What better way for someone earning a living by offering opinions on football to guarantee they are surrounded by a protective force field than to have stepped out of the studio armchair and led a seemingly doomed team to safety?
It’s a priceless commodity for a media figure intent on talking the talk to have their already sound credentials buttressed by evidence of having walked the walk. Neil McCann concedes this is an appealing scenario for the football pundit he would probably still consider himself to be.
He can return effectively bullet-proofed, unhampered by the lingering credibility question that hangs over those who have not put their ideas on the game into practice; not successfully, at least.
For example, Chris Sutton, an initial critic of McCann’s appointment and whose effectiveness as a pundit is somewhat undermined by an ill-starred spell at Lincoln City, would surely love to have such a meaningful rebuttal to claims he couldn’t hack it in the dugout.
But McCann knows his job is only half finished; in fact, not even that. With a couple of wins from the first two outings in this five-game spell in charge at Dundee, he is not even halfway to reaching his target of five victories. However, three points this afternoon on an emotional homecoming for McCann against Ross County will, providing there’s a winner in the Hamilton Accies v Motherwell clash, secure the Dens Park club’s safety.
But even then McCann says he isn’t ready, contrary to some reports, to commit his long-term future to Dundee. The interim manager admits it would be a “big decision” to leave Sky Sports, where he remains under contract. He will be back in a studio chair for the Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Aberdeen on 27 May.
“To allow me to step out of four live games, including an Old Firm game, and do this, speaks volumes of the company [Sky] itself,” he says. “They’ve allowed me to step out of my contract – my contract goes beyond this season. I’m not saying I am doing anything [yet]. I’m going back to Sky to finish the season – I’ve got a cup final to do. That’s my commitment, that’s my contract. It’s the same as my commitment to the semi-finals, which wasn’t why I gave the players a day off, by the way.”
The last comment is aimed specifically, it seems, at Sutton, who tweeted his incredulity at McCann covering the Celtic v Rangers Scottish Cup semi-final five days into his Dundee tenure.
“He knows to stay away from me,” says McCann, whose doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly demeanour means it’s hard to tell whether he’s joking or not.
“I said to John [Nelms, the Dundee managing director], ‘I’ll come in with the aim of winning five games’. I wanted to change the players’ mindset around. I’m not interested in scraping by just to stay up. We’re in here to win five games and finish top of the mini league. There’s nothing beats being a footballer and nothing in punditry can match having an effect on a team as a manager,” adds the 42 year-old. “But I love what I do with Sky. I am passionate about it. I like breaking a game down, I like offering an opinion.”
But if after next weekend McCann is invited to sit down with Nelms, he admits he will have “a big decision to make”.
He adds: “I will weigh it up on its own merits. I was brought in to do a job. I wasn’t brought in to do a job next year. I was brought in to do a job now.”
But he accepts the fact we’re meeting shortly after he has watched Dundee Under-20s v Hearts in Edinburgh sends out a mixed message. After all, he is at Oriam, where Dundee lost 5-0, to gauge those worth keeping next season.
“Why am I here? It’s within the remit of my job,” he explains. “While I am manager, I have to take in all the facets – and that includes looking at Under-20s, and giving an opinion. The club might turn round and say I am not the man but they might ask my opinion on players.
“So we’re always looking on things that might have an impact on next season but which have to be done now, whether I am in the job long term or not. But ultimately I have been brought in to keep us in the Premiership, that’s my first focus.
So far, so good. He has led Dundee to back-to-back wins with performances, especially against Kilmarnock last weekend, in which the team have seemed a world away from the downtrodden, serial losers of a few weeks earlier. Under-performers such as defender Kevin Gomis and goalkeeper Scott Bain have seemed born again, the beneficiaries of one-to-one meetings with McCann in which the interim manager has sought to examine what was troubling them. “I just went in and told them what’s gone is gone,” he says.
But the past is hard to ignore in the case of McCann’s association with Dundee, which began when he was just 12 years old. He played nearly 100 times in his first spell at the club. The bond was cemented when he came out of retirement six years ago as a trialist to score a winner v Raith Rovers as Dundee threw off the shackles of a 25-point penalty after entering administration for a second time.
Such service means he could rely on preferential treatment from the groundsmen when it came to holding his first training session on the pitch at Dens, where three generations of Robertsons – it is a father and son team now – have toiled to make the surface consistently among the best in the country.
More than one director has expressed surprise at such clemency. But McCann was determined to have a “pristine” pitch on which to outline his demands on the all-important first day with the players.
Illustrating just how far back McCann’s connection to the club dates, grandfather Robertson was tending to the turf when the winger first signed terms for Dundee in the late 1980s.
“They take great pride in their pitches,” says McCann. “I don’t think they wanted to put up much of a fight. They understood things had to be put in place, and the importance of the training session was paramount.
“It just shows how everyone’s pulling together.”