‘It could end up being one of the best days of their lives’: Gordon Strachan delivers talk to relegation-threatened Leeds players ahead of their survival shootout, as he opens up on ‘unpredictable’ race
- Leeds are one of three clubs at risk of being relegated from the Premier League
- Sam Allardyce asked Gordon Strachan, the former club captain, to deliver a talk
- Psychology is likely to have been at play at struggling Leicester and Everton too
When the call came from Sam Allardyce, Gordon Strachan didn’t hesitate. So on Friday afternoon the former Leeds captain and league title winner found himself driving home from Elland Road hoping for a miracle.
‘Sam called and asked me to go and talk to the players at Leeds,’ Strachan tells Mail Sport.
‘What a pleasure it was. To talk to them and watch them train in the sun, to see good players at work. I was never going to say no to that invitation.
‘I had a chat with them at Sam’s request and what I said is private. But what I do know is that if they can keep Leeds in the top division this weekend it could end up being one of the best days of their lives. In some ways, it’s just as memorable as winning things.’
At Leeds, Leicester and Everton this week psychology has been at play. After one of the longest and most unique football seasons any of us have ever known it has come down to a final-day shootout for survival. Two must go. Only one can survive.
Gordon Strachan delivered a talk to the Leeds players ahead of their tense survival shootout
The struggling club are one of three that may be relegated depending on results this weekend
Gary McAllister and Eddie Gray also spoke to Leeds’ squad about the importance of the club
At Leeds, Allardyce has reached deep into his bag of tricks. His players have trained at Elland Road all week as it is there they will face Tottenham. As well as Strachan, who won the old First Division with Leeds in 1992, the interim manager has called on two other players of yore, Gary McAllister and Eddie Gray. ‘It’s about how important Leeds is, what it meant to them, the history of the club,’ explained Allardyce.
At Everton, Sean Dyche has tried to strike a tone of business as usual ahead of his team’s home game against Bournemouth. ‘He’s been walking around singing, calm and relaxed,’ revealed defender James Tarkowski.
Dyche himself said: ‘I don’t think the players need to train at Goodison. You look at what the group needs. This group believes in consistency. We have adapted parts of the training session, but not times or meetings or anything like that. The bigger stuff — the themes, the culture — they all stay with what we believe is correct.’
And then there’s Leicester. Like Leeds they have a temporary manager, Dean Smith, and he will lead his players into a game against West Ham at the King Power. ‘It will be an emotional day,’ said Smith, without a hint of actual emotion. ‘Our job is to see through those emotions and think clearly.’
Now there’s a challenge. Thinking clearly. Final days of the season don’t lend themselves to that and Strachan remembers that well. ‘Whatever players think may happen when they go to sleep on Saturday night is not likely to actually happen,’ he said. ‘These weekends are unpredictable.’
Leeds are up against it. Even if they win for the first time in nine Premier League games, they are only likely to survive if Everton lose and Leicester don’t win. But Strachan was in a similar situation as manager of Coventry on the last day of the 1996-97 season and his team did prevail.
At Everton, Sean Dyche has tried to strike a tone of business as usual despite their situation
Dean Smith, parachuted in as Leicester’s interim boss, said the weekend will be ’emotional’
‘We won on the last day (at Tottenham), Middlesbrough drew and Sunderland lost,’ he recalled. ‘We stayed up by a point and it was one of the best days of my life. It changed people’s lives at the club, staff, players and supporters.
‘I had won things in my career but in its own way that day we stayed up was one of the very best. I will never forget it.’
Leeds were in this position last season and stayed up courtesy of a win at Brentford. Majority shareholder and chairman Andrea Radrizzani subsequently vowed it would not happen again. The Italian’s target for this season was between 10th and 14th yet, one year and three managers later, here they are again.
Everton also sailed close to disaster last year, finishing four points clear. Sometimes, lessons take a while to be learned. With a new stadium under construction and prospective buyers circling, the Merseyside club feel like the one with most to lose.
Despite parachute payments for relegated clubs, not as many make it back up at the first time of asking as you may imagine. Over the last eight seasons, just a third of the 24 relegated clubs have done so. If this all feels desperately significant this weekend, it’s with good reason.
Everton’s captain Seamus Coleman is currently injured but has been a regular presence in the dressing room, telling Dyche’s players of the importance of what lies ahead. At Leicester, Smith said: ‘The players know. They don’t need me constantly on to them.’
Allardyce’s side will enter battle with Strachan and his wife watching on from the main stand
As for the supporters, they will hope for the best while preparing for the worst. On a sunny day on a Bournemouth beach on Friday, there was a rudimentary message written in the sand. ‘UTFT’, it said. ‘Up The F***ing Toffees’. Leeds fans, meanwhile, have been asked to submit their instructions to the Yorkshire Evening Post. ‘Play like hell,’ wrote one.
Playing to the emotion of relegation Sunday is understandable but questionable. Will cool heads or bursting lungs win the day?
‘I will say something simple,’ said Dyche. ‘Simple is good when there is a lot riding on it. Don’t complicate things. Brian Clough used to say, ‘There is the ball, pass it to a red shirt’. So for us it’s, ‘Pass the ball to a blue shirt’. Though I doubt I will be saying that. That was Brian Clough.’
Even the best were relegated at some point. Clough was, with Nottingham Forest, in 1993.
Leeds had won the title under Strachan a year earlier. Wife Leslie used to stand behind the goal then. Sunday is their 46th wedding anniversary and they will spend it side by side in the main stand.
‘Yes, I will be there,’ said Strachan. ‘I just hope I have said something to the players that could help.’
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