MARK McGhee has mostly good memories of his experience playing and living in Germany, in the mid-Eighties. However, he admits he struggles to remember too many positives about his debut for Hamburg at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, where Scotland are the visitors against Germany on Sunday.
Even the scoreline he wasn’t too sure about. He thought the game had ended goalless but in fact Hamburg defeated Borussia Dortmund 2-1. Perhaps he is still suffering from the after-effects of a shuddering challenge on the Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper in the opening minutes of his first game for Hamburg, after transferring from Aberdeen in 1984.
“I was booked in the first two minutes for cementing the goalie,” the Scotland assistant manager recalled yesterday. “I explained to the referee, ‘That’s what we do in Scotland’.”
It didn’t get much better that day for McGhee personally. Great things were expected of the new signing, but he certainly did not impress on his first outing. He recalls Klaus Fischer, the former German international famous for his overhead kicks, wondering whether Hamburg had signed an impostor.
“The thing that always sticks in my mind is a quote from Klaus Fischer at the beginning of the week when he said he thought Aberdeen has sent over my brother,” said McGhee with a smile. “That was his appraisal of my debut. I felt that was a bit hard. But no, I didn’t play all that well.”
There were some mitigating factors, McGhee protests. “I spent the week before the game with poison in my toes and could hardly train,” he said.
“I was playing when I probably shouldn’t have and the night before the game – for the only time in my life before a game – I had some sort of stomach upset and was up most of the night and played. So I didn’t perform all that well. That’s what I remember most.”
While McGhee hopes the Scots fare better than he did in Dortmund on Sunday, McGhee could do with the same away victory when Scotland face Germany in their opening Euro 2016 qualifier. Indeed, performance is secondary to the result as Scotland re-engage with competitive action, hoping to extend a six-game unbeaten run under manager Gordon Strachan.
McGhee has already explained that the Scots won’t be treating the match as one they can afford to “give up” on account of Germany being such overwhelming favourites to finish top of Group D. Scotland will be going out to gain a result, McGhee vowed. Still, he knows it promises to be a challenging first test. He isn’t fooled by the recent retirement of several key figures who featured in Germany’s World Cup victory. While Miroslav Klose, Per Mertesacker and skipper Philipp Lahm have decided to call an end to their international careers, other equally fine talents are set to step in, he pointed out.
“One or two missed the World Cup and they will be important players on Sunday,” said McGhee. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Marco Reus and Mario Gomez featured – they were injured [before Brazil] and will be up for this match. They don’t lose anything by the likes of Lahm retiring, even if he was fantastic for them at the World Cup.” Recalling his own experience of the German mentality, McGhee does not expect the recent success in Brazil to affect the team either way.
“I think over the years, whether they have won things or not, there has been a consistency in their ethic,” he said. “At the heart of everything they do is their work ethic – there’s a fantastic work ethic in everything they do in life.
“That for me is the thing that overrides everything else,” he added. “They won the World Cup because they had better players than everyone else but, ultimately, they won because these players worked harder than any other team. Their attention to detail was superb and that requires dedication and hard work.
“They have done that consistently over the years. They put more into it than anyone and it’s not a surprise that they have had more success than most. We have to realise it’s not just about having good players or better players, it’s also about working hard within the games.”
Although he spent only 18 months in Germany, scoring seven times in 30 appearances, McGhee still relishes how much he gained from the experience. “Hamburg is a fantastic city to live in,” he said. “It’s a beautiful city.
“I’d have liked to stay longer, but it didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. I loved it there though. I had a good time and I was in Hamburg for the Germany v Poland match [before the World Cup] and met up with a lot of old team-mates.
“I’m still in touch with one or two,” he added. “Bernd Wehmeyer is now chief executive at Hamburg and Felix Magath is under a wee bit of pressure in London at Fulham. I speak to him – when he answers his phone.”
As for the current German international set-up, McGhee has so far had only limited contact with Joachim Löw.
“I met the current manager in a lift down at Chelsea one day,” he smiled.