Strachan's curtain call of pride and country

Departure on his own terms opens up a new world, and that includes Scotland

Jason Burt
Sunday 11 January 2004 01:00

Blame it on Coventry City. There is one brutal reason why Gordon Strachan has decided to take his leave of Southampton and, by admission, the Premiership, and that was his experience at the first club he managed - the only one who dared to discard this fiercely proud, fiery Scot. And that hurt.

The scars accumulated in the west Midlands aggravate more than the sciatica he feels in his legs - pain he has endured since the 1970s - which will lead to a hip replacement operation after he steps down this summer having, crucially, honoured his contract at St Mary's.

Ostensibly his leaving of Southampton will, at the age of 46, give him time to take a sabbatical and address his health concerns and also to travel. He will probably combine both and have the operation in either the United States or Australia.

After 31 years in football Strachan calculates that he has had just six weeks divorced from the game - when he was fired from Coventry after relegation in 2001. Strachan should probably have quit when he was still regarded as a saviour, not a stultifier. With hindsight he regrets not taking a longer break following the trauma that led him to go on aimless 15-mile walks and to watch movies at 4am.

"He needed time," says one friend of Strachan's state of mind. Even now his hip does not prevent him from running three nights a week in the New Forest - for four miles at least - to relieve the tension.

That he can now depart on his own terms is all the more delicious. He vowed he would never allow himself to be sacked again. It is unlikely that Strachan will emerge, despite the past speculation linking him with Leeds United, as a manager at another Premiership club even if the team led by former Elland Road director Allan Leighton are planning to approach him. His choice is cushioned by the severance pay that has recently been settled with Coventry.

Strachan's ambitions lie elsewhere and he knows he owes a debt to his wife, Lesley, and sons Gavin and Craig (both professional footballers) and teenage daughter Gemma, before he fulfils them. Strachan - despite protestations from Southampton that he will remain a resident of Hampshire - is expected to spend time addressing his business interests back in Edinburgh. More significantly, however, is the belief that he has one eye on the job he covets most. For it is believed that Strachan, a patriot, wants to be manager of Scotland, for whom he has 50 cherished caps. Should Bertie Vogts move on, as many expect him to, within the next 12 months then Strachan will jump at the opportunity.

It makes sense. He is a talented manager, existing in a small coterie within the Premiership of those who can achieve beyond their means. He has also promised that Southampton would be his last club job and prides himself on being an honest broker. Furthermore Strachan has thrived at a publicly-listed company - anathema to a football man - where even the City recognises his over-achievements. Without Strachan, and despite the efforts of a progressive chairman, Rupert Lowe, Southampton would have been sunk in their new stadium.

The relationship between the two men has been in sharp focus, although Lowe clearly made strenuous efforts to keep Strachan - his latest offer being a 12-month rolling contract. Strachan has undoubtedly bought well - and achieved as much as could be expected from the existing pool of players - and yet Lowe has fretted about the wage bill and, to his manager's irritation, the odd duff purchase and the inability to get the most from talents such as Anders Svensson who, it is believed, was involved in a dressing-room bust-up recently along with other malcontents Fabrice Fernandes and Jo Tessem.

A recent slide in form, the early exit from the FA Cup after last season's heroics and jeering from the fans following the midweek goalless draw against Leicester City have not aided his sense of equilibrium. However, the statement that he made his decision two years ago should not be dismissed, although again he probably would have expected a more emollient approach from Lowe last autumn when Leeds first came calling.

However, there has not been a bust-up and although Strachan reacted with irritation to Southampton's statement on Friday regarding his health - claiming it was "irresponsible" - the club feel they had little choice but to come clean. Stock Market rules dictated the approach.

At the same time Strachan fears he has reached a plateau. His post-match press conferences have appeared tired. Tellingly, he tried to get his squad to play more progressively this season before reverting to a direct approach after they crashed out of the Uefa Cup. Strachan also believes most managers have a shelf life at one club of only about three years before their impact diminishes.

So who will succeed him. The early money is on Wales' manager Mark Hughes and Leicester City's Micky Adams, both former Saints players. And despite suggestions that Lowe may look abroad it is likely he will go for a manager in Strachan's mould - a tracksuited disciplinarian who can work on a budget. It will be a tough job - players such as James Beattie may feel it is an opportune time to depart themselves - but the legacy is still, from a self-styled "wee Scottish bum", generous.

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