Steve Perryman: Glory once again the spur for rejuvenated Perryman

As the former Tottenham diehard prepares his Exeter side for today's game at Old Trafford, he talks to Sam Wallace about foreign coaches, free-kicks and the United superstar who should have joined Spurs

It was a phone call that would have changed the modern history of Manchester United, if only the advice that Steve Perryman was giving had been acted upon. As befits a man who will be the only one of Exeter City's party at Old Trafford today who works for nothing, he was offering it for free. And the recipient was Tottenham Hotspur, the very club that had just sacked their longest serving player.

In early 1995 Perryman, now the director of football at Exeter, had recently been dismissed (along with his old friend Ossie Ardiles) by Tottenham. It had been a painful end to his association with a club that he had played at for 17 years and then returned to, sacrificing a promising management career at Watford along the way, as Ardiles' assistant. Both had struggled under Alan Sugar's new regime, both had reason to feel embittered, but from a hotel room in Norway, Perryman still put his old club first.

He had been given a temporary job in charge of the Norwegian side Start FC while their manager recovered from illness, and had been studying the opposition on video when he came across "the hint of a player".

"There was this lad who scored two goals," he recalls. "I didn't know him. He was a little fellow who looked like a schoolboy but with quick feet. He banged in his chances."

Perryman told Tottenham to come out to take a look and their chief scout, John Moncur, reported to Ardiles' successor, Gerry Francis, that they had a player on their hands. In fact, Perryman recalled that at the bottom of Moncur's scouting report, which was also faxed to him, was the line: "Do not look at this player again: just sign him."

There was a delay, followed by an offer of £350,000 which the young player's club, Molde, laughed out of town. Nearly 18 months later, in July 1996, United paid £1.5m for the same fresh-faced Norwegian. His name was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and three years later he scored United's winning goal in the European Cup final.

Perryman, now 53, laughs when he remembers the story. "So this club that I have fallen out of love with - I gave them a magnificent player," he says. "In the end I think they tried to get him a few years later for about £10m. They could have got him for a 10th of a price. Shows I don't hold any grudges." After 35 years in top-flight football - in England, Japan and Norway - Steve Perryman has learned a lot more than that.

The Perryman you will see today in the dug-out alongside Exeter's manager, Alex Inglethorpe, 33, does not look much different, apart from the grey flecks in his hair, from the midfielder who was handed a Tottenham debut by Bill Nicholson at 17. He lives in Devon now with his second wife Kim and daughters Elena, nine, and Josephine, nine, where, unpaid, he has helped rebuild Exeter. If they want expertise in the FA Cup at Old Trafford then there are few better than only the third player in history to lift the trophy twice.

"We won an epic game at Old Trafford in January 1980," he says. "It was a replay and our goalkeeper Milija Aleksic got his jaw broken by Joe Jordan. Glenn [Hoddle] went in goal and Ossie scored the winner. But I also remember, as an apprentice, in January 1968, Tottenham played United in the FA Cup. There was a yard of snow on the pitch and Bill Nick rounded all us apprentices up. We shovelled it all off with the ground staff, big team effort. I think he bought us lunch that day which was unusual.

"I will never forget George Best going through against Pat Jennings and the whole stadium stood up as he tried to dribble past Pat, who got his hands on the ball. The place exploded in a moment. Fantastic. And I thought, 'I helped get this game on.'"

The team that he will arrive with in Manchester today might be slightly less qualified to compete than that Tottenham side, but Perryman believes in them fervently. They have lost their captain, Glenn Cronin, to injury for the rest of the season, but Perryman picks out Sean Devine, Steve Flack and Dean Moxey - who scored the winner in the previous round against Doncaster Rovers - as players to watch this afternoon. They are now fourth in the Conference and they go to Old Trafford with a plan.

"Our club continue to do business instead of being extinct which would have been a disaster for the wonderful city of Exeter," he says. "So far we have beaten Oxford in the LDV Vans Trophy and Doncaster and Grimsby in the FA Cup - three League opponents. It can't be luck. If we were going there with a Premiership team I would know realistically that United would have more shots, more corners, more possession - the lot. But there is something left for us, and how we use it is up to us. I would put our free-kicks and corners up with anybody's. I watch a lot of Premiership games and ours are as good as anyone's."

There is more than just Perryman's formidable playing career, a club record 950 appearances for Tottenham, to give him belief. He has won Japan's J League and the Asian Cup-Winners' Cup as well as coaching against - and beating - Arsène Wenger and Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to the World Cup in 2002 and took Portugal to the final of Euro 2004. He might never have faced Sir Alex Ferguson - "I once played in a managers' XI at a testimonial at Millwall, and he was the manager" - but he knows plenty about the United assistant manager, Carlos Queiroz.

"I managed against him when he was at Nagoya Grampus Eight and he didn't have the greatest time there," Perryman says. "We played in local competitions and beat them 10 times on the spin, for seven of those Queiroz was manager. But the managers who worked in Japan are no mugs. He managed Real Madrid.

"People don't really understand it. It seems to me that in this country, foreign managers are considered great. I am English with English traditions and have learned from Bill Nicholson. That's an education. I've gone abroad and competed against these world famous names and taken on board these ideas and influences from Brazilians. I think I have come back such a good package and no one really knows."

The problem, as Perryman admits, is that many English fans remember him primarily for his time with Ardiles at White Hart Lane that ended so unhappily. He stands by his Argentinian friend's famous summary of their time in charge between June 1993 and November 1994, that has stood as an epitaph to 17 chaotic months. "Ossie said, after he got the sack, that it was 'the impossible job'," Perryman says, "well, it was." Even more so when you hear his description of everyday life at the Lane.

"We were the first managers under 100 per cent control of Sugar and his chief executive, Claude Littner, and we were obviously going to struggle because they were trying to put a new way of managing the club in. I am not sure it was right after 10 years so it wasn't going to be right after one. That was a blip in my career but it was a wonderful experience to see some of what was going on at a so-called top-class club."

When Ardiles went to Shimizu S-Pulse in Japan, he took Perryman with him and, over three years, they took the newly created J League team to the title before the Argentinian left and Perryman took charge for a further two. When he returned to England in 2001 he was persuaded by the Exeter director Joe Gadston, his youth coach at Brentford when Perryman was player-manager there between 1986 and 1990, to advise the then Exeter manager, Noel Blake.

Perryman then returned to Japan for a spell with another J League side, Kashiwa Reysol, before returning in 2002. By then Exeter had finally succumbed to relegation and were in the Conference with debts of £4.5m and losses of £60,000 a month. Perryman returned alongside the manager, Eamon Dolan, in August 2003 and helped the club to steady itself. When Dolan left to take a coaching job at Reading, he advised on the appointment of Inglethorpe who was one of his players at Watford.

"I'm an aid to the manager, call it what you like," Perryman says. "They call me director of football with a small 'd'. Because I am not being paid I can tell the board exactly what I think. Even if I work in football for money one day, I still want to be able to say what should be said rather than what they want to hear.

"I'm not super-rich, definitely not, but I am comfortable. We were one goal away from winning the World Club Championship and I was on 15 per cent of any prize-money. We would have got £2m to win that game so I was on £300,000 to win that game. We didn't win it, but Japan has put me in a position where I want to work for the right person. If he's a good man and he works for a nothing club, doesn't matter. If this is a good man and he works for a top club, even better."

These days there are many who do not realise that Perryman was something of a Wayne Rooney of his day. Tottenham fans of that era remember his side-parting hairstyle at White Hart Lane in 1969 as a bit of a revelation for a 17-year-old footballer although Perryman is adamant: "I wouldn't have had it like that if he had known it was fashionable".

He mixed with the boxers his brother knew through his job at Brentford market and the Perryman boys helped make Fred Perry, a Tottenham firm originally, and Pringle clothes fashionable through their sports shops.

"At primary school I was playing two years above myself and then I went to a grammar school and I didn't really play apart from house football for four years," Perryman says. "Where does that fit in today? Nowadays I would have had an agent. That's how it has all changed. At 15, I was under no pressure and getting no coaching, winning house games 12-0. Totally unrealistic football and then in Tottenham's team at 17. How can that happen?"

Perryman does not begrudge the young men of his profession their wealth - "they're worth it" - although he chuckles at the adverts for yachts he sees in the Professional Footballers' Association magazine. When he lifted the FA Cup in 1981 and 1982, football was still more than 10 years from the era they will call the "good old days" in years to come.

Today sees Perryman step back in the competition he knew as well as any modern player. "We are doing it with a little bit of style but not arrogant and not flash," he says. "We don't think we are any better than what we are. We are a hard working Conference team. This will be great for our young players but we are not going to lay down and die."

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