THE synergy has been in evidence since they began playing together at Aberdeen in the late 1970s, and continued for the international side when they combined to put Scotland 1-0 up against England at Hampden Park in 1984.
Mark McGhee is confident that he and his best friend, Gordon Strachan, will continue to work well together for Scotland’s benefit, now that they have been united as a managerial team for the first time.
Remarkably, just the weekend before he set up McGhee to head home against England, Strachan also provided the cross for the same player to score the winning goal for Aberdeen against Celtic in the Scottish Cup final. So inseparable were they at the time that they were even substituted together after 62 minutes of the England game, which finished 1-1. “Gordon and I have as players linked well, as friends we have stayed loyal and now as colleagues hopefully we can bring all that to this job,” McGhee said yesterday.
Together, they amassed 54 caps for Scotland. It is a matter of enduring regret for McGhee that he only contributed four of them. Perhaps surprisingly given all else he achieved, he describes the goal against England as “the big moment” in his career. Strangely, it turned out to be his last cap. This nagged at him a little, he admitted yesterday. However, returning to assist Strachan gives him the chance to reach the finals of a World Cup or a European Championship with Scotland, and hands him a second chance. Two of his caps came in friendlies against Canada, the other against Northern Ireland in a home international. It wasn’t a stellar international career, he accepts. Still, he would have taken a goal against England if offered it when attending the famous fixture against the Auld Enemy in 1977.
“I read somewhere that he [Strachan] was at the game when they tore down the goals,” McGhee said. “I was there, too, with my brother. I was playing for Morton and training to be an architect and I went with the guys in the office down to London to the game. We are both passionate supporters of the national team. We bring that with us.”
Strachan wasn’t present yesterday to finish off his friend’s sentences, but you get the impression that he would be able to do this. However, McGhee did puncture one myth. He and Strachan did not actually live together in Glasgow, when McGhee returned to Scotland to take over at Motherwell. According to McGhee, the then Celtic manager was still “swanning around at La Manga” and his house was lying empty. Rather than lodge with Strachan, he rented from him for a spell.
It will be no great pain for the pair to get together at Strachan’s home in the Midlands to talk players and tactics, with McGhee also based in England, although on the south coast. The assistant manager’s position is a part-time post, but the Scottish Football Association will be getting value for money as McGhee, who was sacked by Bristol Rovers at the end of last year, intends to throw himself into the role. He has no immediate plans to seek another manager’s position elsewhere, though adamant that he will be his own man again somewhere down the line. There is a melancholic air about McGhee when he reviews his managerial career to date. “I feel unfulfilled as a manager,” he said. “I imagined I’d spend my whole life managing in the English Premier League, and I haven’t.”
He only managed there, briefly, with Leicester City. After less than a year in charge he decided to leave the club and join Wolves, after seeking advice from Sir Alex Ferguson. Something else both McGhee and Strachan have in common is a slightly-strained relationship with their former Aberdeen manager. Any contact from Fergie since last week, McGhee was asked? “No,” was the blunt reply. “I do not know if he knows. I do not even know if he knows Gordon is the manager.”
Normally, a new Scotland manager and his assistant, particularly given the Pittodrie connection, will come prepared with little anecdotes about text messages from Sir Alex, or perhaps a “good luck” phone call. Not McGhee, who still cannot put his finger on exactly why it went from phoning each other every two or three weeks to precisely no contact in the mid-Nineties. Strachan’s own view of Ferguson was coloured by his former manager’s decision to brand him “untrustworthy” in his autobiography.
This isn’t a description with which McGhee would agree. He highlighted Strachan’s “principles” and his “steadying influence” on him over the years. Asked whether he shared these principles, he said: “I try to share them.
“He is a very loyal person, he is a very honest person,” he added. “He believes in old-fashioned values, good manners and family. All of those things are solid characteristics for somebody who is going to be in a position as important and as influential as the manager of the national team. You have to have standards.”
This attitude was instilled in them under Ferguson at Pittodrie, where Strachan and McGhee will make an emotionally charged bow in next month’s friendly against Estonia. “That is a really positive thing,” he said of the fateful choice of venue, in the city where their bond first developed. McGhee does not believe his struggle there as a manager will impact on his reception. He is admirably honest about his recent setbacks. In the broadcast interview, he was asked whether these “inverted comma failures” at Aberdeen and then Bristol had harmed his confidence in any way. “You don’t need to put it in inverted commas – I view them as failures as well,” he said.
For now, though, it is all about Scotland. He wouldn’t be human had he not thought, when knotting his new SFA tie in the mirror yesterday morning, that he could have been the man “up front”, as he puts it. Interviewed in 2009 for the post of national team manager, he came close to being chosen, but lost out to George Burley. Now, however, he is content to “take my cues” from Strachan. “I will not be behaving in any way Gordon would not want me to and the position would expect,” he says.
“Speak when I am asked to speak, basically,” he added. “I am quick-witted and intelligent enough to know when to say something and when to stay quiet. And I think in the heat of the battle Gordon will expect me to step up at times without having to refer to him. There will be moments when I will shout at somebody. I will not have to refer to Gordon every single time.”