Evening Standard

In the spotlight: Alex McLeish has much to be happy about at Birmingham but sometimes the pressures of the job can get to him. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Alex McLeish quite fancies managing Chelsea. You could say he is even preparing for it. In August he bought a house in Fulham. The drive home from Birmingham down the M40 to west London is a familiar one. The day I interviewed him he did the journey, his car radio as usual tuned into Radio 2, to catch an Elton John concert in Notting Hill.

It is important to explain the context of his remarks. I am sitting with McLeish in his office at Birmingham City’s training ground. We are discussing Carlo Ancelotti’s comments, following Chelsea’s defeat at St Andrew’s a couple of weeks ago and the sacking of his assistant Ray Wilkins.

Ancelotti moaned: “You have to compare me with [Sir Alex] Ferguson. Ferguson has total control of the team. I am just technical director. Full stop.” With Chelsea dropping to third in the table, the Italian has since confessed: “I don’t sleep well.”

It is as I express sympathy for any manager having to cope with Roman Abramovich that McLeish says: “I wouldn’t mind having a crack at the job.” The answer suggests the 51-year-old former Glasgow Rangers and Scotland manager would have no problems tackling a man who has had six bosses in seven years.

Managing Birmingham is different to Chelsea but McLeish knows how to put club owners in their place as one example shows. With a month of the 2008-09 season to go, four successive draws had put a big dent in Birmingham’s hopes of getting back into the Premier League. The then owner David Sullivan and managing director Karren Brady got restless. Sullivan voiced unfavourable comments and Brady used her newspaper column to be critical. “I had to do something about David and Karren,” says McLeish.

That something was an e-mail from the manager, saying: “It would be great if you said nothing from now on, we’ve got some telling weeks coming up and if you leave the football spokesman bit to me then it would be nice.”

The reaction was prompt. “Karren came to see me and she was sitting just there,” McLeish recalls, gesturing to the chair opposite his desk that I am occupying. “She ate humble pie and apologised. I got a vow of silence from them and we got promotion.”

McLeish’s dominance of all things football has not changed since Carson Yeung bought the club.

“I do not see much of him. He is in Hong Kong. He came for the Chelsea match. I was told he was in the board room but I did not see him. Peter [Pannu, the acting chairman] who is at St Andrew’s sends me text messages. But they are always supporting. I am in charge of all football matters.”

That final statement could have come from the lips of Ferguson and McLeish consulted the Manchester United boss before succeeding Steve Bruce at Birmingham.

The 51-year-old had been targeted by the club when he was Scotland manager during the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

“An agent approached me but I wanted to take Scotland to the finals.” Then the Scots lost to Italy in the decisive group game, ending their hopes of appearing in the tournament.

Brady came back and, says McLeish: “I did not want to be twiddling my thumbs for months. I had always wanted to manage in the Premier League.”

But before saying yes he turned to his mentor, Ferguson. “He has a soft spot for Birmingham. His old man worked here and he was very encouraging.”

This is not the first time McLeish, the centre-half in Ferguson’s glory days at Aberdeen, has sought his old manager’s advice. He did so just before he took charge of Rangers. “Ten years ago I went to see Sir Alex and he said, I could not do now what I did at Aberdeen. Now it is more psychological, man-management’.”

However the thing McLeish has not copied is Ferguson’s hairdryer treatment for players who fall foul of him. McLeish did attempt it when he took charge of Motherwell in 1994.

“It was a pre-season game, it was a dreadful display and I really had a go at the players. Then afterwards I sat down and thought about it and concluded this is not me. I am putting it on.” Since then, he admits: “I have kicked the odd hamper in the dressing room. But when I talk to players I do that individually, privately.”

The Scot can, with some pride, point to the success of his man-management in making three, 30-plus players the heart of his team: Barry Ferguson, Lee Bowyer and Stephen Carr. He describes them as “shrewd freebies or near freebies”. Two of them, Ferguson, 32, and Carr, 34, have resurrected careers that looked doomed, while Bowyer, 33, has worked hard to make sure he keeps his notorious temper in check.

Months after Ferguson had been stripped of the Rangers and Scottish captaincy for making obscene gestures while on the bench for a match against Iceland, he was training with Birmingham. McLeish, reassured his legs could stand it, signed him and Ferguson was Birmingham’s player of the year last season. Carr, the former Tottenham full-back, was brought back from retirement. As for Bowyer, McLeish admits, “The red mist can come down.”

The red mist threatened when Birmingham played West Brom early this season. Not only did McLeish’s team suffer a derby defeat but he substituted Bowyer fearing the player, having been booked, might get a red card. On retreating to a seat behind the dugout, Bowyer was involved in an angry exchange with a woman, who claimed she had been abused in four-letter fashion.

McLeish, who that day was celebrating signing his contract, raised some eyebrows when he commented: “Some people were having a go at him from behind the dugout and he was trying to pacify them.”

Bowyer the peace maker was hard to imagine but McLeish insists: “He is much calmer now. He has had twins and has been no trouble.”

The realist in McLeish really emerges when he accepts that with not as much money to spend as some in the Premier League he has to scale his ambitions. The season began with talk of £30million available, the actual amount spent has been £14m with £6m each on Serbian forward Nikola Zigic and Ben Foster. McLeish’s real pride is in using two defenders who served him well in his Championship season, Roger Johnson and Scott Dann.

“I could not afford Premier League defenders, far too expensive. I had to say to them, show me what you can do and they have proved fine.”

McLeish has showed himself to be more than satisfactory in his role. He admits: “My job is managing expectations. We have to stay in the Premier League and have a good Cup run. Our fans realise and accept that. Listen, if we beat Villa home and away and still finish beneath them in the League, the fans will be happy. They will have bragging rights.”

It was more than bragging that was on display last week when Birmingham beat their fierce rivals in the Carling Cup to set up a semi-final with West Ham. This first win over Villa since 2005 proved so intoxicating there was a pitch invasion which will almost certainly lead to a Football Association sanction. McLeish is no stranger to derby rivalry, brought up on the Rangers-Celtic divide. But that has sectarian roots, this he finds inexplicable.

“I don’t know where this comes from,” he says. “I did feel it was like a return to the dark days of football. I am all for supporters seeking to intimidate the opposition with songs and chanting but from the stands. We defeat the champions and the fans do not invade the pitch. We win the derby and they do. It makes us look a small town club.”

This is particularly galling for McLeish as he knows what it is to manage a big club, still treasuring the moment in 2003 when his Rangers side were crowned Scottish champions. “It went to the last game of the season and we won on goal difference against a great Celtic team. They had beaten us at Ibrox that year so to win after that was wonderful.”

He is still the only Rangers manager to take them to the last 16 of the Champions League and the club remain special to him. Up in Glasgow commentating for ITV as Manchester United beat Rangers in a group game last month, his one regret was his former side did not score. “To hear that Ibrox roar would have been something for the visiting fans.”

The defeat means another season when the Scottish champions do not progress to the knock-out stage of Europe’s elite competition and McLeish admits it is hard to see his country’s football reviving quickly.

“Scotland has been devastated by the Bosman ruling. There has also been in a decline in schools football. I played schools football and boys clubs football. That is no longer the case.

“I was not coached. We played all the time in the street, on the playground wherever we could. My coach was my dad. He taught me. He said, Shut your mouth when you play so you will not bite your tongue. Head the ball as if you really hate it’.”

But if Scotland has declined as a footballing nation, their managers are still prominent in the Premier League with the contingent including Ferguson, Owen Coyle and David Moyes. That, says McLeish, shows: “We Scots have a chip on our shoulders. We do not like to admit we are inferior to anyone.”

McLeish would love the opportunity to lead the British Olympic side at London 2012. “As long as it does not affect the position of the home countries in FIFA I am all for such a team. It would be a great honour to coach it.”

And then the house in Fulham will certainly come in handy.


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