MARK McGhee will be unveiled this morning at Hampden Park, on what is the latest leg of an eccentric coaching career that has veered from triumph to disaster and looks to have mileage in it yet.
He is still only 55; yet it feels as though he has been managing for an eternity.
The Scotland assistant post he has agreed to fill is his ninth managerial/coaching role since taking charge at Reading, an incredible 22 years ago.
There was a time, not so long ago, when an invite to attend a McGhee unveiling at Hampden would have meant he had been given the Big One. Interesting though it will be to get his thoughts on how Scotland’s decline can be arrested, the main man was presented to reporters last week in a flurry of publicity. McGhee follows in Gordon Strachan’s slipstream on this occasion but might be a significant factor in Scotland’s future; Strachan clearly thinks he has a big part to play.
Strachan has been charged with ensuring some respectability can be clawed back from a qualifying campaign that started to unstitch from day one. Not unexpectedly, he has recruited his old friend from Aberdeen days, McGhee, to help him, with another younger coach still to be added to the staff. It is though more than Scotland might once have hoped for; two astute, high-profile managers in the same package, and with reason other than their own keenly-felt patriotism to do well. Both come in knowing they have something to prove.
The bond between Strachan and McGhee is a close one; they even lived together for a while in Glasgow, when the former was at Celtic, and the latter was restoring his reputation again at Motherwell. Both McGhee’s accomplishments and conduct at Fir Park set him back on track again after an initially bright start at Brighton & Hove Albion had soured with relegation from the Championship. It is a theme of McGhee’s managerial career; ups swiftly followed by downs, and downs followed by ups.
However, his last two postings, at Aberdeen and Bristol Rovers, saw McGhee struggle. Failure is in danger of becoming a trend unless things don’t pick up for him, although, as a No 2, he will not be as closely associated with any further decline in Scotland’s fortunes as Strachan, in the way that Peter Houston has not been rendered damaged goods due to his time as Craig Levein’s right-hand man.
It could even be seen to be a perfect move for McGhee, who can rehabilitate himself away from the remorseless testing grounds of weekly matches, and after the difficult assignment he was handed at Bristol Rovers, a club who have been struggling for years.
In years to come, he might regret this decision to take over at Rovers the way he came to regret the manner of his switch from Reading to Leicester City, despite having just signed a long-term contract. A man in a hurry, he then quickly moved on from Leicester City to Wolves. One journalist proposed that he changed his name to “Mark Macbeth”, given this series of untidy job manoeuvres in the 1990s. Vaulting ambition is not always a bad thing, however.
Before the ill-fated trip to Bristol was an equally ignominious spell at Aberdeen, where the stench of nostalgia was as powerful as the smell of new paint on the day he was unveiled in the Gothenburg Suite at Pittodrie, four years ago. He was always onto a loser with that one; on the back of Jimmy Calderwood’s often under-appreciated exploits and having already been admirably honest with his contention that the Celtic job, which he was also interviewed for, had been his preference at the time.
Concerns about his man-management were raised during his time at Pittodrie, and while his sacking of goalkeeper coach Jim Leighton did seem particularly heartless, it pointed to a man who was prepared to make the hard, unpopular decisions, whatever the emotional cost to him and others.
At least with Scotland, he won’t be called upon to make such major calls. Indeed, with Strachan taking the heat, McGhee can concentrate on work on the training ground during Scotland squad sessions, imparting what he has learned from over two decades of management to players who are fast running out of excuses now.
It might be going too far to call them a dream team given that both are recovering from bruising experiences in their most recent posts, but it’s getting close to the stage of thinking that if the duo of Strachan and McGhee cannot inspire an up-swing in the international team’s fortunes, then maybe it’s time to roll up the Hampden turf, and concentrate on tennis.