T IME is precious again to Gordon Chisholm.
He agrees to meet, but with the proviso he is left free by the afternoon; places to be, things to do, people to see. It seems a novel request given he was last seen on the periphery of Scottish football, but more recently he has been kept occupied at the Sunderland academy, where he now holds the position of international development coach, a job which took him to South Africa this week. "It's different and so varied and I won't be doing the same thing day in and day out. I'll have the choice," he says. "It's a wee bit unknown to me but I think it's exciting."
That much is obvious. Chisholm took up the post only two weeks ago but that has been long enough to reignite his desire to pursue a career in a business that seemed to have chewed him up and spat him out after a spell as manager of Dundee ended when the administrators took over. A short stint as assistant to Gordon Durie at East Fife earlier this season might have been his last venture in football – Chisholm opened an estate agents in Glasgow's west end shortly afterwards – yet a return to his first club has given him the chance to become his own boss once again.
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Given the schedule he is assembling, the 52-year-old is certainly making the most of it. The trip to South Africa took in Johannesburg and Cape Town, while there are also planned stops in Ghana and Kenya; Chisholm then expects to attend soccer schools run by Sunderland in Malta and Barcelona, and there will be the opportunity to expand that enterprise into Belgium and the United States. The locations are recounted at a dizzying pace – "I will have a few air miles that's for sure" – yet a pause for breath offers a brief chance for reflection. "With all the travelling . . . I think I'll enjoy it," says Chisholm.
His return to Sunderland has come after almost 10 years of frontline coaching in Scotland, the pinnacle of which was when he led first division club Queen of the South to the Scottish Cup final during his first season as manager of the Dumfries side. That features prominently on Chisholm's cv but it was not enough to attract a full-time position after his departure from Dundee, at least not until a contact at Sunderland got in touch and offered to set up an interview for an obscure new post at the club.
Chisholm privately harboured ambitions to be a full-time manager again but he was drawn in by the freedom promised by the position at a club where he made over 200 first-team appearances. Given the unconventional nature of the job, his remit is open to interpretation, although it will centre on identifying young, foreign talent while helping to promote Sunderland around the world. "They said it is a blank sheet of paper and it is down to us what we would like to do," says Chisholm. "Sunderland are heavily invested in Africa so what we would like to do is go in and start a partnership with some professional clubs and set up academies. It won't just be in Africa but a lot of it will be there.
"I can be based in Glasgow, I can be at the academy or I can be abroad; it's a new position and it is what I make it. It's about building relationships, building soccer academies, soccer schools and hopefully we can get one or two talents coming through; can we pick up any potential Victor Wanyamas before they get to where he is just now and are worth millions? But we also want to try to help as much as we can, educate and show them the Sunderland way."
Chisholm left the club's old home of Roker Park for Hibernian in 1985 so his first weeks in the job have been spent taking a crash course in what the "Sunderland way" now entails. An established Barclays Premier League club, their academy teams operate out of a purpose-built centre in a set up which splits aspiring players' time between the pitch and the classroom. Chisholm was prepared for such a luxurious environment but the coach within him was transfixed by the wealth of talent in the youth teams. "I was watching a session with the 6/7s and they were doing Cruyff turns . . . they couldn't tie their shoelaces but they were doing Cruyff turns," he says.
It will have seemed a world away from his final days at Dens Park, although perhaps that is just as well. If it seems somewhat unkind to puncture his optimism for the future with a pointed comment about his past then that is mitigated by how painful the whole debacle still seems to Chisholm. He looks away as he recalls his short tenure as though reluctant to face it head on, and he was ready to turn his back on the game altogether after being ushered out of Dundee as one of the first casualties of administration. "I was prepared to say 'that's it, finished', I was prepared to walk away," he says solemnly.
The club's erstwhile regime – led by Calum Melville – coaxed Chisholm away from Queens by appealing to his ambition to be a top-flight manager but it was not long before his road to Damascus became a road to nowhere. "I can only put it down to experience, disappointing experience. I'd worked really hard at Queens, where I had a wonderful time, then I was promised the world by Dundee but I knew after two months it wasn't happening up there," he says. "The whole thing was a fiasco and after five, six weeks the cracks were showing. You go there and the whole thing falls down, through no fault of your own. It affects your career and you are out of the game for almost two years. It was very disappointing."
The silence which follows is uncomfortable, but the conversation resumes an upbeat rhythm with a mention of that Scottish Cup run with Queens, where his side were eventually overcome 3-2 by Rangers in the final, and which culminated in an open-top bus tour through Dumfries. "We lost so I was thinking 'there isn't going to be anyone here'. The streets were packed all the way to Palmerston . . ."
Chisholm tails off as he grants himself a moment to reflect on a job well done. Then, like that, he is looking ahead. "I'm ready for my next challenge," he says. Time will tell if can be just as successful.