No Messi for Ian McCall as he aims to save Ayr

Ian McCall: Big plans at Ayr. Picture: SNS

Ian McCall: Big plans at Ayr. Picture: SNS

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IAN MCCALL saw great friend David Moyes continue his impressive return from exile by guiding Real Sociedad to a win over Barcelona on Sunday. Now he intends to mark his own return to football by getting the better of Brechin City this weekend in his first assignment as manager of struggling League 1 side Ayr United.

“It’s a little bit different. I don’t suppose I will be shaking hands with Lionel Messi if we get three points,” said McCall, with reference to the well-circulated photograph of Moyes greeting a dejected Messi as he walked off the pitch after Barcelona’s shock 1-0 defeat.

It is good to welcome back McCall who, since resigning as Partick Thistle manager nearly four years ago, has been keeping his eye in by running coaching courses at Kelvinside Academy in the west end of Glasgow.

While he hasn’t taken a complete break from the senior game – he worked as a pundit for Radio Clyde – it still feels as though McCall has emerged from a wilderness. Few could have imagined this would be the fate of someone who, in the opening years of the millennium, was considered one of Scotland’s brightest young managers. “I hope people have not forgotten about me,” says McCall, who turned 50 in September. “And it sounds like I am about to begin an Oscar winner’s speech, but I have been humbled by the amount of texts and messages I have received.”

He doesn’t say whether one has arrived from San Sebastian, the beautiful gastro city where Moyes is now based. Although slightly younger than the former Manchester United manager, it was McCall who started off in management at brisker pace after taking over at Cydebank when in his early 30s. He made a breakthrough at one of Scotland’s major clubs in 2003, when Dundee United finally prised their man away from Falkirk.

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Moyes, who McCall met while they were players together at Dunfermline, had just moved to Everton from Preston North End. But McCall was perhaps considered to be the one to watch.

In 2003, he says, he could have gone to “any club”. Aberdeen were after him, as were United. He turned both down. When United returned with another offer he reasoned it was time to make a move or spend the rest of his life wondering ‘what if?’ Not even the heavy investment from benevolent owner Eddie Thompson could help McCall avoid the fate of each of those who had sought to follow in Jim McLean’s footsteps.

He was sacked in March 2005. But further postings at Queen of the South, his hometown club, and then Thistle meant he was never out of the game for long, until 2011, when he walked away from Firhill, complaining the job had begun to consume him.

“Is anyone really interested in what I have been doing?” McCall wonders, when asked about his movements since. “I have been keeping busy. I have been working in the media. The first two years out were great. Because I had been doing it for 15 years I was happy for the break. But for the last year-and-a-half, I really wanted to get back in. There is still plenty of mileage left in me.”

McCall isn’t concerned that football has moved on since he was last involved. “The bottom line is the game is still the same,” he says. “It’s still 11 v 11, you move the ball about the pitch and you try and score a goal.”

But that has been the problem at Ayr in recent months. They have forgotten how to accomplish the basics, hence Mark Roberts’ departure just before Christmas. After leading the league in the first weeks of the season, they have slumped. Ayr have not won a game since October and are now second bottom.

“The remit is to keep the club up, simple as that,” says McCall. “It is unthinkable for us to go down to the bottom tier.”

When and if stability is achieved, McCall lets slip that there are big plans ahead for Ayr, who are reported to be on the brink of a takeover. There is a core of full-time players, who train Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and a core of part-time players, who are in on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. “The plan is to evolve to normal full-time working hours in 18 months to two years – hopefully,” he says.

But first a trip to Brechin, and the hope that McCall’s managerial career can take root again in the shadow of the famous hedge.

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