Strachan easing back on the home stretch

Guy Hodgson talks to Leeds United's 37-year-old maestro who is nearing the end of an outstanding career `I've been playing for 23 years now and I've heard every team talk possible. No one could get me going now, no matter what they said'
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As Craig Brown touched reality, a concept not always within reach of his fellow countrymen, this week he listed the footballers of true quality lost to age. Every name has a cherished place in Scotland's recent mythology and each tolled a warning for themanager's European Championship hopes. The player he began with was Gordon Strachan.

To say that the darting impudence and craft of the diminutive redhead is missed by Scotland is to understate the case woefully. Brown would love to be able to call upon a 27-year-old Strachan, but the man is 10 years older and no longer fit for the international stage. Even his club, Leeds United, are employing his playing services on borrowed time.

Strachan, 38 in February, had envisaged being at Arbroath on £30 a week - "with as many kippers as I could eat" - long before this age; instead he is in his last season as a player hoping to contrive another twist in a career that has been exceptional quite apart from its longevity. A final bow beckons for a man who has been enjoying an encore that has extended to a point where Frank Sinatra might feel envious.

When he retires it will end an era at Elland Road. Bought with the specific job of getting the club out of the old Second Division, he did that and more, to an extent where his extended lease on playing life has come to personify the club. Think of Leedsand the championship of 1992, images of Strachan's intelligent promptings from the right come to mind.

"I think I could play at a reasonable level until I'm 40," he said,"but the body's saying enough's enough. You can't trust it, you go to bed completely fit and you wake up next day with an injury. When you're 27 you can depend on it to get you through a certain number of games a season. As you get older you get strains you'd never imagine when you were younger."

The novelty of plying a trade envied by most has long since worn off. "I've been playing 23 years now and I've heard every team talk possible," he continued. "No one could get me going now no matter what they said. For the last five to 10 years I've had to build myself up for games. I'm fine 10, 20 minutes before a game, I can get switched on, but it's the bus journeys and the hotels. That's got to be a bit much."

Strachan first sampled this gypsy life with Dundee before moving to Aberdeen, where he enjoyed his most successful time in terms of trophies. The club did not crack the mould of the Rangers-Celtic duopoly, but smashed it to the tune of two championships,the Scottish Cups and the European Cup-Winners' Cup.

It also brought him under the influence of Alex Ferguson, with whom he shared the prime of his career at Pittodrie and later at Old Trafford with Manchester United. Strachan is known as "King Tongue" at Leeds for his capacity for cutting colleagues down to size with his biting asides, and it was a relationship which, with Ferguson's capacity for anger, was not always tranquil.

"We don't dislike each other or anything like that," Strachan said,"but I wouldn't say we got on well. It's hard to be with someone for 11 years and not have an argument. He's got a bad temper at times but everyone's been at the wrong end of it. Next dayhe's fine, which is how it should be."

Strachan says a wrong impression was given by his book, in which he described Ferguson throwing tea china at him."People made a lot of it at the time and that appears to have stuck," he said. "It was meant to be a funny story because the crunch line was the cups didn't hit me, they hit Willie Miller and Ally McLeish. They were covered in tea.

"I got on fine with Alex Ferguson. We had our ups and downs but we respected each other. You can hardly knock the man, his record proves what a good manager he is. He's already made his mark in the record books."

His meeting again with Ferguson in Manchester was a twist neither had anticipated. After seven years Strachan expected to go to the continent. But Manchester United's pursuit of their grail, the championship, proved too seductive.

For a time, it seemed that Strachan would be a guide to take them there. Ten points clear after going 15 matches without defeat, the United of Ron Atkinson became bogged down in the mire of winter in 1985/86 and finished fourth.

"We were as good as anybody on a beautiful surface on a nice day," Strachan said, "but when it got a bit wet, windy and muddy we struggled because physically we couldn't compete. We had too many players like myself who were slightly built and it was leftto Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Norman Whiteside and Kevin Moran to look after the physical side. It was unfair on them. We worked hard to compensate but at set-pieces like corners we were in trouble."

Few missed the irony of his winning the title with Leeds three years after being sold by Ferguson after he arrived at Old Trafford. Yet it was not the championship that Strachan looks back on with special pride, but rather the journey in his first seasonat Elland Road when promotion was achieved from the Second Division.

"It was the first time anyone had asked me to do a specific job," he said. "I was told to get Leeds promoted, and to do it in one season was fantastic. The chairman gambled, he put a lot of money into the club and brought Howard Wilkinson here, and everything paid off. The atmosphere was phenomenal. People just needed to get out of that division. It was the most satisfying moment of my career.

"In the championship year, the last few weeks were gripped with tension. My back was killing me, I couldn't train and I was playing about 50 minutes every game and having to come off. In a way I didn't enjoy it all because all I could think about was this pain and how I could get rid of it. But to win the title was wonderful. It was way ahead of schedule."

The itinerary has since gone haywire as Leeds have not built on the championship of 1992 and have dawdled since. Strachan attributes that in part to the European Cup defeat by Rangers the following season - "that knocked the club back a year" - but is asmystified as anyone else why the club has not fulfilled its potential.

"With the quality of players we've got at this club it's just not been good enough these last two years," he said. "When we won the championship we thought we would carry on from there, but we've just not done it. Sometimes you can have all the tactics in the world but, if the players aren't doing it, you're struggling. We're a good side but we've been stagnant for a few years. It's very frustrating."

It might also become Strachan's problem as his desire to become a coach or manager next season could be satisfied at Elland Road. He was first choice for the player-manager's position at Swindon Town recently and his rejection of that offer has had Leedswatchers speculating he will take control of the team next season, with Wilkinson moving upwards to a general manager's position.

Strachan remains silent when this scenario is played out to him, other than to say a position might be found for him. "I just want to stay in the game," he said. "There's some smashing people in football, I love the camaraderie. If I can stay here that would be wonderful but I've not talked to the gaffer about it for a long time, there's plenty of time for a decision.

"I know the pressure on managers these days is huge, some of the stick these days is horrendous, but I've warned my family and friends that if I start looking like a lunatic leaping up from the bench to tell me, I'll pack it in.

"I'm not a naturally angry man. For every brickbat I give to the young players I coach here, there are ten bouquets. I tell them if they can hold their head up and say they've done their best, it's OK. You can have a stinker but still look your family inthe eye if you have tried to the maximum."

Strachan, fast approaching retirement, has no such worries to plague him. After 23 years, he as much as anyone can look the world in the eye. Ask Craig Brown.