I’m free, Baxter tells Scots

HE is in many ways Scotland’s perfect manager, one who combines the savvy that seems an inevitable by-product of living on the continent with the credentials of a childhood spent at Buckhaven High School, alma mater of one Henry McLeish.

He has too much neat facial hair and too many Armani suits to be related to that great production line of Scottish managers of old, and the nearest he has been to a coalface since he left Fife is in his sauna at home in Helsingborgs, yet he is more, much more, than a mere fancy dan.

His managerial worth can be measured in jobs from Scandinavia to Japan and back again, winning league titles at every club he has led. Yet Scotland, his home country, remains a mystery to him, just as much as he remains a mystery to us.

You will of course know the name. Stuart Baxter has been touted for every managerial vacancy to have arisen in Scotland since Tommy Burns left Celtic, and is probably in the running for his schoolmate McLeish’s old post too.

Baxter himself wearily makes the point that should Dunfermline need a manager tomorrow, "my name will be in the frame". There would at least be a smithereen of reasons for this.

Although born in Wolverhampton 48 years ago, where his Scottish father Bill once played - he later managed East Fife and Raith Rovers - Baxter considers himself a Fifer, even if the accent has since been smoothed by too many years away from the Kingdom.

There is less logic linking him to Hearts, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Motherwell and of course Celtic, way back in the beginning of this strange procession.

There is, though, another job, and unlike many of those mentioned above, this is one very much in his sights. For the first time in over seven years there is an opening at the SFA for national coach, and with the inevitability of a Robbie Williams Christmas single, Baxter’s name has been added to the list of contenders.

‘‘Arsene Wenger recently said that a national coach job is for an older manager, one who wants to pull away from the game," says Baxter when asked to ponder the vacancy left by Craig Brown’s resignation.

"I’m not sure I agree with that. Roy Hodgson worked for the Swiss national team, and then went back into club football. I think you can do that. I always hoped I would be a national coach at least once before I finished. Without putting an advert in the paper I am not going to say the Scottish national coach position isn’t very interesting for me.’’

The reason Baxter is known to most is the regularity with which his name appears in runner-and-rider rundowns in the aftermath of just the latest managerial casualty.

He is concerned this simply translates as desperation on his part, and just because you are paranoid does not mean they aren’t out to get you. Tam Cowan certainly hounded Baxter on Offside this week, in a performance about which one colleague unkindly said: "No wonder he doesn’t get any jobs if that’s how he handles interviews".

A SOMEWHAT startled Baxter didn’t get a word in edgeways. It is why you find yourself in a Manchester Airport hotel, waiting as the man in question handles the "holocaust" (his word) that is a bellboy leaving an iron sitting too long on one of his Armani suits.

Appropriately, Baxter is between jobs now. Having saved Norwegian side Lyn from relegation as a favour to the good friend and club owner Atle Brynestad, Baxter is sitting in a window of opportunity.

An agreement with Brynestad means he is still ostensibly working for the club, but free to cast around for something else.

It is a unique situation, and just hours after our snatched airport meeting he will be in Copenhagen wearing his Lyn manager’s hat (though not his still smouldering Armani threads) conducting signing talks with a 500,000 rated Danish defender.

Baxter pleads a reasonable case about not being able to help it if people come calling on him. Aberdeen? They asked him to apply. Hearts? They flew him over for an interview at Tynecastle last season. And Celtic? They almost cost him his job in Japan when the Kobe president saw newspaper stories on the internet placing Baxter in Athens with Fergus McCann when he should have been in the Bahamas on holiday.

‘‘I had to show him my plane tickets and sun tan to prove where I’d been!’’ exclaims Baxter.

‘‘When all these jobs were available I was working,’’ says Baxter now. ‘‘The Hearts and Aberdeen jobs were when I was working at AIK (Stockholm). Aberdeen phoned me and asked if I was applying for the job. We had a game coming up against Barcelona in the Champions League at the time, and people were expecting me walk out and go to Aberdeen, who at the time were rife with problems.’’

Hearts, though, were a trifle more appealing, especially with Baxter approaching the end of his contract at AIK (he eventually resigned last year).

‘‘Again, there was nothing more than an agent phoning me up and saying, ‘look, they want to speak to you’.

‘‘I said I’d come over and speak with them, but that I didn’t want it to be all over the newspapers. I came over and of course it’s been released that I’m in the frame for the job, and it looked to everybody like I just didn’t get it.

‘‘I didn’t say I was interested in the job at all. It was as much about me looking at them as them looking at me. I said ‘thanks a lot’, and got on a plane and went home. I never chased them up and they never chased me up.’’

On both occasions he says the club officials he spoke to were ‘‘very correct and good footballing people’’.

Tynecastle chief executive Chris Robinson cannot be said to have scared him off with house rules regarding always having access to loose change with which to feed the electricity meter in the manager’s office, however much the Hearts fans would like to believe it.

‘‘I don’t think there was anything said that made me think ‘oh, this would be a nightmare’.’’ Then again, he says there has not been a job that has made him want to drop everything and return to Scotland, even if he later admits that ‘‘you are always going to want to work in your home country.’’

It is good, then, to finally put a face to Baxter, this international man of mystery with an accent that still, sometimes, hints of a youth lived out in Fife and, later, a strange season spent in Dundee United’s reserves.

He was signed in 1975 by Jim McLean from Preston, but Tannadice at the time, with Paul Hegarty and Dave Narey just emerging, was no place for a centre-half to be.

Baxter arrived just as Andy Gray was leaving, and had to attend training in hand-me-down tracksuit emblazoned with the initials ‘‘AG’’.

One day, though, he is surely bound to be his own man in his home country, even if the Scotland job appears a step too far even for one so adventurous.