To Robbie Keane he is the “best manager I have played for”. To Ron Atkinson he can be “spiteful”. To Steve Gibson and Middlesbrough, Gordon Strachan is the man to return them to the Premier League.
“We’re in for a good trip,” said Keith Lamb, Boro’s chief executive, at the Scot’s unveiling at the Riverside and there would have been some anxious players who assembled at the club’s Rockcliffe Park training ground yesterday morning to meet their new manager for the first time.
Strachan has, according to Keane’s reference, the ability to bring the best out of players; “he’s a smart man-manager”. Whether Aiden McGeady would agree is a moot point. The Celtic player fell out with Strachan last year and was banned for two weeks.
Throughout his career as player and, since taking over at Coventry in 1996, a manager, Strachan has never shied from confrontation. It was with Sir Alex Ferguson, his manager at Aberdeen and Manchester United, that he had his most bruising encounters, although there are also no shortage of reporters to have suffered the rough edge of Strachan’s tongue.
A smart man he may be, but his own man he most certainly is. “He does exactly what it says on the tin,” is how one former colleague puts it. “He is very good company, but takes no nonsense.”
Strachan walked away from Celtic in May, a day after failing to secure a fourth successive SPL crown. “I can live without football,” he insisted yesterday after signing a four-year contract. “I’d have been happy spending another year with my wife travelling the world. I’ve been driving Route 66 in California and down the west coast of Ireland, things I’ve not done before.
“I’ve spent time with my grandchildren and my father, I’ve not had a spare day to be honest. I don’t need to be here, I don’t have to be here, I’m here because I want to be.”
It is not the promise of a splurge in the transfer market that has lured the 52-year-old back to the game. He will have to work on a similarly constrained budget to his predecessor, Gareth Southgate, but his time at Southampton and Coventry will have adequately equipped him for that. And his sacking by Coventry, after they were relegated from the Premier League in 2001, means that Middlesbrough’s ruthless disposal of Southgate will not have fazed him either.
Southgate was removed having guided the club to a point shy of the Championship summit. He supervised victory over Derby last Tuesday, before chairman Steve Gibson broke the bad news as the midnight hour approached.
Strachan said: “The chairman’s role in me taking the job was huge because he’s backed people and backed them financially over the years. I don’t think that [financial] backing’s there any more but he’ll give us the other backing and support you need as a manager.
“I can be my own man here and there’s potential to develop your own team over time. I felt the time was right and I spoke to a few close friends and they thought this club would be good for the way I manage.”
Lamb was forced to defend his actions after it emerged talks were held with Strachan earlier this month while Southgate was still in charge, informal discussions taking place when Middlesbrough visited Coventry earlier this season.
“We met Gordon by accident.” Lamb insisted. “I asked whether he’d consider coming back into football and he said he wasn’t missing it, but if the right offer came in he’d consider it.
“ I asked him before the Reading game [October 3] if we made a serious offer would he come? He said he’d consider it but wouldn’t do anything whilst we still had a manager. It was only after Gareth’s departure that we sat down and started talking seriously about him taking over.
“We’ve done everything right and proper, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”
Strachan will retain the coaching staff assembled by Southgate, with the addition of his long-term right-hand man, Gary Pendry. Among the pressing tasks before launching his reign at home to Plymouth on Saturday will be to begin the process of persuading Adam Johnson, the England Under-21 midfielder who has attracted covetous glances from Everton and Sunderland and who is out of contract in the summer, to stay in the North-east.
“I appreciate Gareth’s left some decent players to work with,” Strachan added. “Football’s not complicated, just get good people around you and you’ve got every chance.”
With Strachan at the wheel the Riverside is unlikely to be a dull place.
Strachan in quotes
“I've got more important things to think about. I've a yogurt to finish — the expiry date is today.”
“If a Frenchman goes on about seagulls, trawlers and sardines, he's called a philosopher. I'd just be called a short Scottish bum talking crap.”
“Lundekvam was carried off — someone asked if he was unconscious. I didn't know — that's what he's always like.”
(To reporter) “Apart from you, we're all quite positive round here. I'm going to whack you over the head with a big stick — down, negative man, down.”
Reporter: “Where will Pahars fit in the team?” GS: “Not telling! It's a secret.”
Reporter: “In what areas do you think Middlesbrough were better today?” GS: “Mainly that big green one out there.”
Reporter: “So, Gordon, any plans for Europe this year?” GS: “Aye, me and the wife quite fancy Spain in August.”
(To a female reporter) “Explaining it to you is impossible. It would be like you explaining childbirth to me.”