen where they stood after them.

"You only need one result, when your team is good enough, which this one is. They based a lot of their optimism on Hughes and [Julian] Joachim getting a lot of goals but they haven't yet played together."

It was Atkinson who brought Roland Nilsson, Strachan's immediate replacement, to both Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry. "He's certainly very dedicated and he'll be very professional in the way he conducts himself," Big Ron said. "The irony is he's probably been just about their best player."

The Strachan Story

1957: Born 9 February, Edinburgh.

1974: Signs for Dundee. Scores 13 goals in 60 League appearances.

1977: Moves to Aberdeen for £50,000. Scores 55 goals in 187 games.

1980: Wins Scottish championship medal and first of 50 Scotland caps against Northern Ireland.

1982: Collects Scottish Cup winners' medal.

1983: Achieves second Scottish Cup success, followed by European Cup-Winners' Cup medal.

1984: Lifts Scottish championship and Cup medals. Ron Atkinson signs him for Manchester United for £500,000 in August. Stays at Old Trafford for five years, playing 160 League games and scoring 33 goals.

1985: Only trophy success with United, winning FA Cup.

1989: Joins Second Division Leeds United in March for £300,000.

1990: Captains club to Second Division title.

1992: Leads Howard Wilkinson's side to first League championship in 18 years, pipping Manchester United at the post.

1993: Awarded OBE.

1995: Announces retirement from top-flight football in January but two months later joins Atkinson at Coventry in player/coach capacity.

1996: Appointed Coventry manager when Atkinson steps down three months into season. Continues playing to end of season, making nine appearances.

1996-2001: Five seasons in charge of Coventry in Premiership during which team mostly battle against relegation. Best finish is 11th in 1998.

1999: Signs Irish international striker Robbie Keane from Wolves for club-record £6m in August.

2000: Sells Keane to Internazionale for club-record £12.5m in July.

2001: Coventry relegated in May after 34 years in élite division. Start new season in First Division with three defeats and only one victory in first five games.