"Lasting bond" - Neil McCann on his special relationship with Hearts Scottish Cup-winning teammate John Robertson as he steps in for Inverness manager
His agreement to return to football came with one large condition. His old teammate John Robertson, someone with whom he shared one of his greatest playing triumphs, had to be firmly onside with it.
In McCann’s eyes, they are as much a partnership now as when he was dropping balls into the box from the left for the striker during their days together at Hearts. One of the most notable of these occasions was McCann's cross for Robertson to make it 2-2 in the classic 1996 Coca Cola Cup final against Rangers, which the Tynecastle side eventually lost 4-3.
Almost a quarter of a century later, McCann is back providing assistance while his friend is on compassionate leave after a close family bereavement. The ties remain strong with those of that era. They made up for the exciting, albeit heart-wrenching, loss to a Paul Gascoigne-inspired Rangers by beating the same side in the Scottish Cup final back at Celtic Park 16 months later.
“John’s an old friend and when you achieve things as great as what we did with the 1998 win, it creates a real and lasting bond,” said McCann yesterday. “I’m hoping I can come in and have an impact with the team. I can’t come in and change everything because this is essentially John’s team. But I need to do my own things with the side.
"John has been great in giving me the freedom to do it. I’m hoping I can then hand the team back to John, whenever he is ready, in a good place.”
McCann is not eyeing the main chance. He’s not angling for a way back into football after what has turned into a longer than expected break following his departure from Dundee in October 2018. He stressed this point to Scot Gardiner, the Inverness chief executive, when he was first contacted on Sunday about the possibility of job-sitting in the Highlands. This isn’t an audition. McCann will happily return to speaking eloquently about the game in the media.
“I am not looking any further forward that what I am doing for John,” said McCann. “If he comes to me in two weeks’ time and says he is ready to come back I will leave and go back to doing what I was doing.
“I am not here to give myself opportunities or put down foundations, I am here to help the club and John and do it to the best of my ability. I know nothing other than trying to win and give 100 per cent. John knows that, Scot knows that and I hope it comes across to people.
“I want to be successful here, but I want to be successful for one guy only and that’s John.”
McCann’s first assignment is this evening against Hearts (of course), on a record-breaking night for Inverness. They have sold nearly 10,000 virtual tickets, a record ‘crowd’. Popular though McCann was and is at Hearts, this remarkable uptake is almost entirely due to Robertson’s involvement with Inverness. The legendary striker signed every ticket bought. He will be in everyone’s thoughts on an emotional occasion. While McCann’s very conscious of the identity of the opposition, and their threat, his heart’s already firmly in the Highlands.
“I have a lot of love for Hearts but anyone who knows me knows that all I want to do is win games for Inverness,” he said. “I have a job to do here and I will be as professional as I can. It is a tough game. Hearts are favourites for the title and rightly so. They have good coaches and a great squad with an incredible fanbase as we have seen with ticket sales. I think we have a good group of players here who are focused and we go into the game with one objective and that’s to try and win the game.”
McCann does not know how long he will be needed, but then that’s the fate of most managers. Among the exceptions was when he first came in at Dundee, almost four years ago, for what was intended to be a five-game spell.
Two wins and a draw from his first three games in charge ensured he steered the club where he started his playing career to Premiership safety. He had intended to head back towards the sunset. However, the success of this initial arrangement brought both parties back to the table. After initially rejecting the chance to become permanent manager at Dens Park, McCann accepted a contract. He was sacked, some would contend harshly, in October 2018.
Even the dolphins that swim in the Moray Firth estuary could have predicted where McCann’s Inverness side are due next after tonight – Dens Park, Dundee.
McCann draws a parallel with being parachuted into the manager’s position there after Paul Hartley was sacked. He had a very specific brief – keep a team on a seven-match losing streak in the top flight. His latest assignment is reaching the play-offs. Inverness are sixth in the Championship with games in hand.
“This one has got a similarity that I am coming in with a short-term view and I need an impact – and a fast impact,” he said.
“To make that achievable you need a group of players who are going to buy into it. And if it is anything like today, I think they are a good group. It will be tough. But it’s the same goals. I want to be successful.
“Success was getting Dundee out of trouble. Here success is getting things going again and putting the club in a good position within the division for when John is ready to come back.”
A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription - https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.