Because Sport Is Everything
Gordon Strachan clutches a vintage 1980s Coca-Cola can, hard-earned after playing his part in a remarkable achievement.
Those around him are on the stronger stuff. Alex Ferguson hoists a bottle of bubbly into the air. There are smiles all round, and the 1980s-style facial hair is prominent.
“That was taken when we won the league for the first time,” Strachan says in an interview for Pundit Arena with Boylesports, as he is shown the photograph on the back of Michael Grant’s excellent 2014 book Fergie Rises.
It tells the story of how Ferguson made his name at Aberdeen, not only by putting the dominance of Celtic and Rangers on hold, but by taking on the best that Europe had to offer.
In all, the future Manchester United icon won three Scottish Premier Division titles with the Dons, along with four Scottish Cups, a League Cup, and, most notably of all, the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup, when they defeated the mighty Real Madrid in the final in Gothenburg.
However, it was that 1979/80 league title win, clinched with a 5-0 win away at Hibernian on May 3rd, that kicked it all off.
“It was at Easter Road, where I’m from in Edinburgh,” Strachan explains, his face alight with nostalgia as he examines the photograph through the computer screen. “George the bus driver is there as well. I could tell you some stories about George.
“It was a great day for me because my dad’s local social club is about half a mile down the road and I ended up there on the Saturday night, after we won that… and I won the bingo as as well!”
Aberdeen would become Scottish champions again in 1984 and 1985, adding to their only pre-Ferguson league title, which was won in 1955.
Since that golden era, no other club outside of the ‘Old Firm’ of Celtic and Rangers has been crowned champions.
Aberdeen’s was a team that Scotland won’t see the like of again any time soon, and Strachan is clear on what he feels are the reasons for that.
“Aberdeen, Celtic, Hibs, Rangers, we were all getting the same wages,” he explains. “The only difference was if you won something, your wages would go up. That was the only way you would get a decent three-piece suite or a holiday.
“So that’s not going to happen again. It’s 37 years since somebody won the league outside of the Old Firm, and it could be another 37 years.”
Leaving Scotland’s icy north-east for Manchester United in the summer of 1984 meant that Strachan missed out on Aberdeen’s final league title success a year later, as well as their domestic cup double in 1986.
By then, that legendary team had started to split up, and even Ferguson was on the lookout for pastures new. Following the sudden death of Jock Stein at a World Cup qualifying game in Cardiff in September 1985, Ferguson took temporary charge of the Scotland national team, leading them at the tournament in Mexico the following summer.
It was here that Ferguson first pitched to Strachan that he was interested in following him to Manchester, an idea that the former midfielder wasn’t initially on board with.
“When we were at the World Cup in 1986, he was in the room next to me,” Strachan explains. “He came in one morning and said ‘I’m only going to leave Aberdeen for two teams – Barcelona or Man United.
“I went ‘I hope to f*** it’s Barcelona’”.
Strachan lets out a hearty laugh as he delivers that punchline, before adding: “but no, he’s the best thing to ever happen to Man United.”
While his relationship with Ferguson has been tetchy in the past, he speaks of his former boss with the greatest of respect, even if he was on the receiving end of the infamous ‘hairdryer’ on more than a few occasions.
“Some of the things that were said to me,” he recalls. “I speak to Mark McGhee and we used to say it would happen to other people. You’d sit and watch it yourself and go ‘oooh – that’s horrific,’ and you just feel sorry for the guys.
“The good thing was, if you were on the receiving end of it, we used to have a therapy group. We all used to get together and go ‘ah, never mind, we’ve all had it’. It was like therapy.
“But it worked. Whatever he did, it worked. It never affected me. I never became a mass killer, I never turned to drugs. I spoke to him recently and he said ‘did I actually say that?’ and I went ‘ya did’.
“I’ve got to tell ya though… I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Because I’m the lucky one, I’m the one that’s been in the dressing room with him.
“Any football people would like to be sitting in that chair listening to him. It’s just priceless. For any of us that have been in there, we’re so lucky to have been on the receiving end of it.
“Some people got it more than others. One in particular sitting right in front of you. It was probably my fault.”
Such was the influence of Ferguson, that Strachan tried to copy his style when he entered the management game himself.
When Ron Atkinson moved upstairs at Coventry City in 1996, it was Strachan who took over, and he soon found out that the best way forward was to be himself.
“I tried to be Alex Ferguson in my first team-talk at Coventry,” he says. “Halfway through it, I thought to myself ‘I’m trying to be Alex Ferguson here’. I stopped and I went outside the door, I just shut the door.
“I thought to myself ‘I can never do this. There’s only one of him. And maybe I don’t even want to be him. I have to be myself’. There’s only one, I think people have tried, but he was a one-off. Also remember, it’s a different world now, of discipline.”
Another way in which football has changed is that today’s managers have to deal with the intense scrutiny of social media.
During Strachan’s early days in management, and the same is true of Ferguson before him, that criticism predominantly came from those writing in newspapers.
Strachan expressed views on the pitfalls of both eras, and recalled how Ferguson leaned on another legendary United boss, Matt Busby, during his early struggles at Old Trafford.
“Young players today have got other pressures, social media and all the rest,” says the 65-year-old.
“If you want to go on social media, go on social media, if you don’t, don’t. That’s my advice. Some of the advice that Matt Busby gave Alex Ferguson when he first got there…
“Alex said to him after about a year: ‘I’m getting slaughtered in the press,’ and Matt went ‘Well, don’t read it’.
“I’ve lived by that throughout my career, especially at Celtic. I never read a thing. I know what’s going on but you have to win games, so you don’t get affected by this fantasy stress. I think that’s what players do today.
“I can only deal with reality and that’s what Sir Alex did. Just dealt with reality. Then you can focus on what you’re doing.”
Out of four jobs in club management, that Celtic gig was the one which brought trophies, as he led the club to three Scottish Premiership titles in-a-row, while winning a Scottish Cup and two League Cups for good measure.
Such was the talent in that team that even one of Ireland’s greatest-ever players struggled to force his way into it, as Strachan explains of the time he took Roy Keane on board, after the Corkman’s acrimonious 2005 departure from Manchester United.
“It was put in front of me, we can get Roy Keane,” he recalls. “Fantastic, he’s magnificent, I’m still a reasonably young manager at the time.
“But I’ve got to be honest with him. I had Neil Lennon and Stiliyan Petrov as the two central midfield players who were doing very well.
“So I had the meeting with Roy and said ‘at the moment, these two will be my starting ones’. I think he wrote in his book that I didn’t really want him there. I did want him there, but I needed a way to fit him in. What are the consequences of Roy Keane coming and not getting a game?
“I really enjoyed his company as a player. He sets standards, he played through injuries. I remember one game at Ibrox against Rangers, they break and we’re winning 1-0 and he just wipes the guy out, took the yellow card. Most of my players wouldn’t have done that, and we could have drawn the game.
“I tried my best to convince him to play longer. I remember the phone call, he was away somewhere and he said ‘my body’s had enough’ and I said ‘we’re going to be in the Champions League next year. I’d like you to stay’. Because he just had this presence but he’d made his mind up. You know what he’s like when he makes his mind up.
“But I really enjoyed the six months I worked with him and actually, we’ve spent a lot of time on TV together and I think his company is fantastic.”
While Strachan managed one of the famous Irish Keanes at the tail-end of his career, it was another, Robbie, who he came across as an enthusiastic youngster.
Strachan was manager Coventry in the summer of 1999, when the opportunity to sign the hugely-talented teenager came up, after Keane had scored 29 goals in just over two seasons for Wolverhampton Wanderers.
He would work with the Dubliner for just one year, before Keane made the move to Italy to play for a star-studded Inter Milan side.
One word to sum up the striker? Strachan doesn’t hesitate.
“Genius,” he says. “Wonderful lad. When he was at Wolves, I saw him in pre-season playing against Barcelona. He was playing against top centre-halves, I think Carles Puyol was one of them at the time.
“He had him all over the place with his movement. About 18 months later, the chairman says we can spend X amount of money, I said ‘get Robbie Keane’.
“Man United were after him at the same time. I fell unwell. I was in my bed for a couple of days. I really wasn’t well at all, I think it was a viral thing.
“The chairman got on with it and signed him, but I was never involved in it, as such. I woke up after about two days and the chairman said ‘I’ve signed Robbie Keane,’ I went ‘really? When did that happen?’
“I thought it was a dream. Anyway, he was there for a year. Magnificent. His first day at training, he left Paul Williams on his backside after a pass from Gary McAllister.
“He went to the ball and spun in behind, and I remember trying to teach other kids how to do this in training… I’m still doing it to this day.
“I said to him ‘where did you learn that? Who coached you that?’ and he went ‘learn what?’ I said ‘that… when you went on the ball and you spun and went in behind and the centre-half fell on their backside’… ‘I don’t know,’ he said.
“‘Had you not been taught that?’ and he went ‘no’. There’s this self-learning thing in his head.
“You have to understand it when you’re signing players. Everybody forgets this… does he have an intellect to learn things? If he can’t, you’ll have the same player all the time when you sign him. So he was a genius.
“When he got there, we said once you sign for us and you do well here, you’ll move.
“Within a couple of months, Inter Milan wanted to sign him. He didn’t have a clue. These days, you’d always have a clue. I knew what his wages were going to be. I knew what his wages were at Coventry.
“I said to him ‘Inter Milan want to sign you, they want you to play up front with Ronaldo and they’ll triple your wages. Go away and think about it and give me a call.
“I’m still waiting for that call! Every time I see him I tell him. My wife Lesley and myself, we met him as a young lad and we’re so happy that his career went so well.
“I’m a lucky boy that I’ve been able to manage both the Keanes, how good is that?”
In January 2013, over two years after leaving Middlesbrough, Strachan answered the call to become the manager of the Scottish national team.
While qualification for Euro 2016 proved a stretch too far, there were some good results along the way, including a famous 1-0 win over Martin O’Neill’s Ireland side at Celtic Park in November 2014.
When asked if he misses management, Strachan reveals that it’s that Scotland job that gave him the fondest memories.
“I miss the Scotland gig,” he says. “It was perfect for me at that time of my career. I could go and watch football during the week. It was always on my mind, whether I was in a tracksuit or not.
“I only had to deal with the media maybe three times or twice – wonderful. I could go and coach and watch football and enjoy the game itself, the love of the game and do very little media work. Not that that put me off or anything, I did enjoy a lot of it, but dealing with that is probably the hardest part of my job.
“The only time I was really happy was coaching and working with players. Then I could go away and do other things that I was involved with, family, so many things I could do.
“There were other things I had in my mind, working with youth football, how can we make youth football better. I worked with a great bunch of people who I speak to quite regularly now.”
Strachan has fit a lot into his career from those early days at Aberdeen, both as a player and a manager, and his enthusiasm for the game is evident in how he speaks about it.
While he is now over five years out of management, he keeps busy by coaching young players and speaking on the after-dinner circuit.
Both pursuits would appear to suit him down to the ground, with his undoubted passion for coaching and his ability to tell a great story.
There are plenty more photos like the one on the back of Michael Grant’s book, and perhaps one day Strachan will sit down with another well-earned Coke and take it all in.
Gordon Strachan was speaking as a Boylesports ambassador. Football Odds and Betting with Boylesports can be found here.
Read More About: Alex Ferguson, Celtic, gordon strachan, Manchester United, robbie keane, roy keane, Scottish Premiership