Pressure more likely cause of Strachan's departure than hip operation

James Lawton
Saturday 10 January 2004 01:00

Gordon Strachan's forthcoming hip operation is said to be the reason why he is stepping down, at least for a while, from the rigours of managing a Premiership club. It reminds you of what an old libel lawyer once said: it may be accurate but it doesn't mean it's true.

More persuasive, certainly, is talk of the fear of burn-out. For a man as sharp-witted, and essentially philosophical, as Strachan there must be a point when you have to step back and ask one or two of the big questions, most pertinently in his case: is flailing in the wake of a Scottish megalomaniac's evil empire and the mercenaries of a Russian billionaire the most intelligent way of spending the prime of your adult life?

A few years ago when Strachan was fighting for his career at Coventry and the host of a national phone-in show had a young schoolboy listing all his faults as a football man, he said: "Football has been my life, but it is something I wouldn't do at any price. I think you do it as long as you believe you can put into force some of your own values, and that you are having some effect. Certainly I won't accept the offer by my chairman that a trouble-shooter comes in to help me out as Terry Venables did for Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough. As long as I stay in football, I'm going to be my own man."

On the face of it there is no compelling reason for Strachan to walk away from football, no more than there was when Kenny Dalglish left Liverpool after a tense Cup-tie with Everton. Though last weekend's home Cup defeat by Newcastle and a poor 0-0 draw with struggling Leicester scarcely spoke of a buoyant dressing room, Strachan has done some remarkable work at Southampton. He has secured their Premiership status - as well as anyone can in that great kraal of uncertainty which exists below the élite of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea - and in place of his post-Coventry angst there is a powerful sense of the re-emergence of a significant football man.

But another truth of football is that so many of the pressures of the manager's job are necessarily kept from the public gaze. Though Strachan can often make 90 minutes in the technical area seem like his version of Calvary, though this week there were times when his interaction with the Southampton crowd was less than serene, we can be sure such tension can often be re-doubled on the training field and the boardroom. Strachan's apparent compliance recently in a flirtation with the financially wrecked Leeds United was certainly odd, and even yesterday some football men were saying that they would not be surprised if he re-surfaced in Yorkshire in the spring - assuming, that is, Leeds re-surface in the summer.

Certainly the significance of a hip operation was received sceptically. "It's a routine experience for a lot of ex-players," one old pro said. "When I had mine I spent a few days in bed and was walking around with a stick in a week. Gordon may well have a few other things on his mind."

Things, perhaps, like futility when the expectations of the crowd have been triggered and there is a dawning sense that you may have lost your players.

There is the desperate difficulty of trying to edge back a wheel that has turned full circle from the days when a manager owned both a player's body and his soul as he operated in a world of binding contracts. But then even when it took an epic of will for a player like Kevin Keegan to break away from Liverpool, the toll on the manager was tremendous. It is maybe no coincidence that three of the greatest managers of their generation, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Don Revie all died prematurely.

Today, with pressure that much greater, with supporters ever more impatient and demanding - and influential - there is no slackening of the death-defying, death-inviting charge of the football men.

Graeme Souness and Gérard Houllier, suffering seasons of gut-wrenching pressure, have come through major heart surgery. Sir Alex Ferguson brusquely dismissed a minor heart irregularity recently. David Jones came through a personal ordeal that would have tested the nerve and resolve of most men, then entered the maelstrom of life at precisely the wrong end of the Premiership. Sam Allardyce, who not so long ago and for the benefit of a TV programme, had his pulse rate monitored at the alarming clip it achieves during almost any match involving his team, is, after a few heady weeks, re-entering the survival stakes at Bolton.

Why do they do it? Why, in this age when salary levels and pay-offs permit a degree of financial security that was never available to even the Busbys and the Shanklys, do they put their lives in the hands of hugely expectant crowds and often feckless players and directors? Why do they say death before a life away from the dream factories of football? Because, said a man as articulate and as intelligent as Houllier, because it is something that gives meaning to their existence.

Maybe Gordon Strachan has broken the pattern but for the moment is reluctant to say so. Perhaps he thinks it might represent some kind of betrayal or defeat. Speculation, maybe, but it makes more sense than a routine medical procedure and a week or two of convalescence changing a man's entire way of life. The best guess is that Strachan has wearied of the crazy flux of the football life. But for how long? Maybe just so long as it takes for the old bug to bite again. All available evidence says that football is an acute condition, and in all but the rarest cases, utterly without cure.

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