Outstaying his welcome?

November 26, 2003
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

As poisoned chalices go, the Leeds job must rank fairly high on the list. So what would persuade a successful and popular manager of a stable club to join them?

It's a question Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe will be posing as he wonders if Gordon Strachan can resist the lure of Leeds. Surely even Elland Road legends have their limits?

But second-guessing Strachan, as post-match interviewers have found to their cost, is no easy task; he even outwitted Sir Alex Ferguson with his choice of destination when leaving Aberdeen.

And just as Lowe was quick to recognise Strachan's successes at Coventry, so his manager may be wary of repeating his greatest mistake in management. By his own admission, Strachan stayed too long at Highfield Road, rendering three years of comparative progress irrelevant with relegation the following year.

Ron Atkinson, Strachan's manager at both Manchester United and Coventry, suggested that three years at one club is the limit for most managers, his successor at Old Trafford excepted. Strachan has been at Southampton for two years now; any feelings of impending staleness will make Leeds a more attractive prospect.

Another top ten position would not suggest that Strachan is stale. Watching his team, well drilled and industrious as they are, indicates otherwise. Southampton have failed to score in six of their last seven Premiership games; post-match interviews tend to be more entertaining than the games themselves. As their curiously detached manager admitted on Saturday, when James Beattie does not score, no one does. And Beattie did not play then.

Only Wolves and, inevitably, Leeds have scored fewer goals. That Southampton are not alongside them in the Premiership's nether regions is the product of an excellent start and a parsimonious defence.

It surely has not escaped Leeds' attention that despite the individual weaknesses in Saints' rearguard - especially Jason Dodd's almost embarrassing lack of pace - they have only conceded eight goals, the lowest total in the country.

But the right back and captain is a beneficiary of Strachan's faith in his senior players (Messrs Batty, Radebe, Kelly and Matteo, take note). Besides Beattie's goals, an eighth-place finish and an FA Cup final appearance vindicates that reliance on Dodd, Chris Marsden, Claus Lundekvam, Paul Telfer and, for much of Strachan's reign, Paul Jones and the departed Paul Williams.

Limited players have responded. In the 1-0 win over Manchester United, Telfer outshone Roy Keane and Marsden, buoyed by Strachan's assurance that he would always find room for a grumpy bald man, emerged to help turn the game Saints' way.

But, though Dodd and Telfer have signed new contracts this week, Southampton's veterans may not provide much incentive for their manager to stay. If Strachan has a future at St Mary's, it must be without some of his stalwarts, but the signing of seven players under 25 in the past 12 months shows rather more long-term planning than there is at Leeds now.

However, besides youth, the other thing David Prutton, Danny Higginbotham, Fitz Hall, Darren Kenton, Leandre Griffit, Yoann Folly and Dexter Blackstock (signed not from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but Oxford) have in common is that none are regulars.

The challenge of adding flair to Southampton and revitalising an unimaginative side, however, is nothing compared to the challenge of adding fight to Leeds and revitalising an under-performing side.
Only the first two may expect to be but Strachan's decision could depend on his perception of his reserves: breeding ground for young talent or, as Coventry's were, a dumping ground for unwanted players.

After his starring role in the FA Cup final, right back Chris Baird might have anticipated more than a loan spell at Walsall this season. When seven others have more started games in midfield, England Under 21 international Prutton may feel his career has stalled at St Mary's.

But the presence of Dodd and Telfer has restricted Baird's progress. When Prutton may have hoped for midfield starts in the absence of first Rory Delap and then Matthew Oakley, Telfer and Marsden were preferred.

So in a midfield that has been desperately uninspired for two months, the only glimpse of the future has come from Griffit. The French teenager's fast track to the first team began with a debut goal against Blackburn; an encouraging performance against Chelsea followed.

Southampton's answer to James Milner also has one distinction that Delap, Oakley, Telfer, Marsden, Prutton, Neil McCann, Fabrice Fernandes and Anders Svensson do not: he has scored.

It is a reflection of a lack of adventure and a lack of threat from the midfield quartet. For all the support Strachan's midfield give their back four, it is a dismal return. Should he stay, it is something the Southampton manager must rectify.

And it must be the greatest on-field source of frustration for Strachan and a likely direction for his withering words. His best midfielder, the underrated Oakley, is out for the season. And the three most attacking midfielders, two of whom have chequered relationships with Strachan, are not responding to his idiosyncratic approach.

Summer signing Neil McCann has been ineffective to the point of anonymity (the other major buy, Kevin Phillips, is not flattered by a 14-hour Premiership goal drought, but Strachan has little to show for a combined outlay of £5 million). Anders Svensson remains an enigma, excelling for Sweden but a peripheral player for Saints and especially unsuited to his favoured central midfield role in Strachan's system.

Gordon Strachan, Rupert Lowe
Empics / TonyO'BrienStrachan's relationship with Rupert Lowe is perhaps not so cordial these days.

And Fabrice Fernandes, who troubled Chelsea on his recall on Saturday, has been in infuriating mode for much of the season, even being omitted from the matchday 16 on occasions.

The challenge of adding flair to Southampton and revitalising an unimaginative side, however, is nothing compared to the challenge of adding fight to Leeds and revitalising an under-performing side.

But Leeds may yet tempt him, especially if a mystery sheikh has more allure than Rupert Lowe. Realistically, eighth place and a cup final represent the limits of Southampton's ambitions. Strachan, therefore, would leave an unqualified success; only a reputation for loyalty would be tarnished.

But would he really swap 10th for 20th in the Premiership? Is he sufficiently stale to walk out on the next generation of Saints - as well as one of the country's top goalscorers? Beneath the sarcasm and the savage wit, does his allegiance lie with Leeds? Or is the whole saga merely a bargaining tool in contract talks with Southampton?

As usual, only Gordon Strachan has the answers. And they are often worth listening to.

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