THE PFA Scotland Cheque Centre manager of the year will emerge from a group of four candidates – Ronny Deila, Derek McInnes, John Hughes and Robbie Neilson. The fact even Gordon Strachan yesterday found it hard to plump for one indicates it might be a close run thing when the winner is revealed at a dinner on Sunday night.
Strachan knows what it takes. Although this particular award was not in existence when Strachan was in charge at Celtic, he did lift a Scottish Football Writers’ manager of the year award after he secured the league title with the Parkhead club in his first season as manager there, in 2005-06. He had to ward off the threat of Rangers, something Deila, the current man in charge at Celtic, has not had to deal with.
But the Norwegian has, according to Strachan, “done the job he was asked to do” this season by almost certainly winning the league and also lifting a domestic cup. Strachan empathised with managers everywhere. They have all, perhaps with the exception of the seemingly blessed Hearts head coach Neilson, gone through periods of pain, recrimination and self-doubt.
Deila summed it up when he said he’d spent two days “staring at the wall” following the recent Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle. “In the good times you have a glow of satisfaction, but then the down bits drag you to places you don’t think you can come back from,” said Strachan. “But we do.
“There are times when you have had enough and then three days later away you go again. Young managers always ask me how you get over a defeat. You don’t. There is nothing you can do. You just have to sit there and take the hit.
“Yes, you sit in front of the television when you don’t have a clue what is on,” he continued. “The wife slips you a cup of tea and then goes out of the room and leaves you. It is like that Mike Bassett film when he is sitting in the hotel room looking around him thinking this is madness.
“There might be other ways of getting over it but unfortunately I couldn’t do that. I just took the hit and then started again.”
The controversial loss to Inverness at Hampden extinguished Celtic’s treble hopes and, in the eyes of some, damaged Deila’s claim to be manager of the year. Strachan is not so sure. Medals and trophies are not the be all and end all of being a manager. Rather, it is the little things that Strachan believe are sometimes the most rewarding elements of a manager’s life, although he concedes they might not always be recognised by the wider world. The Scotland manager is still touched by former players of his, such as Dundee’s Paul Hartley, phoning him for guidance.
“One of the great things for me is ex-players phoning up two or three times a week asking for advice,” he said. “They are asking if they should do this or this, asking what is the best thing to do.
“That is great because it means they have trusted me. It is a great thing if players have trusted you. That is a bonus. Medals come along, but the thought of helping people is a much more rewarding thing.”
“Trophies can’t be the only thing,” he added. “It’s about the expectation of the club that you go to. Can you fulfil that? I think that’s good if you can do that. If it’s Ross County you are not going to win the league so what is your expectation? There are all different types.”
On that theme, perhaps Hughes is a front-runner to be named manager of the year. Could anyone have predicted he would not only be able to continue the good work of predecessor Terry Butcher at Inverness, but go on to improve things? Currently third in the league, Hughes also has the chance to lift the Scottish Cup next month against Falkirk, although the winner of the manager of the year award is announced long before then.
Neilson has also made a better fist of things than anyone could have thought possible at Hearts, where he tied up the Championship title before Easter in his debut season in charge. As for McInnes at Aberdeen, he too managed to chase Celtic harder than had been expected.
Last year’s manager of the year might not have won a trophy this time around, but he has already helped Aberdeen to win six points more than their total last season. Aside from games against Celtic, they have only lost three times in the league. Strachan was not prepared to nominate his winning candidate, preferring to leave the choice to the managers of the 42 league clubs, the final votes from whom were cast last weekend.
But Strachan did let slip a hint of what life after his current stint as Scotland manager might involve. “I would like to be a director of football or something where I could really help,” he said. “Working with the youths, experiment and work on how to make young players better.
“That would be great for me longer term,” he added. “I am fixated right now with schoolboy football, youth academies, I’m fixated with that. I was at a dinner last night and they shouldn’t have asked me about young players because I could see them going, ‘OK do us a favour, shut it’.”
Strachan is already fronting a project called the Strachan Football Foundation, which is run by his friend and former Dundee team-mate George Mackie. The organisation offers a full-time football education programme for 16-19 year olds. Falkirk left-back Luke Leahy, who is set to play in the Scottish Cup final next month, is a recent graduate.
“He was just a kid who wanted a chance,” explained Strachan. “The Foundation has not just helped him, we have sent players to universities in America and Australia. In the last few years we have helped 53 kids who would otherwise have been wondering about full-time jobs.
“Football is such a powerful tool, you can do that.”