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Friday, May 16, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Strachan looking to complete Southampton's transformation


LONDON -- To mull over a defeat the previous day when he was manager of Coventry City, Gordon Strachan went for a Sunday morning walk.

Christopher Davies

Strachan told his wife he wanted to think about what had happened during the game and said he wouldn't be long as he knew there was a family lunch to attend.

The Scot started to walk . . . and walk . . . and three hours and about 25 kilometers later Strachan suddenly realized: (a) he had no idea where he was (b) they would be late for the lunch and (c) he was in big trouble with Mrs. Strachan.

With no mobile telephone or money on him, Strachan had to reverse the charges when he phoned his less than happy wife to come and collect him, having asked a stranger "where am I?"

Some say Strachan is the acceptable face of football madness and no one could ever doubt his unpredictability or passion even though at times it is shown in an unusual manner.

This Saturday, Strachan's Southampton plays Arsenal in the F.A. Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales and while Arsene Wenger will no doubt be his usual suave and thoughtful self, his opposite number will be a jacket off jack-in-the-box, jumping and gesticulating for the entire 90 minutes.

Some say he suffers from the small man syndrome but Strachan is a fiery redhead who is blessed with a razor sharp wit, a man who does not suffer fools gladly, a working class lad who served his "apprenticeship" under the master, Sir Alex Ferguson, at Aberdeen.

He appreciates work ethic and places a high emphasis on team spirit -- when Southampton beat Watford to secure a place in the final, Strachan made a point of thanking not just the players but every member of the back room staff.

"My target at the start of the season was to have a job at the end of it, because that would mean the club was doing all right," he joked. Southampton has done better than "all right" but when Strachan was appointed manager of of the club just after the start of last season, eyebrows were raised on the south coast -- why has the club brought in a man who not long ago took Coventry into the first division?

With Southampton guaranteed a place in the 2003-2004 UEFA Cup -- win or lose -- because Arsenal is in the Champions League, Strachan is already a Saints legend.

Strachan has made those players he inherited better, adding bargains such as goalkeeper Antti Niemi (£2 million from Hearts), winger Fabrice Fernandes (£1 million from Rennes) and striker Brett Ormerod (£1.75 million from Blackpool) to the team.

It is refreshing that a Premiership dominated by the big money, big city clubs has seen modest Southampton earn its 15 minutes of fame in the world spotlight, and it will have the neutral vote in Cardiff as Arsenal tries to salvage something from the season, after almost handing the championship to Manchester United on a plate.

Last week the clubs met at Highbury in what was billed a dress rehearsal for the final, and Arsenal, with a point to prove after finishing "only" second in the league, won 6-1 in a canter.

"I see no reason to be too despondent," said Strachan afterward. "With neither side at full strength the so-called rehearsal confirmed what I already knew, which is that Arsenal's pool of top class players is considerably stronger than ours."

It was, perhaps, a masterstroke by Strachan to leave out several key players, thus removing the possibility of his best team being on the wrong end of an Arsenal side keen to end the league season on a high note.

"As the title's been decided I can afford to rest a few players for the more important cup game without feeling guilty," Strachan had said.

While Arsenal's win could hardly have been more comprehensive, it was also an empty victory in some respects and the Scot pointed out that when the two full-strength teams met at St. Mary's this season, Southampton won 3-2.

However, Strachan is aware that while Arsenal has the superstars the sum total of his side is greater than the individual parts, which will probably mean a pragmatic approach to the final at the expense of the spectacle.

"On one hand I'm conscious of the importance of the occasion and not spoiling the day with a tactical plan which would bore the pants off of everyone," he said. "At the same time we want to give ourselves the best chance of winning."

Saints ended the Premiership season with a 1-0 victory at Manchester City, which delighted Strachan. "We looked more solid than we did at Highbury when we were flimsy to say the least," he said.

"We needed to put in a performance that said we are hard to beat and that was what we managed."

Expect Southampton to play a similar containing game on Saturday, hoping to catch a pedestrian Arsenal back-line -- missing the suspended Sol Campbell -- on the counter-attack with the speed of Fernandes and power of leading goal-scorer James Beattie crucial to the plans.

"The preparation has been done," said Strachan. "We know what we'll be doing. It's all programmed down to the last detail. We're raring to go."

The biggest threat to Southampton -- indeed, to all of Arsenal's opponents -- will be Thierry Henry who ended the league season with 24 goals -- one less than Golden Boot winner Ruud van Nistelrooy of Manchester United -- but also with an astonishing 23 assists.

To be involved in 47 of Arsenal's 85 goals is a testament not only to the French striker's finishing skills but also his unselfishness.

"He has shown what a great player he is," said Wenger of his goal taker and goal maker.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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