Interview: Alan McInally on his journey from Ayr to Bayern Munich and playing the Kofi Annan role at Celtic

Bundesliga winner turned Sky Sports pundit ready for return of English Premier League
Still a fan: Alan McInally loved his time at Bayern Munich whom he helped win the Bundesliga in 1990.Still a fan: Alan McInally loved his time at Bayern Munich whom he helped win the Bundesliga in 1990.
Still a fan: Alan McInally loved his time at Bayern Munich whom he helped win the Bundesliga in 1990.

Alan McInally, that sonsy big lad from Ayr, is excited about the return of England’s Premier League next week, which is good, because that’s the emotional state his TV bosses always want to see him display. And appropriately, the pandemic-punctured season resumes at Aston Villa, one of the clubs where he was a corn-fed, gallumphing battering-ram of a striker back in the day.

“We’ve broadcast a few shows during the shutdown but obviously Zoom-calling each other isn’t the real thing,” says the Sky Sports Soccer Saturday favourite. “The guys were able to make some predictions and replay a few funnies but it’s harder to take the piss when you’re not sitting next to each other in the studio. So it’ll be great to have football back.”

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McInally with that bashed-up nose of his - “It was broken five times as a player but never fixed. I reckoned a good-looking chap didn’t need to bother!” - has become a familiar presence reporting breathlessly from high up on the windy top shelves of the stands, but in football’s new normal is waiting to learn how he’ll be involved. “I think the figure allowed at any of the matches is 310,” he adds. Well, why the heck wouldn’t he be among the select few?

Alan McInally played in a front three at Celtic alongside Mo Johnston and Brian McClair.Alan McInally played in a front three at Celtic alongside Mo Johnston and Brian McClair.
Alan McInally played in a front three at Celtic alongside Mo Johnston and Brian McClair.

After all, who else is going to amuse the armchair football constituency with blurts like the one when David Silva, despite the opposition ganging up on the Manchester City star, still managed to “get a great shite away”? Who else is going to reprimand anchorman Jeff Stelling for making a complete horse’s backside of pronouncing Inverurie Loco Works, truly one of football’s great club names?

And who else is going to be Herr Rambo the network’s Germanophile, the visiting emeritus professor of Rhineland organisation, power and nein bottling it, who points up those (very rare) moments when Anglo-Saxon play stands comparison with Saxony play and dispenses bratwurst morsels of life as it was lived in the rarefied confines of Bayern Munchen?

Indeed, McInally has some Bundesliga insight to offer even before John McGinn has resumed charging around the park for Villa. I mention that the resumption of Germany’s top league, committed though the games played in empty stadia have been, demonstrates the importance of fans to the total football experience. “That’s true,” he says, “and the home teams will have been feeling this more. There have been something like 45 matches played since the Bundesliga came back and 30 have resulted in away wins - a big number. The crowd can be an advantage to a home team, and with 20 minutes left, can drag the ball into the net for them. What we’ve seen in Germany so far is that advantage being lost.

“Crowds can play a part in games, definitely, although as a footballer I think you’re kind of unaware of the fans until you need them. Then you draw on the power of the crowd to supply the energy you were missing.”

Alan McInally won eight caps for Scotland and played at the 1990 World Cup.Alan McInally won eight caps for Scotland and played at the 1990 World Cup.
Alan McInally won eight caps for Scotland and played at the 1990 World Cup.

McInally, though, played for Celtic - surely in Old Firm clashes the hysteria whipped up by the two tribes was always apparent? “Oh aye, “ he says, “I was aware of the crowd on the Friday morning before we played Rangers, even though the game wasn’t until three o’clock on the Saturday. That was the intensity of the Old Firm. Regarding games coming back in England, then, it’ll be interesting to see how crowds, the lack of them, might affect the outcomes.”

Explaining the Rambo nickname

So, Rambo, where did the nickname originate? “It goes all the way back to Canada in 1986. Celtic had just won the league and we were on an end-of-season holiday. First Blood [the first Rambo movie starring Sylvester Stallone as a Vietnam veteran taking on an uncaring world and taking out a helicopter with a rock] hadn’t been released in the UK at that point but Roy Aitken and I were able to see it in Vancouver. What a great film. I started jumping out of bushes to surprise the guys and soon they were calling me Rambo.

“A couple of months later we went to Ireland to play some warm-ups for the next season. In one game I ran right through this team, knocking down lots of folk and put the ball in the net and a journalist in his report - I’m sure it was Allan Herron - described the goal as ‘Rambo-style’. Then we played Aston Villa at Parkhead in a friendly. We were warming up, checking the new boots, and the whole of the Jungle started singing ‘Rambo, Rambo’. The name stuck.

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“I like it better now than I did then. At 57 years old I can’t be Rambo anymore. These days I can’t even run down the street - not with this metal knee of mine.”

He admits the moniker used to make him self-conscious. Were people saying he was just a bumper and a barger? He’s got over that. “I think at Celtic I turned out to be better than they thought. Then I went to Villa and turned out better than they thought. Eventually I ended up at the biggest club in the world.”

Ah, Bayern. McInally, as he’s always done, mentions them often. There are times today when I ask about something completely unrelated and in less than a minute the chat will return to Bavaria. He’s understandably proud of having played for FC Hollywood - though they weren’t called that then - and in one sense why shouldn’t he be?

This Rambo jumped out of the Black Forest to win the Bundesliga with Bayern. He didn’t, like so many British players before and after him who ventured abroad, get homesick or hate the local food after just a few months and scuttle back home.

Jonathan Watson’s mickey-taking on Only an Excuse lent the impression that McInally over-Munchens things more than is the case but, yes, he does it plenty. Sometimes he plays up to this. He loved Watson’s send-up and doesn’t mind the teasing he still gets, up to a point. But now and again it stings.

‘Costa Rica were no mugs’

McInally won eight Scotland caps and we’re talking on the 30th anniversary of his last appearance in what on the day wasn’t dark blue but a yellow-striped design more suited to the beach - the 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica which stymied our 1990 World Cup hopes from the outset. I tell him I’ve just re-watched the highlights of the game in Genoa and tentatively suggest he maybe should have scored with a second-half header which would have earned us a point.

“Oh I know,” he says. “Before the cross reached the box I was thinking to myself: ‘This is all mine.’ But I tried to be too clever. I wanted to put it in the top corner but went too high. Costa Rica were no mugs but we should have beaten them.” Despite that dismal defeat, he loved the World Cup experience. “I shared a room with Ally McCoist. We got on great but he wasn’t too pleased that me and Maurice [Johnston] got picked for that game before him. ‘How come?’ he said. I said: ‘Because Maurice is scoring all the goals and I’m playing for the best club in the world. You’re at Rangers and who the f*** cares about them?’

“So the night before the match he was up late with a crossword. I had to tell him: ‘Off with that light - some of us are playing tomorrow.’ Then I got injured in training and the night before the next game against Sweden he still hadn’t been selected so he chucked me a newspaper and said: ‘Here you go, big man - now we both need one of these.’”

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McInally ponders our failure to ever progress beyond the group stage: “How the hell did we never qualify? We had some of the best players in the world: [Graeme] Souness, [Kenny] Dalglish and [Joe] Jordan, never mind McInally, Johnston, [Brian] McClair, [Charlie] Nicholas, Willie [Miller], [Davie] Cooper.”

Still, he loved national service though not for himself but what it meant to his parents, Jackie and Avril. “I was a boy from Ayr United who made it to Celtic, Villa, Bayern and eventually to playing for my country. I always wanted to make them proud.”

Jackie of course was a league championship winner - a key member of the 1964-65 Kilmarnock team who achieved possibly the most stunning success in the history of the old First Division. McInally was too young to have seen him play for Killie but when he moved to Motherwell would accompany his father to training.

“During the school holidays I either had to hang around my mum’s hair salon in Ayr or go to Fir Park. There was only going to be one winner. Motherwell had Joe Wark, Keith MacRae, a good team. I got given a ball and a bottle of juice and told to amuse himself on this strip of concrete for a couple of hours. No problem.

“Dad’s league medal didn’t come to our house until my grandparents had passed away and even then I’d have to say that a plaque for his old amateur team Crosshouse United winning their title seemed to get more prominence. That tells you about the strength of the non-pro game in Ayrshire. The county had a great footballing reputation when I was growing up. Me and David Moyes often recall a game between Scottish Schools and Ayrshire Schools at the old Kilbowie. I could have played for Scotland but stayed with Ayrshire who also had Robert Connor and Stevie Nicol. Who won? Ayrshire of course.

“Dad was a terrific influence. He played every sport with me and my brother Graeme: golf, table-tennis, the lot. He was so competitive. ‘Let them win,’ Mum would say. He’d go: ‘No chance.’ But he stopped playing games with us when we managed to beat him at swimming on holiday in Majorca. ‘No more, Avril,’’ he said. ‘They’re too good for me now.”

Ayr United fan and player

On the terraces of Somerset Park the young prodigy’s heroes were Walker McCall and Danny Masterton. “I was at Danny’s funeral earlier this year: he was a swashbuckling man from Mauchline, just brilliant. That team also had Hughie Sproat and Gordon Cramond. My pals and I would watch from behind one goal, changing ends at half-time. Somerset is a special place.”

Soon, McInally would become the swashbuckler up front. “The manager was Willie McLean, a canny guy but then he hadn’t dealt with my father in his role as my first agent. Dad negotiated me a signing-on fee of a thousand quid and took 600 of it to buy himself a new motor.”

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McInally, an apprentice engineer at British Aerospace at Prestwick working on Jetstreams and C-130s, found Nicol and Connor already installed in the team. McLean was “just as grumpy as his brother Jim” but provided our man with a great start to his career. “To persuade us part-timers to train an extra night - which turned out to be just running, not a ball in sight, on Ayr racecourse - he gave us £25 tickets to see the Drifters play the Darlington in the town. The club probably got given them free but still, this was the original line-up. I got an extra ticket and so, just turned 18, was able to take a girl I fancied. I think she’d rather have gone home with one of the Drifters! You know when you’re assessing a team and go: ‘The right-back’s rubbish and the boy in midfield is a joke’? The Drifters were like Brazil, 1970 vintage. They could all sing.”

McInally doesn’t have a bad word to say about any of his managers, not Scotland boss Andy Roxburgh (“He couldn’t bring big-game experience from his own playing career to Italia 90 but the team should have had enough of that themselves”) or Davie Hay who took him to Parkhead in 1984. “Davie was brilliant for me. He’d played with the immortals at Celtic but was ambitious enough to try England. I learned a lot from him.” McInally just wishes he could have turned teacher later, after hanging up the boots at Kilmarnock, and been given a chance in coaching. “I never got the opportunity to pass on what I knew about the game. I ended up in Tellyland and I’ve been happy there but I would have liked to have been able to impart the knowledge I gained at Bayern only I was overlooked.”

Playing the Kofi Annan role at Celtic

And he wonders if his achievements counted against him. “Folk in Scotland don’t like you to be successful, do they? Sure, sometimes I haven’t seemed too serious. On TV you’re obliged to take the piss. But that reaction I get, the ironic ‘Oh you played in Germany, you?’ … I mean, it’s a plain fact. Am I not supposed to talk about my experiences?”

At Celtic Maurice Johnston and Brian McClair were the kind of clever strikers Jungle sophisticates like; the rambunctious Rambo maybe less so, even though they’d once roared on John Hughes. But McInally was irrepressible and forced Hay to play three up front. Recalling his strike partners he says: “I was Kofi Annan in between them. Outstanding footballers and they didn’t actually dislike each other but they were totally different. Brian was a thinker and a reader and maybe I was the only guy who wasn’t surprised he went to Man U. Maurice had such incredible energy and really needed to be chained down. Fifteen minutes before training finished he’d be like: ‘Right, we’re going up the town - any preferences for where we start?’”

McInally, following the departure of the others, felt he wasn’t really wanted sufficiently at Celtic and left in 1987 for Villa where Graham Taylor, another fine manager, selected Rambo to accompany him on “farm runs”: “He needed a chum but this was his way of keeping his best player and top goalscorer in check. I had no problem thinking I was good!”

Bayern came to the same conclusion two years later. Initially, McInally was afflicted by rare self-doubt: “I was like: ‘Okay, Bigmouth, you’ve bitten off more than you can chew this time.’ Every player turned up for training with their own stretching mat. But I embraced the whole culture.” From Franz Beckenbauer at the top of the club he lists just about every team-mate, more than I have room for, but they included World Cup-winners like Klaus Augenthaler and Jurgen Kohler, also Brian Laudrup. “I loved my time at Bayern and could go back to living in Munich tomorrow.”

Just time for one more plug for the Bundesliga lifestyle: “It’s a shame I never got the chance to coach and tell a young footballer: ‘So you want to be a big-time player? Here’s a no’ bad blueprint: don’t drink, get yourself to bed, live your life properly.’”

Then comes a big Rambo-style chuckle as he insists: “I’m okay with the wind-ups which go: ‘Has McInally ever told you he once played for Bayern Munich?’ The more folk that know it is absolutely fine by me. Maybe I haven’t told enough of them!” He will, though, always give ground on one issue. “When anyone says ‘Aye, you weren’t as good as your dad’ I always go: ‘That’s the most sense you’ve talked all day!’”

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