Interview: Mark Wilson on Neil Lennon and Roy Keane’s ego battles at Celtic and when Georgios Samaras was told he’d never play for the club again

The last time I met a football manager in this hotel he explained his bold vision to me and a few days later was out of a job. “Oh no!” gasps Mark Wilson when I tell him. “I’d better see if I can last a bit longer, maybe until the weekend.”

Mark Wilson's Brechin City side, currently bottom of League Two, take on Stirling Albion this weekend. He says avoiding Scottish football's 'trapdoor' is always in his thoughts. Picture: John Devlin

Kenny Miller left his post unexpectedly
but Wilson’s situation, on the face of it, would seem to be one for which the ghouls and vultures are on full message-alert. His Brechin City are currently the bottomest of the bottom, the worst team in the land.

The weekend that Wilson hopes to survive comes with a tang for the 35-year-old. Tomorrow the Old Firm contest the Betfred Cup final and we will talk a lot about the pressure of playing for Celtic, which he did, and of incendiary clashes with Rangers, sometimes incurring the wrath of the likes of Neil Lennon, Gordon Strachan, Roy Keane – and, yes, the wee woman behind the checkout at Tesco because she would have an opinion, too, if our man had just had a stinker. But all of that is nothing compared with the stresses of propping up the rest of Scottish football.

Celtic: Get the latest team news, match previews and reports

Celtic: Get the latest team news, match previews and reports

The thing is, he’s smiling. He’s all in black save for the white rims of his on-trend sneakers but, despite admitting Brechin are facing the threat of a third relegation in a row, he hasn’t dressed for a funeral. A win at Stirling Albion today and Wilson’s men will stay in touch. Then, if they were to give themselves the ideal Christmas present by beating the nearest team to them, Albion Rovers, the latter might start to worry they could be overhauled, which was the trick the side from Coatbridge pulled last season, condemning Berwick Rangers instead.

Were Brechin to “go on a wee run” then Wilson believes this kind of scenario could play out. He’s got to think this, of course, but insists: “I’m enjoying the job. I was a long time out of football after Airdrie [his only other experience of management]. I did some media work, waiting for the scores to come in at Radio Clyde, but that didn’t compare with being on the touchline and the buzz you get from it.”

Some guys just can’t kick the habit. Even if your next game will attract one hundredth of the attendance due at Hampden tomorrow, never mind the millions who’ll watch on TV, you will want to stay involved. You’ve gathered experiences which might prove useful as a boss, although some simply won’t suit Glebe Park.

Wilson explains: “I always knew when Gordon [Wilson’s first manager at Celtic] was going to blow up at half-time in the dressing-room because he’d reach for a piece of fruit. It might have been an apple, maybe some grapes, and you’d think: ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ But we all listened and we all reacted. He didn’t explode all the time, just enough for you to think: ‘Crikey, he means it.’”

So Wilson couldn’t copy these five-a-day fulminations in League Two? “We can’t afford fruit at Brechin,” he laughs. “I’d have to bring in my own and I don’t think it would look too cool, me turning up with bags of plums.”

Wilson won the full set of domestic honours with Celtic and three league titles in all. But he was involved in relegation scraps with Dundee United and Bristol City so knows how that feels, too. He knows what it’s like to be almost crippled with nerves: “My first day training at Celtic was calamitous. I wasn’t expecting a fitness test right away and of course it was the dreaded 
VO2 Max where you run until you can’t run any more.

“After that I found myself in a circle with Roy, Stan Petrov and Alan Thompson watching some of the best possession I’ve ever seen. It was supposed to be just a bit of fun before the session proper began but I kept losing the ball. John Hartson said, ‘Come on, young man – relax’, but I couldn’t. Then it was the hurdle races, me against Roy, when I kneed myself in the nose, 
splattering blood everywhere. I just thought: ‘I can’t do this. I’m not going to last long here …’”

How are the nerves up Angus way? “It’s important my players try to stay confident but every defeat saps a little bit more of it. A lot of them came to us having been released by academies so they didn’t have much first-team experience and they’d never been in a relegation battle.” Only two seasons ago Brechin were in the Championship where they went the whole campaign without winning a game. “I was on the radio then,” says Wilson. “Every week it was a bit of a joke: ‘Have they managed to win this week?’” Now it’s his job to locate three points somewhere, then find a few more. Has he dared contemplate the possibility of the tumble down the divisions taking Brechin right out of senior football? “Yes, you need to think about that trapdoor. Livelihoods could be at stake.”

From his own career, Wilson has another first-day horror-story from Tannadice, not from when he joined United as a 16-year-old from Glasgow, this was the moment Ian McCall took charge: “Under Alex Smith I felt like the golden child. I was never in any trouble and Alex loved me. I was a sitting midfielder at that time and he told me I’d play for Scotland in that position. Then Ian turned up and almost the first thing he did was omit me and Stephen O’Donnell from the first-team squad. ‘You pair aren’t midfielders,’ he said. ‘Just wait ’til Mark Kerr arrives, then you’ll see what one of them looks like.’ My first thought was: the manager’s a clown. But he was trying to toughen up our personalities.”

Wilson talks warmly of Jim McLean, at that point the United chairman, even though, as a youth-team player, his match already played in the morning, he was relaxing in front of the TV at home and looked on with astonishment as the Tayside legend thumped BBC Scotland reporter John Barnes. “I’d not long joined the club and wondered if I’d done the right thing. But I came to think that Jim loved me the way he did all emerging talent. He’d ask: ‘How are you, Wilson?’ It was always second names. He had a terrifying grip on the young boys but he was lovely with us as well. He was intimidating but he would excite me. Whenever he shouted on you, you got butterflies.”

Wilson was a clean-living lad in those days and didn’t drink. “Me from the east end of Glasgow, too. Growing up there, out in the street until 11 o’clock, my pals would be smashed.” So his body was his temple, then? “I wouldn’t say that. I was a sweetie fiend. Them and cakes. There were boys at United better than me who when it was day off would drink and eventually that caught up with them. I wasn’t at my fittest at United but Gordon Strachan sorted that out. He got me hitting the treadmill on my own after training. That was weird.”

At Tannadice Wilson got back in McCall’s
line-up in a new position – right-back with benefits. “Because we played with no midfielder on that side I had free rein. I was involved in set-pieces and corners from both flanks. I took the penalties. I scored in a Dundee derby, albeit with the worst free-kick of all time, but I was prominent and a bigger club took a look at me. I’ve got a lot to thank Ian for but I also have some guilt. I missed a penalty at Kilmarnock, we lost and he got sacked.”

Wilson was convinced he’d fail the big-club medical; so was his dad smoking furiously in the corridor. He’d needed the first operation on one of his knees right after his United debut. The 15th would end his career prematurely but suddenly he was a Celtic player, his boyhood dream.

He thought he’d be a squad man, used sparingly, until Strachan asked: “Can you play left-back?” “I’d never been there in my life, was worried he’d change his mind, so said: ‘Aye of course.’” Still, it was a surprise to find himself holding down the position for his first Old Firm game, at Ibrox in 2006. “I was convinced I wouldn’t be playing and so sent my wife Kelly, who followed my whole career, on holiday to Mexico with her sister while my folks were in Spain.

“I was nervous beforehand – unbelievable. In the tunnel, the music, the crowd, proper goosebumps. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to make it onto the pitch. But as soon as the whistle went I was fine and we won 1-0, Maciej Zurawski scoring.

“I think I did okay in that one. Put it this way, with Roy, Neil and Stan in front of me in the midfield I really should have done. Neil was my captain and, for a 21-year-old, pretty intimidating. He used to swagger into training, not dressed particularly well, bit like a teenager in hoodie and baggy jeans, but he had a presence and at first I thought: ‘Best not to approach.’ But the times he gave me a blast I didn’t mind. I didn’t want him treating me as some sort of charity case.” The blasts continued when Lennon went into the dug-out, once being persuaded of Wilson’s fitness following his latest injury only to roar at him afterwards: “You played like an old man out there.”

The Lennon-Keane dynamic fascinated Wilson. His very first game in the Hoops had seen old team United fight back from 3-1 for a draw. At the post-mortem Strachan invited Lennon to explain what had gone wrong. “But Roy took over saying he couldn’t believe the players weren’t grabbing each other’s throats and fighting. It was close to what he’s like now in punditry.”
The incident chimed with what Wilson was told about the fall-out from the notorious Scottish Cup defeat at Clyde: “Back at Celtic Park the players were told to 
wait in reception like naughty schoolboys outside the headmaster’s office. After 45 minutes of that Roy turned to Lenny and said: ‘What are we doing here? Are you going to sort this out?’

“Roy, Lenny and Gordon – suddenly I was in among these massive egos. Was Keano more intimidating than Lenny? I don’t know. Certainly he played the part of Roy Keane to a tee, he did it brilliantly. On the training pitch he seemed to have a thing about me and gave me a hard time. We’d be doing possession, him on the far side nowhere near me, and he’d think I’d been the guy who lost the ball when I hadn’t, and he’d shout in that high-pitched voice: ‘Willo – for f***’s sake!’ The rest used to kill themselves laughing. But when we were finished for the day he was great with the young lads and used to entertain us with stories from his Man U days. He told me and Shaun Maloney about this detox clinic in Italy where he went every close-season. ‘You boys should go,’ he said. ‘Nothing to eat for a week – it’ll flush all the rubbish from your bodies.’ ‘No thanks,’ I said, ‘and my holiday’s going to be all-inclusive!’”

If it was wise to sometimes give Lenny and Keano wide berths, the trick in the Champions League was to try and get close to Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. “I did all right against Ronaldo. He wasn’t quite at his peak then but he was a right moody bugger. Ronaldinho, though, was big smiles and high fives, even when by sheer fluke I got the ball off him. I loved that.”

His life at Glebe Park is a lot different now. “If you want a contrast it would be Brechin’s training the other night in the wind and rain at Little Kerse [in Grangemouth]. We only get given a third of the pitch and this time had to wait for Celtic’s under-eights to finish their session. Their coach asked me to say a few words to them but no one would have known who the hell I was.”

Wilson recalls Strachan’s advice when he told his old boss he was entering management: “He told me: ‘Learn Spanish - you’ll be able to get a job anywhere.’ He wonders how football’s pre-eminent Spaniard, Pep Guardiola, would cope with having to retrieve errant balls from Glebe Park’s famous hedge. But the father of two boys, both of whom hate football, repeats: “I’m where I want to be. The chairman hasn’t put any pressure on me and he and the board have Brechin in their hearts. We all know that if we end up in the playoffs to avoid going out of the SPFL we could come up against a big-spending Highland or Lowland team so we’d do our damnedest to avoid that.

“The fans are a good bunch. They haven’t got on the players’ backs too much, even though we’re on a terrible run right now. At Airdrie the supporters never took to me, possibly because of my Celtic connections, and the stuff got personal: ‘You shouldn’t be here, Wilson. You were crap as a player and now you’re crap as a manager.’ I guess that’s another difference between my football life now and before. In Old Firm games, 60,000 people in the ground, there’s just this big, low growl the whole time and you don’t hear individual shouts. Down the leagues it can get quite specific so I tell my players there are worse places to be. Like Airdrie.”

Wilson remembers two occasions at 
Celtic when the team returned to Parkhead after humiliating defeats and had to run the gauntlet of seething mobs. “The first was when we lost the [Scottish Cup] semi to Ross County. I felt sorry for Neil, who was trying to get the manager’s job full-time. He’d ripped into the team, telling Georgios Samaras he’d never play for the club again, but the fans were entitled to protest. I hadn’t actually been playing in the game but got it just the same. The walk to my car was the longest of my life. Then there was the 4-0 defeat at St Mirren which was the end for Tony Mowbray. I was certainly culpable that night and it was right that we all had to face the music.”

Such scrutiny and rigour comes with the territory for the Old Firm, not least when the Glasgow giants collide. Wilson’s lowest feeling in the fixture might have been when a touch of complacency let in Daniel Cousin and Rangers staged a 4-2 comeback. “Those are the times when you feel everyone in the street is staring at you: ‘That’s him. That’s the clown who gave the goal away.’ I even thought the wee wifey in Tesco was looking at me funny.” The best feeling? No doubt about that: it was when he became the most obscure hero of Old Firm skirmishes, the nearly-forgotten man behind the strike which clinched 2011’s “Shame Game”.

“There was a weird atmosphere that night. The game was under the lights which for the Old Firm is unusual but it was more than that: very, very edgy. I had a feeling something strange would happen and then a defender – kind of unattractive
– scored the winning goal. But we all remember what happened next. Neil and Ally [McCoist] had their dust-up and I was bumped right off the back pages!”