When he first arrived at Southend United and found just four full-time players, Paul Sturrock must have wondered how much success he could be expected to achieve. But the straight-talking Scot, affectionately known as Luggy, has suprised many (possibly even himself) by leading the Shrimpers to the top of League Two.
And he's done it by sticking to his unconventional methods such as sending young players off to do a day's work on a building site so they get a taste of the real world.
Saturday's 2-0 victory at Macclesfield put Southend top of the table but how different it all was this time last year. A home defeat against Crewe Alexandra was met by derision at full-time from the supporters and was swiftly followed by defeat at Bury. It was Southend's sixth and seventh defeats in 13 league games and followed a second relegation in five years.
That Sturrock managed to field a side at all in his early days was a minor miracle. When he arrived at Roots Hall in July last year he had just those four players. Pre-season friendlies had to be postponed. Twelve months later and the team are unbeaten in nine. Off the field there has been little time for the dust to settle on the Manager of the Month award won by Sturrock in September following four consecutive victories without his side conceding a goal.
Not bad for "an old stodger", he says, laughing. But the Scot, who battles against Parkinson's disease which he announced he had in July 2008, is quick to dismiss the notion that either he or his side is struggling against the odds.
Sturrock had to rebuild his career following a sojourn in the Premier League with Southampton. And hard work is his antidote. He was educated as a player at Dundee United by Jim McLean and he cites the influence of another fellow Scot, Sir Alex Ferguson, on his approach to life and football.
Sturrock is grounded and preaches the virtue to his players. In the past he's sent some to fix slates on the roof of tall buildings, others to building sites for eight-hour shifts. He's keen to do the same at Southend, despite their lofty league position. "I want to show them real work," he says. "A few of our younger players don't appreciate [they're footballers]. I have ideas that involve different workplaces. [Jim] McLean always tried to make people clear how fortunate they were. That's important."
Some consider Sturrock's methods eccentric but anyone surprised by Southend's results this season should not be. Sturrock knows his stuff. He has assessed Jose Mourinho – "He was a very quiet man, but I must have thought he was all right, because I passed him!" – and has five promotions to his name, two from League Two. On both occasions, at Plymouth Argyle and Swindon Town, he sought to achieve success by immersing himself in the area. Players were advised to move closer to the area of the club while he wrote restaurant reviews for local newspapers.
"I did it both times and it'll be the same here, though I've not had time yet," he says. Sturrock's brief spell in the top flight in 2004 followed consecutive promotions with Plymouth (he left with 12 games to spare before they secured a Championship place), his second and third taste of going up following success with his first club St Johnstone. After Southampton, he took Sheffield Wednesday to the Championship via the play-offs in 2005 and Swindon into League One in 2007 before returning to Home Park. He lifted the Pilgrims to 10th in the Championship in 2008, their highest position for 20 years.
None, he says, would compare to taking Southend into League One. "This would rank at the top," he says. "You have to remember, at the start of last season we started with four players and a transfer embargo. We couldn't sign anybody. I had to go cap in hand and convince players to join us.
"I'd worked with some before, players who trusted me, but it was a big decision [for them]. I had to persuade them to play without the safety of a contract. The club was on its knees and fans were disenfranchised with the board. We had to work hard to establish a relationship with them and the staff, who had been through a lot. It was a big challenge."
Southend stayed up and rebuilt. Sturrock added experienced players Neil Harris and Liam Dickinson in the summer but resources are still stretched. On several occasions this season, amidst injuries and suspensions, he has fielded centre-back Bilel Moshni in attacking positions. "Not only that but players coming in had only played once before," Sturrock says. "We had to improvise. But at least this year we've had a pre-season. Now we have a squad to choose from, which creates competition for places." More importantly the players – and fans – are buying into his tactics. "Over the years I've managed to structure teams to get promoted," he says. "I try to get balls into the opponents' box, which has worked before. I'm lucky the players have responded. Recent results have helped because they appreciate the formula works.
"Southend fans appreciate we can't create a team that plays like Barcelona and win games. We play accurate balls to our strikers, like many top teams do. Some people criticise it, but our style is adapting and we have some good footballers capable of honest football. This is a tough division. A lot of players filter down from the Championship and 14 teams strengthened in the summer and feel they can get promoted.
"It's all about who can keep a solid base and churn out results. It's hard to build a team considering the wage cap and budget. It's not just about bringing players in; it's getting players you can afford but who can compete at the top of the division."
Tough, perhaps, but Sturrock and his players are made of stern stuff. They've twice won games with 10 men, a sign of Sturrock's man-management, perhaps? "It's important to have a relationship with every player and make sure they respect and appreciate what you're trying to do. I've worked hard on that. That's the biggest lesson I've found so far."
Sturrock may feel he still has a point to prove at the highest level, but the 55-year-old is content in League Two. "I assess people in what they've done for their clubs, not just those at the top with big budgets," he says. "John Coleman [Accrington Stanley] worked on a shoestring last year and his team made the play-offs. That kind of manager excites me. Jim Bentley at Morecambe this year, these managers deserve opportunities. It would be nice to see them given a chance [at a higher level]. They'd have big budgets. Then we'd see who can really manage."
If Sturrock continues his fine work at Southend, few would bet against him landing another shot at a higher level himself. As he knows, a lot can happen in a year.