If not for James Forrest, it’s entirely possible Alex McLeish might have celebrated turning 60 yesterday, on so-called Blue Monday, looking for work.
Only a select few managers keep getting jobs in their seventh decade. It would have been hard to avoid feeling less than hopeful about future job prospects – just look at his old pal Gordon Strachan. But McLeish, thanks partly to a Forrest hat-trick, remains very much in situ as Scotland manager.
If anything, he has burnished the McLeish brand. He even now has his own tartan, a thoughtful gift from his own children. They commissioned it as a surprise gift to mark his 60th.
McLeish is only the fourth man to occupy the post of Scotland manager in his 60s. He deserves his sunshine break in South Africa, where he has gone to celebrate and also recharge batteries ahead of a potentially memorable year. It’s very possible life could begin again for him at 60. One of his greatest successes might still be before him.
By the time Eck hits 61, we will know whether Scotland need the fall-back option of a Nations League play-off place already secured under him. The orthodox qualifiers for Euro 2020 are contained within this year. Five double-headers, starting this Spring against Kazakhstan and San Marino. It’s not the intensity of club football, sure. But it’s still a high-octane schedule where every game matters. It’s perhaps gladdening to note Scotland will play no friendlies in 2019. It’s what McLeish will crave after last year’s initial struggles, when a series of deflating friendly results saw his second spell in charge start with a splutter to place him under early pressure.
So yesterday was a day for him to feel grateful; for Forrest, whose hat-trick soothed fears generated by Beram Kayal’s opener in November’s must-win Nations League qualifier against Israel, and for Allan McGregor, whose late save protected the three points. McLeish might also toast an SFA board, whose decision to return to him a year ago next month was not greeted with unanimous approval. There were times last year, specifically after a wretched 2-1 defeat in Israel, when McLeish’s second spell in charge threatened to be one of the shortest of all Scotland managerial reigns.
But he’s still Scotland’s national coach, the second successive serving one to reach the milestone of 60. Strachan celebrated this birthday in February 2017 and looked forward to at least one of the many great achievements in his career still lying ahead: getting the country to a World Cup, which was the tournament Scotland were then desperately trying to qualify for.
As we now know, this didn’t happen. He spent that Christmas out of work. He’s now doing punditry and writing columns for a betting website. It’s interesting to note Strachan’s hopes for the future when asked at a lunch to mark his forthcoming 60th birthday hosted at Spartans’ ground in Edinburgh. Along with Scotland getting to Russia, he simply wanted to continue coaching, to carry on helping players and other coaches.
McLeish knows this could be his last significant job in football. He also probably knows he’s slightly fortunate to get it. Had Northern Ireland’s Michael O’Neill not gone against what many expected and rejected the chance to take over, then who knows where McLeish might be now?
As for birthday wishes, he no doubt he made a few as he blew out his candles yesterday: Leigh Griffiths to get the help he needs to become the striker he once was, Kieran Tierney to develop a right foot as adept as his left and future call-offs to be restricted to those with legitimate injury excuses (some hope).
It’s at centre-half – the excellent Scott McKenna apart – where the 77-times-capped McLeish could really do with the granting of an impossible request: make me 40 years younger.