One is enjoying his retirement, apart from when he has to sit and witness how hard Manchester United are finding it to replace him. The other is itching to get back into football management and is currently considering his options.
A new book about Sir Alex Ferguson prompted Alex McLeish to contemplate his former manager’s place in the game while addressing his own desire to return to management.
Fergie Rises, by Michael Grant, is a masterful re-telling of how Ferguson was “made” at Aberdeen. This is how Ferguson himself put it in a comment printed in capital letters on the book’s dust jacket: “There is no doubt that Aberdeen made me as a manager”.
Who is anyone to argue? Certainly not McLeish, a red-headed firebrand on the field but who found himself meekly surrendering to his then manager’s wishes after boldly marching into his office to explain why he was considering signing for Spurs.
Steve Archibald, who was one of the few to stand up to Ferguson before the striker left Aberdeen for White Hart Lane, was a prime agitator in this episode. He was forever phoning up McLeish to convey how highly Terry Venables rated the Aberdeen centre-half, who was out of the contract in the days when out of contract meant very little.
“Stevie Archibald was always on to me, saying ‘you’re out of contract and you’re the missing link for us’,” recalled McLeish yesterday. He always harboured a desire to sample the English game and so he resolved to speak to Ferguson about moving on. However, he wanted first to go on holiday so he could prepare what he was going to say. Ferguson did not give him the opportunity.
“Fergie told me to come and see him at the end of the season. He wanted me to come in before he went on holiday. I told the missus – ‘get ready, we’re going to London’. He said: ‘what’s this about you being unsettled?’ I turned it to money, instead of standing my ground as Archibald did every day of his life.
“I should have said that I wanted a new challenge, but instead I told him the new offer wasn’t that great. He said: ‘I’ll give you another fiver – you and Willie Miller are bleeding this club dry! Now sign here’. I went out and said to Gill: ‘I think I’ve just signed again’.”
And so he had. McLeish remained at Pittodrie and was a stalwart performer for 16 years while Ferguson left Aberdeen in November 1986, having helped the Pittodrie side become the pre-eminent club in Scotland and one of the finest in Europe. Even Ferguson was unable to prise McLeish away on a rare occasion when he had to admit defeat.
“He had an agreement with [Aberdeen chairman] Dick Donald at Aberdeen that he wouldn’t come back for me, Willie or Jim Leighton,” recalled McLeish. “He’d asked Aberdeen to keep him informed about Joe Miller because he liked wee Joe. And then they sold Joe to Celtic so he said: ‘right, all bets are off’.
“He phoned me and told me he was going to try to sign me. A story appeared about me being linked with Spurs. I chapped [Ferguson’s successor] Ian Porterfield’s door to ask if there was anything in it. He told me there wasn’t, but that Manchester United had enquired. So he was honest with me.
“He told me if it was making me and my family happy, he would not stand in my way but it wasn’t up to him – it was up to the board. At the time even when your contract was finished, you were still held captive by your club. But I still had a year of my contract to go. I think United went to £750,000 and he came back to me and told me that Aberdeen were asking too much for a guy of my age – I was 28.
“Two weeks later, he bought Gary Pallister for £2m from Middlesbrough. But he was only 21, so there wasn’t any kind of animosity with regards to that.
“It would have been easy nowadays,” sighed McLeish. “The number of managers in England who have said to me: ‘I tried to buy you… and I didn’t know about any of them!’”
McLeish is making up for lost time. Having started his management career in Scotland with Motherwell, Hibs and then Rangers, he is of the opinion that south of the border, where he has had spells at Birmingham City, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest, is the place to be. He has received offers, from abroad as well as the United Kingdom, but admits that the longer you are out, the harder it is to get back in. The constantly churning world of football management makes Ferguson’s achievements seem all the greater, someone suggested.
“He launched Aberdeen into the stratosphere,” agreed McLeish, who added that some players at Pittodrie who expected to be relieved when Ferguson left found their performances fell away without his constant hectoring.
“There have been hundreds of great managers in this country – and then there is him,” added McLeish.
“It would be hard to see anyone emulate what he did or beat it. He was a one-off.”
l Fergie Rises: How Britain’s Greatest Football Manager was Made at Aberdeen by Michael Grant is published this week by Aurum Press, £18.99