Meeting Mark McGhee: Oldest Dundee manager since 1950s pleads for benefit of doubt from fans
He knows he will never be revered to the extent of the names of the heroes adorning the wall behind him. The deeds of Scottish title winners Bobby Cox, Alan Gilzean and Alex Hamilton are inscribed on plaques in the room where Dundee’s latest manager was being unveiled.
At 64, Mark McGhee is the oldest man to hold this position at Dens Park since the bowler-hatted George Anderson in the 1950s. He has been in the game long enough to appreciate he was not everyone’s choice to succeed James McPake. In fact, he might only have been the preference of one admittedly influential individual. He acknowledged he is only there because Gordon Strachan, the Dundee technical director and his long-time friend, went into bat for him.
“Without Gordon it would be unlikely that I would be sitting here,” said McGhee. “How can I deny that?”
The whiff of nepotism has not gone down well with Dundee supporters already perplexed at the timing of the decision to axe McPake after successive wins.
McGhee asks only that Dundee supporters put some trust in him. “I am not asking for patience,” he said. “We don’t have time for that. What I am asking for is the benefit of the doubt. I want people to look at my record and my record in this sort of situation, as well as multiple promotions, is good.”
Not everyone remembers this version of McGhee. It seems crazy that the exploits of someone who once set up a winning goal in a European final, later won a double with Celtic and scored for Scotland against England have, for a certain generation, been reduced to a grainy mobile phone clip of him confronting Aberdeen fans five years ago.
“Steve, warm the seat up!” bellows one supporter after the Motherwell manager was sent to the stand at Pittodrie during a 7-2 defeat in 2017. McGhee doesn’t take kindly to the offer of a pew. The footage quickly went viral.
“I would like to think the highlight of my career for a lot of people isn’t what happened at Aberdeen,” he said.
“I’d like to think some Motherwell supporters remember the night we annihilated Hibs in the season we finished third. Speak to Wolves, Reading and Brighton supporters and Millwall supporters – I had three-and-a-half years at those clubs and great times.
“One incident at Aberdeen that wasn’t really my doing is not going to define me, that’s for sure.
“Having the opportunity to manage in Scotland again at a club like Dundee is fantastic. I don’t want to sound ridiculous, but it’s a dream come true. I have not sat at home dreaming of managing Dundee. But I have sat at home dreaming of managing again.”
He thought the chance had passed him by. There was a stint at Eastbourne Borough of the National League South – a favour for a friend he explained. “It was ten games. I did it for nothing, we kept them up,” he said. Then he was assistant to the assistant at Stockport County. He’s clearly not been idle – with a teenage son, Archie, that’s not an option.
Slightly more portly than when he last entered our orbit as assistant manager of Scotland, McGhee is clearly not as fit as he used to be. “I wish I was fitter,” he said. Assistant Simon Rusk, who he helped at Stockport County, will help him. The 40-year-old was the highly rated coach of Brighton & Hove Albion Under-23s before being lured to Stockport with promises that, according to McGhee, were not kept.
The younger man will be the dominant voice on the training pitch. “He will be given the licence to coach the team," confirmed McGhee. “I no longer have the energy to do that and these young players require and deserve that kind of younger spirit among them.”
But McGhee was adamant about one thing. He has the last say when it comes to picking the team. He claimed to already know a lot about the players – he watched last week’s victory over Hearts on television - although he was caught out when asked whether he would stick with the current club captain. “There you go, I know a lot about them, but I don't even know who the captain is – is it Charlie?” He ought not to be harangued for this though the clip is already circulating around social media.
McGhee has always been honest almost to a fault, such as the time he admitted the Aberdeen manager’s job was his second preference after Celtic. It’s not a hugely troubling admission aside from the fact he was being unveiled as Aberdeen manager at the time.
“Early on I decided I had made a mistake in going there regardless of my history with Aberdeen and I admit that,” he reflected. “I did not do my job well there.”
He has resolved to throw everything into this surprise second chance and has uprooted himself from the family home on the south coast of England. “I told them they will see me in May,” he said. Both his parents are still alive. “My mum and dad are thrilled,” he said. “My dad is 92 and very excited at having me back again and that’s a great thing. That was one reason for me taking this job.”
Another was the unexpected opportunity he has been given to reach a personal milestone. His career stalled at 974 games as manager. Another 26 games would take him well into next season which means he probably needs to keep Dundee up to reach the magical 1000.
"For a long time it didn’t bother me then I saw Mick McCarthy and one or two others get to 1000 and I thought: ‘I can have some of that.’" he smiled.
“If I can hang in until Christmas, at least, then hopefully I can make it. It is a big part of my motivation. I would love to do that.”
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