Strachan opens up on panic attacks and the feud with Sir Alex Ferguson
‘Fergie and I should have spoken sooner… there was a barrier that needed to be broken’: Gordon Strachan opens up on panic attacks, winding up Tony Adams and the feud with his old Man United boss
- Gordon Strachan has looked back on his career, as both a boss and a player
- The ex-Scotland boss spoke on management and the anxiety of his early days
- Strachan also opens up on his once sour relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson
Gordon Strachan was at home last week when his phone beeped. It was a text message from Sir Alex Ferguson. ‘He wanted to know if I was watching this thing on TV about Aberdeen in the early Eighties,’ says Strachan. ‘I said I’d fast forward past the 1983 Cup final…’
That year Ferguson’s Aberdeen missed out on the Scottish title by a point, shocked Real Madrid to win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and beat Rangers to lift the Scottish Cup. But at full time at Hampden, Ferguson famously railed against his players on TV for a sluggish performance.
‘That was my 60th game of the season or something,’ laughs Strachan. ‘We had won but he still wasn’t happy.’
Gordon Strachan has opened up on his feud with ex-Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson
The Scotsman was an impressive attacking player, before later managing his national side
Strachan and Ferguson won seven trophies at Aberdeen and worked together at Manchester United too. That wasn’t to end well and it was bad between them for a while. But it’s good again now and, anyway, Strachan gets it these days.
After 21 years as a manager at Coventry, Southampton, Celtic, Middlesbrough and Scotland, he knows what the job does.
‘You have to have the stomach to keep going,’ he tells Sportsmail during a 90-minute Zoom chat.
‘I call it the anger to keep on. Sir Alex always had that anger. Oh aye, he had it. There is nothing wrong with it. You must be stubborn. If you are right 80 per cent of the time the other 20 per cent doesn’t matter.
‘Ferguson was stubborn. Arsene Wenger too. All the greats. Don’t be swayed. And if you don’t have it then don’t do it. I know far more now about coaching than I did, but do I want to go to a hotel on a Friday night and sit there worrying?
‘Do I want to get on the team bus worrying, go to a press conference worrying and then come out and think, “God, what have I just said?” Do I want the deep depression on a Saturday night if we have lost? Do I want that any more?
‘No, I don’t think I do. Well, not unless something exceptional came along…’
Strachan, 63, was a fine attacking footballer. He won monotonously at Aberdeen, an FA Cup at United and a First Division title as captain of Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds side in 1992. He is loved by people in football. A warm, funny, bright man. But he could be a pain. He knows that.
‘Chippy? Oh yeah that was me,’ he smiles. ‘I was a shocking nightmare to referees. I wrote to a couple to apologise and then when I was a manager at Coventry I would write to other clubs to apologise. I was like a caged tiger and all they had to do was poke me with a stick’.
Ferguson and Strachan fell-out after their successful spells together, but have reconnected
Strachan (right) admits he was a ‘nightmare to referees’ on the pitch during his playing days
Strachan is a contradiction but has the self-awareness to know it. He can laugh at himself, too.
‘I find humour in most things but as soon as you walk into a football stadium you change,’ he says. ‘Everybody does. It brings out the best and worst of you. On the field I never kicked anybody but some of the things I said to people were horrific.
‘The supporters are the same. Some of them must go home and wonder if they really said those things in front of their kids. I just used to drive home and wonder quite what had come over me.’
Strachan has always cared deeply about his football and worried about it too. He feared letting people down. Signed by Billy McNeill for Aberdeen in 1977, he had a difficult first season.
‘I failed Billy badly,’ he nods. ‘The crowd used to sigh when the ball came to me.’
Years later, in 2010, he refused compensation when he was sacked as manager by Middlesbrough. ‘The LMA (League Managers Association) asked if they could help with the settlement,’ he recalls. ‘I was like, “Nah, I was useless”.’
Post-match interviews can be a battleground for bosses and Strachan saw them as vital
His playing career started with a sending-off on his reserve team debut as a nine-stone 15-year-old for Dundee.
One of twins — Joe and Sandy White — was giving him a hard time. He got confused so he whacked them both. From that point, things largely followed an upward curve.
Management was a greater challenge. Appointed initially as player-manager at Coventry in 1996, he had a panic attack after five games. ‘I lost them all and was at home and couldn’t breathe,’ he says.
‘The sixth game was Newcastle, top of the league. We won 2-1. And I wondered where the anxiety had gone. In management you learn how to present the right front to the players.
‘The drive to work could be horrendous when you are in a low but as soon as you see the training ground: Bang! You are back again.
‘The first person you meet has to look at you and think you are ready. It goes like wildfire through the club if you are not.
The ex-Scotland boss has also managed Celtic, Middlesbrough, Coventry and Southampton
‘It’s the same with interviews after a game. The players see all that too. So the message is important. I couldn’t let myself be bullied. I could be edgy and sarcastic with journalists. When I have gone over the top, I have always apologised. But that was me. It was the start of the fight again.’
He has been married to Lesley for 43 years, and she loves football too. She used to accompany him on scouting trips and has watched more than 1,700 live games. So she knows her husband. She understands. But that’s not to say she has unlimited patience.
‘I was 36 and playing for Leeds,’ he laughs. ‘It was the end of the season. My back was bad and I thought I was done with football. I was in a foul, foul mood as we were having our evening meal and the next thing I knew it was eight o’clock on Sunday morning.
‘She said, “I wasn’t having you moaning all night so I put a sleeping tablet in your cup of tea”. Our two boys carried me up the stairs. I was finished.’
Strachan knows he may not manage again, but has no intention of leaving football and loves the work he still does in the game.
‘I could stand on a coaching field all day,’ he says. The Strachan Football Foundation in the Midlands has already helped more than 400 young people in to full-time work and he is now technical director at his beloved Dundee.
With coaching staff furloughed and legally forbidden to contact players, he cancelled his own contract so he could talk to the academy boys.
‘It’s unfair of me to take a wage when people are struggling and this means I can speak to the kids on Zoom,’ he says.
Strachan may not manage again but works with his foundation and is a Dundee director
Strachan has innovative youth ideas but worries young players are protected from experiences that develop character. His travels across Europe tell him it’s a wider problem too.
‘I have probably had at least 20 moments when I have thought I was useless,’ he explains. ‘Going back to when I was 13. Sir Alex telling me I was no use. All kinds of things.
‘If you don’t have that, you have no chance when you get to the big games. We seem to be keeping character-building moments away from kids and just hope that when they are 19 they are ready. It makes no sense.’
As a boy Strachan built stamina by running on the beach and is considering installing a sand-based pitch at Dundee’s academy. His strength came from fighting off boys older and bigger.
‘I spoke to Kenny Dalglish and it was the same for him,’ he says. ‘Everything was a battle.’
Some of Strachan’s own defining moments arrived early. A contract with hometown idols Hibernian was torn up by his father because the club wouldn’t provide boots before an early approach from United was rejected because he had already given his word to Dundee.
Strachan (left, bottom row) was part of Ferguson’s early United days but left before the glory
At Aberdeen he bought a new house without central heating because it would have cost £500 to include it. ‘We just used to sit round the one fire,’ he says.
He won big with Ferguson at Pittodrie but his manager didn’t like the way he left for Manchester United. Later, reunited at Old Trafford, he was part of Ferguson’s early days in England but had joined Leeds by the time the glory arrived. Again it was acrimonious and words were exchanged in their autobiographies.
These days Ferguson’s son Darren manages at Peterborough with Strachan’s son Gavin as his assistant.
‘We got back together through the boys,’ he says. ‘There was a barrier that needed to be broken and I am delighted. We should have spoken sooner and life is a wee bit better now that we can enjoy the past rather than be scared to speak about it.
‘We wrote our bits in our books and I look back now and wonder what on earth I was doing. He would probably feel the same. He said to me, “Ach, you know what I am like” and I said to him, “Ach, you know what I am like”. And we moved on.’
Strachan’s son Gavin now works alongside Ferguson’s son, Darren (pictured), at Peterborough
The two men are perhaps too alike not to get along, even if their taste in music differs. As a young man at Aberdeen, Strachan used to accompany his manager on road trips to watch other games.
‘He had a tape of some horrendous Glasgow singer,’ laughs Strachan. ‘He played it non-stop in the car so yeah, eventually that tape went ‘missing’. And I have an idea where it is!’
Strachan left United in 1989. Ferguson felt his midfielder had lost his edge. ‘I had lost faith in myself and he had lost faith in me,’ Strachan says. ‘I get more annoyed with myself than I do with him because I went down without a fight. But it worked out. Some players leave United and die a death. I didn’t.’
Winning the title with Leeds was one of Strachan’s great career achievements. He rates Howard Wilkinson as one of the game’s best managers and the late Gary Speed as a prime modern example to young players.
‘When I first knew him at Leeds he was 17 and ordinary,’ says Strachan. ‘Tidy, a good leap but nothing to make him a star. Then he started training harder and learning. I sat beside him for five or six years and he became like a wee son to me. Lesley loved him too.
Strachan says Gary Speed – whose death rocked football – became like a son to him at Leeds
‘He made himself a top player. There are geniuses and there are those who work to make themselves from ordinary to very good. There aren’t many who can.
‘As for Howard, he has never been classed with the legends and he should be. To go from down in Division Two to the league title is like Cloughie (Brian Clough) at Nottingham Forest. His problem was that he wasn’t media friendly.’
Strachan has had his own moments with the media. While Scotland boss he suggested many of his countrymen were ‘genetically too small’. They laughed at him but now his comments form part of an academic study north of the border.
Nobody laughed a year ago when poorly-phrased comments about sex offender and former Sunderland and Manchester City player Adam Johnson on a Sky show saw him removed from the station’s roster of pundits.
Viewed again, it is clear Strachan was guilty of clumsiness at worst but the damage has endured.
Strachan’s comments on sex offender Adam Johnson saw him removed from Sky Sports’ panel
‘If you ever want to burst my bubble of happiness just mention that,’ he says.
‘As you can tell from my demeanour, it affects me. It still hurts me. It was easily the worst time of my life. It was a misuse of words. It will always be in the background.’
Strachan says support from within football was strong and has not allowed the incident to define him.
A recent hip operation will soon have him back on the golf course and Lesley has cut his hair during lockdown. ‘I think she missed a bit,’ he smiles, staring intently into the Zoom camera.
‘If there wasn’t humour in the Strachan house then there’s a problem. I look back and laugh at some of my team talks now. They were ridiculous. Not exactly Churchillian.
‘But I could keep a clear mind. I was the same as a player. I only got sent off once but must have been close on 300 other occasions.
Strachan remembers a run-in with notorious Arsenal hard-man Tony Adams late in his career
‘I was able to step back at the last minute but I did say stuff. I was 40 and player-manager at Coventry and Tony Adams slammed into me. So I mentioned his drinking.
‘Oh Jesus it all kicked off. Adams, Vieira, Keown… all the big Arsenal guys are on me and I’m wondering where the Coventry players are…
‘And I bring this up not because I think I am smart but because I am embarrassed by myself at times. But I went searching for Tony after the game. He was about to rip my head off but I apologised.
‘I am not sure whether he took it but I am still here to tell the story.’
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