IF TERRY Butcher leaves Inverness for Barnsley, as now looks likely, Scottish football will lose its biggest, most inspiring character.
During a period in which the game has become dominated by earnest plodders both on the field and in the dugout, the former England captain has been consistently entertaining and good-humoured, hardly ever taking himself too seriously.
He has played the game at a higher level than anyone else in Scotland, having reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup. His knowledge is irreplaceable, at least from within the current crop of league managers in Scotland. Above all, it will be his enthusiasm for which he is missed.
There’s a link between experience and enthusiasm, of course. Think of the SPL managers who are the most good-natured, outside match time, at least, and they will be the ones who have done most. Butcher, Stuart McCall at Motherwell, Craig Brown at Aberdeen. The ones who have seen enough of life to be able to put the SPL slugfest into perspective.
Think of those who are more po-faced, less able to laugh at themselves, and you are likely to come up with those bosses who have achieved a lot less. The ones who are under more pressure, and are less capable of dealing with it.
Butcher is so at home in Inverness, so apparently happy with Caley Thistle, that it can come as a surprise to be reminded that he has not quite completed four years there. And it might well have come as a surprise, when you see the rapport between the manager and the supporters, to learn that he is taking the offer from Barnsley seriously.
So why was he in Yorkshire yesterday, talking to Barnsley officials about a move to the Championship’s bottom club? There are at least three possible reasons, any one of which could be enough, unfortunately, to persuade the 54-year-old to head for Oakwell. They are money, ambition and realism.
Money first. Barnsley are sure to be able to pay more than Inverness. Whatever the industry, even the well-off would find it hard to turn down a move which promised to double their wages.
Then there’s ambition. Don’t be fooled by that relaxed good humour which Butcher shows after matches. He is still deadly serious about improving himself as a manager.
He may be enjoying life at Inverness, and he also had his reputation enhanced at Motherwell, but he has not done so well in previous posts in England. Coventry was a bit of a false start to his managerial career and he had more than a year out of the game before being named manager of Sunderland. That was not a great success either.
After several years with Motherwell, he moved to Sydney City in May 2006 and only lasted nine months. Coming back to the UK, he joined Brentford in the spring of 2007 and did not see out the year.
So there could well be unfinished business in his homeland for Butcher. No matter how self-assured he is, no matter how settled in his own skin, there may be a nagging feeling that he could have done better in England. And that, with those four seasons in Inverness behind him, he is now in a better position to deliver south of the Border.
Then there’s realism. Butcher has as fierce a competitive instinct as anyone in the game but he also has more wisdom than most. And he knows that, even in a season which has seen clubs with far bigger budgets struggle for consistency, Caley Thistle may require more than a spot of luck to stay as high up the table as they are at the moment.
In that respect, his reaction after the league win against Ross County last autumn was instructive. It was the first-ever Highland derby in the SPL, had been rightly publicised as a landmark occasion for Scottish football, and ended with Caley Thistle going into the top six as a consequence of their well-deserved win. It was also Butcher’s 100th game in charge of the team.
In such a situation, many coaches would have indulged in a spot of self-congratulation and proclaimed that their team would go from strength to strength. Not Butcher. He responded warily to post-match suggestions that he should surely fancy his chances of keeping his club in the upper half of the table, preferring simply to celebrate the occasion.
“What a fantastic night,” he said. “What a cracker. Absolute cracker.”
Having done so much in the game, as well as experiencing a few lows in his career as a manager, Butcher is too big a man to get carried away by the odd win. And too honourable a man to crow about defeating opponents.
But, above all, his experience has taught him that reputations can ebb and flow almost as swiftly as the tide. He’s on a high right now, with Caley Thistle second in the table and in the semi-final of the League Cup.
However, what if they lose that match against Hearts and slip down the league after a few adverse results? Second in the table sounds good but Inverness are also just six points clear of seventh place. They could be out of the top six by the middle of next month, and then the murmurs of discontent might start.
For the sake of Scottish football, we should hope Butcher stays where he is. From his own perspective, however, there may well be no better time for a move.