War of words

Gordon Strachan has always been popular with the English press but all is rather less cordial in Scotland, as Neil Forsyth reports

When Celtic’s talented midfielder Aiden McGeady turned on ­Gordon Strachan after a draw with Hearts in December, it is unlikely that his manager would have seen much immediate benefit in the one-man mutiny. McGeady reportedly reacted to Strachan’s criticism with a tirade that shocked the rest of the team, and shocked one enough for the story to be quickly leaked to the press. 

Strachan’s revenge was swift, with the announcement early the following week that McGeady was to be suspended without pay for a fortnight. It was a firm statement and a brave one, with McGeady a favourite of the Celtic support and the two-week ban including a trip to Ibrox. ­Strachan would have expected some flak yet the response from fans as well as the media was almost total support for the manager.

The media response will have surprised him more. Many in England know Strachan from YouTube and joke emails – compilations of his undoubted wit, delivered with a charming cheek that pokes unobjectionable fun at his interviewers. Since returning to Scotland in 2005, the Celtic manager has proved to be a somewhat different figure in his dealings with the media.

Managing an Old Firm club brings exaggerated pressures. In footballing terms, the two clubs are some way below the upper ends of the Premier League, but only that league’s perceived big four could provoke the level of media attention that surrounds Rangers and Celtic. The sports sections in Scotland are as large as in England, but when newspapers choose to dominate their coverage with the activities of only two clubs, things tend to get a bit intense.

Strachan did not take the constant scrutiny well. At first there were jokes about the number of potential football managers in Glasgow, before things grew darker with Strachan’s development of an obsessive dislike of radio phone-ins. They became his bête noire and provoked an early walk-out from a press conference (when a questioner referred to common phone-in complaints), a move that he has often deployed since.  

By late 2007, Strachan had taken to appearing at press conferences armed. There were statistics to counter criticism of the club’s away form or, memorably, a Dictaphone that he deposited grandly on the table. This, he explained, was to stop the press pulling his words out of context. In doing so they had proved themselves to be like “serial killers you see in films who send out these horrible messages. The serial killer who cuts out the words ‘I am going to get you’ or ‘your wife is next’.”

Last year he maintained an unpredictable air. There was a meeting with broadcast journalists where he seemed determined to provide only one-word answers. After watching recorded coverage of a game he took such offence to a throwaway remark by the commentator that he temporarily banned the station’s cameras from the training ground, and there were more walkouts and withering responses to those who he now clearly saw as tormentors.

Every Scottish football journalist has his or her reserve of Strachan horror stories and reaction falls along familiar lines. That, frankly, you don’t need a degree in psychology to match Strachan’s personality to the fact he’s a wee ginger bloke. If it all sounds childish, then that’s because it is.

Strachan isn’t exactly unique in being abrasive with the press. In Scotland, the modern greats Jock Stein, Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean could all be tetchy if not vindictive (McLean probably comes out on top, having exited football by punching a TV reporter in the face), but Strachan appears to have an unusually pronounced general mistrust of the media.

It is perhaps part of a wider, and justifiable, frustration that a minority of Celtic fans are constantly reported to not yet be won over by Strachan’s management despite three league titles in a row. If this much-fabled group does exist, they are certainly a minority. Strachan has been probably the best manager Celtic could have hoped to appoint in the wake of the idolised Martin O’Neill and he is steering the club towards their first run of four titles since Stein’s reign.

Under those conditions, most supporters wouldn’t mind if he conducted press conferences in mime, or attended them naked. Yet a thawing of atmosphere would surely be of benefit all round, including to Strachan’s peace of mind. It doesn’t look like happening soon. After McGeady’s ban was up, Strachan was asked by a BBC radio reporter about the player. Once more, the Celtic manager voted with his feet, walking silently away.

From WSC 265 March 2009