Saint with an understanding of the sinners Southampton's trust in faith and reason

FOOTBALL: As a former probation officer, Dave Merrington is more forgiving than most managers. Glenn Moore discovers the secret
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The Independent Online
With one Premiership player at present in jail and several others recently appearing in court, a passing acquaintance with the penal system might be seen as an advantage for football managers. Then again, with more than a third of them sacked each season, a strong sense of faith could be regarded as more useful.

Dave Merrington, the manager of Southampton, has both. He also has something even more important - a sense of perspective.

Football has always had a problem with perspective, whether it is Bill Shankly suggesting the game is more important than life or death, or Everton officials claiming Duncan Ferguson is a nice, harmless young man. Ferguson, you may recall, was imprisoned this month for committing assault while already on probation for a violent offence.

Merrington knows all about hard backgrounds - his father lost six fingers practising his trade as a welder in his native North-east. He also knows about the causes of crime - he spent a year on the dole and three more in the probation service. Those experiences, and his Christianity, have made him a more rounded person than many in the game.

"I was taken from one extreme to another," he said in his spartan office at Southampton's well-appointed training ground yesterday. "From dealing with players - many of whom are highly motivated - I went to people who did not have much money. Their social inquiry reports showed how their situations had been affected by circumstances.

"That tends to make you less judgemental. I try to analyse things to a greater depth now. I am more patient with players than I was in the past. I am aggressive, I am positive, but I try to be balanced. The Probation Service taught me so much more about how other people have to live. Before I got that job, I also learned what it was like to be out of work, the hassle that brings. All this made me stronger, made me more understanding in dealing with people."

Then there is his faith, which clearly influences the way he deals with people. If only everyone in football were as warm and honest as he is.

It began with the death of his grandmother. "She had cancer - I saw her die. But she had tremendous faith. She had something I did not have. I then saw it in another guy I knew from Burnley and I recognised there was something which I now recognise is the truth."

All this character-building is presently being put to the test. Merrington was appointed manager in July, after Alan Ball went to Manchester City, and it has not been the easiest of starts. Having taken six points from nine games Southampton are in the relegation zone, despite being the only club to beat Newcastle.

"We have lost a bit of edge and found it hard to get it back. One or two players are not hitting form, some are lacking confidence. You want to be loyal to players, but the time is coming where we will make changes."

Things are unlikely to get any easier tomorrow, when Liverpool visit The Dell for a televised encounter. Southampton could get a timely lift, however, with the signing of Barry Venison nearing completion.

"He did a good job for Newcastle. He is mature, he has a positive, simple approach about him. Lawrie [McMenemy, the club's Director of Football] and I sat down and we felt we needed an old head on the pitch, which we have not had since Jimmy Case left.

"I am looking for us to be a positive side and I will not be happy until I have got that. I will not change my philosophy, I want a passing, forward- running side. I like to see flair, aggression and the right mental attitude."

One player who exemplifies that is Alan Shearer, one of Merrington's youth-team graduates. "The most important ingredient in football today is mental toughness; Shearer had that when he was very young. I recommended him to the first team at 17. They were surprised, but I said: 'He is a man, he has the ability, and he has mental capacity to deal with it'."

The other famous graduate, Matthew Le Tissier, is still at Southampton. Merrington is one reason for that. He is, said Le Tissier after training yesterday, "the biggest influence on my career.

"I came over here as a very naive 16-year-old, and he turned me into a player by the time I was 18. I also grew up so much that my family, who did not see me very often in that time, could not believe it. That was all down to Dave.

"There have been a couple of times since when I have been out of the side and I have gone back to see Dave and he has got me through it. He has been fantastic for me as a player and as a person."

Le Tissier is having a quiet period at the moment. "Some people say he does not work hard enough and some times he does not. He was like that as a boy. The first impression is he needs to do more, but some of the things he does, the goals he scores... He has a touch of genius.

"I understand the England manager's dilemma in trying to pick the best squad. I am not sure how they see him, but I do not think he has really been tested out. The criticism after the Norway game was of a lack of creativity - one thing Matty has in abundance is creativity."

Merrington was a defender with Burnley until injury finished his career at 27. He later returned as a coach to Jimmy Adamson. The two moved on to Sunderland, then Leeds, before being sacked. He drifted out of the game before McMenemy made him youth coach at Southampton 12 years ago. Circumstances, rather than ambition, led him to the manager's chair.

"What has changed since I last worked at this level is the philosophy of the game, money has changed the game. The pressure in the Premier League is unbelievable - you cannot afford to go down.

"It affects your life. You go home and your family situation is different. You find yourself wanting to switch off but you cannot. You want to get things right but you know you are not going to get them done overnight."

Merrington endured a difficult time with Adamson at Leeds, then saw at close hand the hate campaign Ian Branfoot experienced at Southampton. Having seen what management can be like, why get involved?

"I had the chance to take over at Sunderland when Jim left for Leeds, but I had already committed myself to going with him. This time, if I had not taken the job I would have regretted it.

"I did not expect the job. It came out of the blue. I had the backing of the spectators [he was also the players' choice] so the staff and I got together and we felt it was the right thing to do. I am the fifth manager in 10 years and I want to steady the waters.

"I do not think any manager should have to go through what Ian went through. It is wrong to put any individual through that kind of stress. The guy could have a nervous breakdown, or die of a heart attack. I do not think any job is worth that."

A Newcastle fan as a boy, he remains one as a manager. "My goal is to bring to Southampton the style Kevin Keegan has developed at Newcastle."