Profile: Ally McCoist - Blue-eyed boy

ON THE plane to Portugal for Rangers' Europa League match against Sporting Lisbon last week, there was only one question preoccupying the players, the coaching staff, the entourage of journalists, photographers and camera crews, and it wasn't trying to predict the score.

What kind of manager, they all wondered aloud, will Ally McCoist be? Will he be able to work within the meagre budgets dictated by the club's 27 million debt? And how will he cope with being the boss rather than one of the boys?

McCoist's appointment as Walter Smith's successor has been an open secret for so long that "manager-in-waiting" has become as much of a nickname as Coisty, Super Ally, Bonnie Prince Ally, Sally and Golden Bollocks. Smith, now 62, was keen to step down last year but McCoist and others at Ibrox persuaded him to stay on for a season, to give his chosen successor a chance to learn the ropes.

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Now it is all official, 48-year-old McCoist responded to the public announcement with his usual pawky wit. "Working under Walter has been an incredible experience and it is a bit like taking the mic from Frank Sinatra," he said. "A difficult act to follow."

The older man, who is as guarded as McCoist is exuberant, knows that it is not going to be easy. "You've got to win," Smith said last week, "and if you can manage to do that, then fine. Then you've got to go and do it the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that."

Winning is something McCoist is good at. It is, along with the cheek-stretching grin, twinkly eyes, blonde on the arm and inability to turn up anywhere at the appointed time, one of his trademarks.

McCoist was born in Bellshill and the family moved to East Kilbride when he was growing up. His father, Neil, was a fitter, working the nightshift at Weir Pumps. Jessie, his mother, was a nurse, ran a tearoom, worked in a chemist shop and then an insurance office. They had no car and McCoist recalls borrowing the boy next door's bike, but it was a happy home, full of his team-mates rolling back after the game on Saturday for a home-made lunch.

He joined Fir Park Boys Club as a youngster and trained with St Mirren. The club's then manager, Alex Ferguson, rejected the 16-year-old as too short. Instead he signed for St Johnstone and in 1980-81, scored 23 goals. Sunderland then bought the 19-year-old McCoist for 400,000.

McCoist failed to flourish on the Tyne allowing Rangers to snap him up in 1983 for 185,000. It was the start of the magical 15 years in which McCoist scored a club record of 355 goals. In fact his statistics need a whole Wee Red Book of their own: he holds the Rangers record for league goals (251), Scottish League Cup goals (54) and European competition goals (21).He made 581 appearances for the club.

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When McCoist retired in 2001, football writer Michael Grant observed: "Brian Laudrup was more gifted, Charlie Nicholas more exciting, Mo Johnston more accurate. Generally his heading was weak and his pace unlikely to be mistaken for explosive. But McCoist was the finest Scot of his generation. No one matched his consistency or longevity. His anticipation was remarkable. He rushed goalkeepers, devoured half chances, played on the shoulder of defenders and distracted them with his patter."

While at Kilmarnock, McCoist discovered he was just as useful on the box as inside it. He became an ITV pundit, holding forth on premiership games for a Saturday night audience. On the other side he was team captain on A Question of Sport. Together with comedian Fred Macaulay, he hosted a late-night BBC Scotland chat show.

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Not everyone approved. As Graeme Jamieson pointed out in football fanzine When Saturday Comes: "It seems that in order to see McCoist for 90 minutes a week you need a TV licence rather than a season ticket. One night, he appeared on both channels simultaneously, as deft a one-two as I've seen.

"Just occasionally," he concluded, "the starry-eyed footballers of today need to be taken aside and reminded what that white, round thing in the dressing room is for."

Undeterred by the snipers, in 2000 McCoist even played a Celtic player - with the green shirt superimposed in post-production - in the plodding football drama A Shot at Glory. The box office remained untroubled and it was the beginning and end of McCoist's film career, although his co-star Robert Duvall thought he would make a great cowboy.

Great exposure brings a great many temptations and the charismatic McCoist was a player off the pitch as well as on. He met a Tyneside beauty queen, Allison, while playing at Sunderland. They were married for 20 rumour-filled years and had three sons, including twins, Mitchell and Argyll, in 1998. Mitchell was born with a serious heart defect and spent most of his first year in hospital.

His parents' marriage survived that trauma before finally disintegrating, in grand tabloid style, in 2001. McCoist was having an affair with actress and serial rock wife Patsy Kensit. Kensit, impatient at McCoist's refusal to leave Allison, tipped off the paparazzi. They were duly snapped together at a London hotel. But McCoist immediately dumped Kensit and pleaded with Allison to take him back.It then transpired that McCoist was also seeing another woman, air hostess Donna Gilbin, and that Allison was having a long-term liaison with the family's gardener, a fervent Loyalist who flew a Red Hand of Ulster flag from his council house flagpole.

The couple are now divorced and although the incident was no doubt as painful and messy as all splits involving children, it cemented McCoist's reputation, to those who care about these things, as a top geezer with scoring ability to spare.

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Now that he has a proper job, one of the most thankless in Scottish football, has the boisterous McCoist finally grown up? It is looking that way. He lives in Bridge of Weir with his current partner, former Ibrox events manager Vivien Ross. They have two young sons. Several years have passed since the last lurid headline. Over the last season, close observers have noticed a more serious McCoist emerging. It will have to. No matter how many goals he scored in a blue shirt, McCoist will have to stop joking around and prove himself all over again. Starting from now.