Thursday, October 29, 2009
Strachan attracted by Teesside task
"I don't have to be here, I am here because I want to be here." Gordon Strachan returned to football management repeating those words. The new Middlesbrough manager, as he stressed in his interviews, has plenty of other interests and he explored them in his five-month gap from the game; he was not compelled to return by boredom, obsession or addiction. There were two halves to his statement. He doesn't have to be at Middlesbrough; indeed, it is to be presumed that three decades of top-level football mean he has no financial imperative to be at any club.
So the second part is more intriguing: why does he want to be there? Why, with a track record that equips him for a job in the upper half of the Premier League, did he choose a relegated club with declining crowds? Why Middlesbrough?
One indication came in the Scot's praise for his new employer. Despite his uncharacteristically brutal sacking of Gareth Southgate, Steve Gibson still merits his reputation as one of the best chairmen around. But, as Strachan was capable of succeeding when paired with Rupert Lowe, few figures in boardrooms anywhere should deter him.
Then there is the question of his inheritance. Rather than an appointment at a struggling Premier League club, it provides a different challenge to those he initially encountered at Coventry and Southampton. Lacking the fanbase, history and expectation of the Old Firm, life at the Riverside Stadium should prove less pressurised than managing Celtic.
And with a Boro side two points off the summit of the Championship, there is the rarity value in taking over a club which is doing comparatively well and yet has the potential to fare even better. A prolific academy adds a further reason to choose Teesside. Yet none of that is a comprehensive explanation.
Not for a manager the Liverpool board considered before appointing Rafa Benitez, whose results in Europe ought to tempt wealthier Premier League clubs and whose quick wit and strong personality prepare him to deal with the egos that can proliferate in the upper level of the game. It is worth remembering that Martin O'Neill, whose managerial career has considerable parallels with Strachan's, was able to find employment at Aston Villa after leaving Celtic.
At Middlesbrough, the best-case scenario is promotion at the first attempt. Yet that would place Strachan in the familiar position of attempting to keep a comparatively impoverished side in the top flight. The alternative is less enticing: elevation is essential in the two-year window of parachute payments - hence even ultra-loyal chairman like Gibson taking drastic measures - in order to prevent dramatic budgetary reductions and consolidation as a mid-ranking Championship side.
The immediate aftermath of relegation tends to be dramatic. Proven Premier League performers such as David Wheater and Gary O'Neil are almost guaranteed to garner interest, whie Boro's prize asset - a title that belongs to Adam Johnson - already has a number of top-flight suitors. Arguably the outstanding player in the Championship this season, the winger has emerged from the considerable shadow of Stewart Downing to score nine goals thus far. The England Under-21 international's contract expires in the summer and Middlesbrough risk losing him without the compensation of a sizeable fee. Recent Boro games have offered ample opportunities to spot the scouts assessing Johnson: Chelsea, Wigan and Sunderland have been linked while David Moyes watched him in Saturday's 2-2 draw with Preston.
Strachan's intentions in the transfer market appeared to be inadvertently revealed on the piece of paper he carried into his first press conference at the club. Appearing a wish-list for Gibson, it ranged from precocious talents such as Jack Wilshere and Federico Macheda to more seasoned performers like Hayden Mullins and Andy Griffin and incorporating, in Kevin Phillips, something Boro have lacked since Yakubu joined Everton: a specialist goalscorer.
It all suggests a more diverse approach to selection. Perhaps highlighting the sales of the senior players Steve McClaren accumulated, Southgate became increasingly reliant on the homegrown. Entire generations rarely emerge with talent equally distributed across the pitch, however, and such an approach left Boro better served in some positions (left wing and defence) than others (centre midfield and attack).
Nonetheless, Strachan's unfortunate revelations suggested his early ambition. It is a sense of drive that has been apparent since he emerged as a feisty right-sided midfielder in Scotland. Management has brought success, but the sort of frustrations that may be mirrored at Middlesbrough: a fine Coventry side lost Dion Dublin, Darren Huckerby, George Boateng, Gary McAllister and Robbie Keane to more affluent clubs within the space of two years, prompting relegation.
At Southampton, he suggested the signings of Steed Malbranque and Louis Saha after reaching the FA Cup final in 2003 (and Saints can wonder where they would be had Lowe agreed to that request, or to his suggestion that they purchase a young Emmanuel Adebayor), ending up with more limited players. At Celtic, unlike O'Neill, he was unable to sign players from established Premier League clubs. Middlesbrough, whose days among the big spenders are consigned to the past and whose position may be precarious if their stay in the Championship is extended, could prove an unwanted repeat.
While Gibson has come in for unusual criticism for dispensing with Southgate so summarily, his motives are clear. In exchanging Southgate for Strachan, he has traded up. But a longer sabbatical might have brought Strachan a more desirable job.