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I WON'T BE HERE TODAY AND SCONE TOMORROW; Ricky: I'm building family club ..chefs and laundry ladies are as important as stars.

Byline: By SCOTT McDERMOTT

IT'S "Scone Wednesday" at Sunderland's Academy of Light training centre. The day Ricky Sbragia sits down with chefs Dave and Ed for a coffee and blether.

The kitchen girls are invited as well. On a Tuesday it might be the laundry workers, Thursday the cleaners. Not to mention the hours he spends with the Black Cats' youth players and coaches.

It's clear Sbragia isn't your average Premiership manager. In his first major job the Scot is attempting to steer one of the league's best-supported clubs up the table - in an area that's a hotbed of football.

He's under pressure. Sbragia has inherited a group of multi-million pound stars who couldn't live up to expectations under former gaffer Roy Keane.

Yet today he'll try to lead Sunderland to the league double over arch rivals Newcastle for the first time in 42 years.

Incredibly, just 24 hours after a 1-0 win over Fulham, the North-East derby at St James' Park is the last thing on his mind. It is Scone Wednesday after all.

Even as Sbragia prepares to talk to MailSport he chats to a couple of youth coaches from Hearts he has never met.

He's that type of guy and nothing will change him. Born in Lennoxtown Ricky spent most of his childhood in Glasgow's Castlemilk housing estate where no-one lets you get ideas above your station. That grounding hasn't left him.

He also spent three years working under Sir Alex Ferguson, nurturing some of Old Trafford's most precocious talents.

Sbragia has learned from the master about ensuring everyone at a football club - from the manager to chef - should feel an equal part of things.

He said: "We're all involved here, everyone has to feel wanted. Results are important but I spent most of today talking to Kevin Ball and Jed McNamee who are in charge of the academy.

"I didn't know the Hearts coaches from Adam but had 15 minutes with them.

"And our Under-13s had a schooling this morning so I spent time with them too. The first-team situation can wait. It is important but so are the catering staff and cleaners.

I've actually known the laundry ladies since the days at Roker Park in the 80s. They work seven days a week so I like to spend time with them as well.

"I think a lot of that comes from my upbringing in Glasgow. I can rarely say no to people. Maybe I'm too nice.

"I do need time to myself, I know that. But I can't help sitting down for a coffee with the kitchen girls and Dave and Ed the chefs.

"It's great because they are as vital as me. I tell them that constantly. We even have a scone day on a Wednesday - we've not had shortbread yet!

"The kids are also so crucial to the club. We signed a 15-year-old this week and I spoke to his parents last week and again today about his contract. Being accessible can help a lot.

"I remember Alex getting Darren Fletcher to Manchester United. He phoned Darren's mum and dad, saying 'Hello, it's Alex Ferguson.' That call alone took Darren away from Chelsea to Old Trafford.

"Little things like that are important to me. It's only a couple of minutes and can help us as a club."

Sbragia left Castlemilk with his pal Jimmy Calderwood at 16 to start their playing careers at Birmingham City in 1973.

After unglamorous spells at Walsall, Blackpool and York he turned to coaching and hasn't looked back. Sir Alex saw enough in his compatriot to take him from Sunderland's youth set-up to manage the reserves at Old Trafford before Sam Allardyce lured him to Bolton as first-team coach.

Then in 2007 Sbragia got the unexpected call from Keane to return to the Stadium of Light as one of his right-hand men.

When the Irishman quit in December chairman Niall Quinn handed the reins to Ricky who had impressed as caretaker.

The 52-year-old claimed two years ago he had no interest in becoming a manager.

He hates the limelight and is still a shy individual who lives away from Sunderland - allowing him time to switch off from work.

Sbragia admits taking the job was another example of his inability to say no.

He said: "My ambition was always to be a Premiership first-team coach. But to get the chance to become a manager I couldn't say no. It wasn't financial, it was just for my own sake.

"I spoke to a couple of people in the game and they said I'd be foolish not to take it.

"I'm enjoying the job. But it's the time you spend between training and games that can be difficult to deal with.

"You can get a bit selfish as a first-team coach - you just focus on training. You leave the ins and outs of players' lives to the manager but I'm in charge of the whole lot now.

"It's taking up more hours than I thought. There will come a time when I have to say 'I can't come out to the training pitch today, there are more important areas to deal with.' "I didn't speak to Roy before I took the job but I talked to a couple of managers who I knew extremely well.

"Their advice has helped. They told me to get a feel for the dressing-room - see if there are any bad apples.

"They also told me people will come at me left, right and centre - that my phone will be busy. One of the best tips was to get a new mobile.

"If I hadn't have taken the job I'd have ended up regretting it. People would have said I lacked ambition."

DOG AND DUCK

RICKY SBRAGIA has revealed how his uncle used to get him in to watch boyhood heroes Rangers for free because he was a police dog handler!

The Scot, today gearing up for his first North-East derby against Newcastle as Sunderland manager, also endured an unhappy return at an Old Firm game last term with Roy Keane.

Ricky said: "I like Rangers and used to get carried over the turnstiles at Ibrox.

"Also, my uncle Colin was a dog handler and I would get in to games in the van for nothing. I came up for the derby last season when Nacho Novo scored for Rangers but they lost 2-1.

"It was a nightmare. We tried to leave early but got stuck in the Celtic car park for 50 minutes."

Sbragia hasn't forgotten his Scottish roots and is still in regular contact with old Birmingham team-mate and current Aberdeen boss Jimmy Calderwood (left).

He said: "I met Jimmy last week, he was at our reserve game. I've known him since he was 16. Paul Lambert also brought Colchester here on Friday and I've been up to help the SFA's pro licence course."

CAPTION(S):

A man of the people: Top coach Ricky Sbragia never had an ambition to go in to management but admits the chance to take over Sunderland was too good to miss. Now the proud Scot is putting his stamp on the club by fostering a family atmosphere among all staff
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2009
Words:1201
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