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Football: People who question whether I can do this are sitting there in a tracksuit, a devil dug by their side drinking from a can of Kestrel Says GORDON STRACHAN.

Byline: GORDON WADDELL

WALTER SMITH once said an Old Firm manager is only ever three games away from a crisis.

Gordon Strachan? Turns out that's a bit generous for him. He gets one.

Despite the two league titles, despite the two cups, despite the last 16 of the Champions League, he still only gets one.

A rolling 90-minute contract with the Celtic fans, renewed every time the first whistle blows and picked apart like a carcass by vultures at the last.

And every point dropped a clear call to the phone-in masses to ask the same question.

Is Strachan big enough to manage Celtic? Can he handle it?

You'd think after more than two years of this it would get to him. You'd be wrong.

Sitting in his Celtic Park office last week, you'd think the echo of the weekend's boos after their draw with Kilmarnock would depress him. You'd be wrong about that too.

"Are you kidding?" he laughs. "I came in here on Tuesday morning rubbing my hands and looking forward to training. I can feel it coming."

Strachan looks as relaxed as he has ever been. Sharing laughs with his assistant Garry Pendrey and scout Ray Clarke. Congratulating his secretary for getting his tea order right.

Hot enough to melt steel. Three teabags' strong. Polystyrene cup. It looks like you could stand a spoon up in it.

Man's tea for a man's job.

Yesterday's game against Falkirk was Strachan's 100th in charge of the club. Wednesday night sees him back in the glare of a Champions League qualifier in Moscow that provides enough heat to melt lesser men.

Yet still he shrugs and still he insists the game is all that matters to him.

"Listen," he says, "I have my own ways of dealing with things and the main one is not being affected by the fantasy pressure. That would send you crazy.

"But dealing with reality is easy.

"You talk about that question (of pressure) but that shouldn't be asked now because I think I've proved that. What you should ask is who is posing the question? Not an intelligent person, that's for sure.

"It's someone who's sitting with his tracksuit on, his devil dug at his side and a can of Kestrel in his hand, maybe coked up to his eyeballs, shouting down the phone.

"I'm not answering to that. I'm not answering a question from Mr Ned.

"I've proved I can manage a team at the bottom of the league - I saved Coventry when I was there.

"At Southampton we were second bottom and I took them into Europe, to an FA Cup Final and as high as fourth in the Premiership.

"Now I've come here. I don't think anyone can ask if I can handle pressure. I've been dealing with it all my life as a penalty taker, a captain, a professional player.

"It's different if people ask how good you are, but whether you can handle it? No-one with intelligence would ask that question.

"Thankfully, though, that doesn't reflect on most Celtic fans. When I meet people they're always pleasant."

Just how pleasant they will be after the double-header with Spartak Moscow will depend on one thing only. Qualification.

Win and Strachan will be a certified pounds 10million hero. Lose and every decision he has made in building Team Three will be pulled to pieces. That's what he's up against. Especially when he's also being measured against how far Rangers go this season.

Yet the Hoops boss is completely at ease with his choices, despite the fact that the quality has diminished at Celtic Park.

He said: "Every day I go to training and I think: 'I'm comfortable with this. I like it.'

"I see people who will be great players.

"And it's good to have potential to work with. It would be harder to deal with guys who had been here three years and were just hanging on physically and mentally. The players here, though, are just determined to get out in the morning and train.

"The average age of the team was 31 when we got here. It's 25 now.

And while people might look at where some of the players have come from and pass judgment, they need to be at training to see what I'm seeing.

"I'm watching and thinking: 'Chris Killen, God, you're good' or 'Scott McDonald, you're hungry, can score goals and will be a success.'

"Sometimes you bring players in and end up disappointed, sometimes you get a boost. And right now I'm getting a real boost."

The punters may not think so after last weekend. Mention the 0-0 draw and Strachan starts scouring the bombsite debris of his desk like an absent-minded professor.

Then he's out the office and the shouts of 'Gaz! Gaz!' drift as the door closes. Thirty seconds later he's back, thrusting a seven-sheet analysis in my hands. "Take a look at that at home," he says. "It's unbelievable.

"It measures every millimetre of every move made. If Paul Hartley blows a snotter out of his nose this tells you how far it went.

"I looked at the game again on Monday on the system. Who do you think covered the most ground for Kilmarnock against us?"

My Stevie Naismith guess is wrong by 0.1 of a kilometre. Turns out it's Colin Nish who ran 11.412km in 97 minutes.

"Surprised, eh?" Strachan laughs. "It's a small weapon but it's worth using to educate the players.

"But what the general story tells us is that we had 41 crosses and 20 attempts at goal. We had 10 corners, they didn't have one.

"If I'd said I wanted that before the game I wouldn't complain. If we miss from three yards there's nothing I can do so the newer guys thought it was strange I didn't give them a bollocking for not winning.

"But when you ask guys to do something and they do, it's crazy to start screaming at people. I can't change it after a game."

Strachan's awareness of his side's limitations, of their mortality and his own, means he's never stupid enough to set himself up for a fall.

Even after sharing touchlines with the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti last season, he smiles when you mention the three names in the same sentence.

He insists: "It's not an individual challenge. I'd never think I was as good as a Ferguson or Ancelotti anyway - but they can also do more with their team.

"They can fantasise more than I can. All I can do is use what I have. And if I was religious I'd pray.

"I'd judge myself against these guys if I had the same weapons. I wouldn't judge myself against you if I had a knife and you had a gun. And you're bigger than me so I'd be under pressure and I'd have to be tricky.

"That's why I'm always learning, because I have to. The day you think you're good enough? Forget it."

CAPTION(S):

Training daze: Strachan has been impressed by new arrivals like Chris Killen
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 12, 2007
Words:1187
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