Henry McLeish: One of SFA's most important appointments ever

They are still sifting through the applicants with Brian McClair's successor set to be named before the end of this year.

Henry McLeish says there is no reason the Scottish international team can't be a lot better than they are. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Henry McLeish says there is no reason the Scottish international team can't be a lot better than they are. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Henry McLeish says there is no reason the Scottish international team can't be a lot better than they are. Picture: Ian Georgeson

But Henry McLeish has underlined just how crucial it is for the Scottish Football Association to identify the right person to fill the role of performance director by describing the appointment as the “most important in the Scottish game since the war”.

It was McLeish who first identified the need for a performance director in his Scottish Football Review, the first part of which was published as far back as 2010. In total the former First Minister made 53 recommendations. Not all of them were acted upon for various reasons. But his 
proposal for someone to implement the SFA’s performance strategy was a key plank in his findings.

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Since then two performance directors have been installed at Hampden, McClair, the most recent of them, staying just 17 months. Mark Wotte was the first to fill the role, between 2011 and 2014.

Now SFA chief executive Stewart Regan – or at least, in the first instance, a recruitment company – is on the hunt again for the right candidate. McLeish believes the stakes are now so high that there is a lot more riding on the new appointment than even the post of Scotland manager, currently occupied by 
Gordon Strachan.

According to McLeish, the incoming performance director, whoever he or she may be, must be possessed with almost super-human powers.

“That’s why they are taking some time,” said McLeish. “He – or she – has to be a technically elite character and coach. But they must also overcome resistance, overcome different cultures and self-interest.

“It is a crucial appointment,” he added. “We have a reached a point where can’t look back and blame things on not 
qualifying for the European Championships.

“We now have to look forward. This person has to be a leader, passionate and an expert in what they do. So this will be one of the most important appointments Scottish football has ever made in the post-war period.”

With the Scottish Game Board scheduled to meet at the end of this month to decide the bidding process regarding the new Club Academy Scotland structure, set to start next Easter, McLeish hopes an appointment comes 
sooner rather than later.

McLeish was speaking in his role as chairman of the Fife Elite Football Academy (FEFA), which was established in 2014 at Auchmuty High School in Glenrothes and is currently undergoing a review by the SFA.

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The academy, where the coaches include former Aberdeen and Rangers full back Stephen Wright, is a joint venture between the SFA, Fife Council and all four Fife clubs – Dunfermline, Raith Rovers, East Fife and Cowdenbeath. McLeish feels it is a blend that works well since it involves 
the clubs.

McLeish has only recently been installed and hopes Fife can become a breeding ground for Scottish football’s next generation of talented footballers. He was once one of them, signing for Leeds United in 1963 after scoring a hat-trick for Fife schools in Dundee.

Naturally, he is keen to stress the importance of school football. With 55,000 children at school in Fife, the third largest number in Scotland outside Edinburgh and Glasgow, it is surely realistic to expect another star to emerge from the Kingdom.

Oliver Burke, born in 
Kirkcaldy, could yet become that but he came through the system in England.

Jim Leishman, the former Dunfermline manager, was present yesterday at Auchmuty High School in his role as provost of Fife, pictured, hoped each local club could find a new special player of their own, “like Raith Rovers did with Jim Baxter”. In total there are currently 90 players from the four Fife senior clubs under the FEFA umbrella.

But it isn’t about one club, or even one region. McLeish wants everyone to put their shoulder to the wheel for Scotland’s benefit. “I do believe this is the model for the future; it is not one club, it is four clubs,” McLeish explained. “But the four clubs here appreciate with some humility what we are doing is training kids who are going to play for Scotland. It is country first.”

McLeish’s outlook is summed up by his view “there is no earthly reason why we can’t be better than we are”. He believes Scottish football risks lapsing into a ‘no can’t do’ culture rather than one of aspiration. He argues those familiar obstacles to improving standards cited are not unique to Scotland.

“People often say to me, ‘well in Scotland we have a small population, the climate is not good enough, kids have too many distractions, the working class is disappearing and street football is no more. Kids are up to their eyes in tech stuff – it’s the laptop democracy, the iPad democracy, there is no appetite for success’.

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“Yep, all true. But also true of Spain, Holland, France, Uruguay, Ireland, Wales, Iceland and elsewhere. Let’s rid ourselves of the notion we are especially disadvantaged in this country. We aren’t.”

McLeish himself was unable to settle in Leeds so he returned to play for the team he supported – East Fife. He wonders what might have been. Every other player signed along with him later became internationals.

“The scout who spotted me came to find me in Kennoway; I was away to play football,” recounted McLeish, a talented full-back. “It was a bleak morning and he said: ‘I am looking for the boy McLeish, I want to speak to his father’.

‘Well I am the boy McLeish, I will take you to my father’.”

Not everyone can rely on such fortune, he accepts. McLeish wants to make producing footballers less about chance, more about a system that nurtures excellence. One, he hopes, will be proved to work in time.

“Excellence is not a skill, it is an attitude,” he said. “This is significant because if it is an attitude, it needs maintained and developed.

“Today is a starting shot to take a few steps forward so we do qualify regularly for major finals. And we do have a European co-efficient that is increased dramatically at club level.

“We can do it. If other 
countries can produce talent of course we can.”