Interview: Alex McLeish empathises with Ryan Fraser

Alex McLeish with Peter Grant. Picture: SNS
Alex McLeish with Peter Grant. Picture: SNS
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Alex McLeish can remember the pressure being exerted on him to leave Aberdeen like it was yesterday.

On what felt like a daily basis, Steve Archibald would be on the phone to his former Aberdeen team-mate extolling the virtues of playing for a glamorous club like Tottenham Hotspur.

Ryan Fraser in action for Aberdeen. Picture: SNS

Ryan Fraser in action for Aberdeen. Picture: SNS

He can empathise with Ryan Fraser’s current predicament even if thoughts of moving elsewhere had certainly not begun to trouble him by the age of just 18. Archibald, of course, was not one to resist siren calls. On so many occasions did the striker invite himself into his office to discuss his ‘future’ when at Aberdeen, Alex Ferguson even christened the chair in the corridor outside as “Stevie’s chair”. If Archibald was one side of the coin, McLeish was the other. He stayed and lifted trophies, while Archibald headed south in 1980. The striker had at least reached the grand old age of 24, however.

Although he didn’t earn so many medals, Archibald had arguably the greater life experiences, while he could also claim the distinction of being Diego Maradona’s replacement at Barcelona. “I was with a great Aberdeen team and it was great going in every season knowing you had a chance of winning something,” McLeish recalls. “I also had my Scotland international career to think about, and the partnership I had with Willie [Miller]. But there was no Bosman, no free transfers even and so at the end of your contract the club still had a hold.

“Archibald would call every time my contract was up saying ‘look, Terry [Venables] wants you, you have to come down here, Spurs need you’. I didn’t have the motivation or the driving force of agents [telling me what to do].

“My dad had just passed away and he might have pushed me. The thing about Stevie is that he was relentless with Sir Alex. He had Stevie’s chair parked outside his office because every day he’d have him chapping on his door.”

McLeish admits that he still doesn’t know whether he did the correct thing or not in staying put at Pittodrie for nearly 20 years. When asked to comment on Fraser’s current situation at Aberdeen, he accepts that the circumstances were far different in his day.

The centre-half could expect to win trophies at Pittodrie, for one thing. What he must also declare is an interest; McLeish’s son, John, works for the agency that represents the 18-year-old Fraser, who earlier this month told Aberdeen that he would not be accepting their offer of a new contract. The Pittodrie club now have no option but to listen to offers for a player who has played only two full first-team games to date.

In this respect, he is far different to McLeish, who was a fully-established Scotland centre-half when the likes of Spurs wanted to bring him to the old English First Division. There is a danger that McLeish might have felt compromised talking about Fraser yesterday, given his son’s involvement with the winger.

However, he has asked John not to tell him anything about the saga, and so the thoughts he expressed yesterday were based only on his own experiences, and are influenced by an emotional attachment to a club where he played for nearly his entire career.

“If I look at my own career, and my own situation, I stayed at Aberdeen for 18 years,” reflects McLeish. “People say: ‘do you regret not going down south?’ Looking back, while I never regret anything, I will always wonder. I am not here to say what Ryan Fraser should do.

“He is still a young man, still learning his trade. I am not sure about the details; I don’t like to discuss it with John too much, especially given the friendships I have in Aberdeen.”

However, McLeish does not necessarily feel Fraser is too raw to try elsewhere, even after so few first-team appearances. “If he is good enough, he is old enough,” he says.

“You expect players like that to be regular first-teamers in this current day and age, when clubs are having to strip back financially. There has been a resurgence of kids coming through.”

McLeish admits he is trying to be “diplomatic”, but having now gained another perspective after managing south of the Border at Birmingham City and Aston Villa, he is alert to the draw of a move to England. “I don’t know the ins and outs of a financial offer, but I guess there has to be that side of it as well,” he says. “I said to John: ‘I don’t want to know, as I will only have to tell the papers’!”

“From the highlights I have seen, he looks an exceptional talent,” he continues. “He is a pocket dynamo.

“But I don’t think it is just about pace. He is a clever footballer as well. As well as accelerating past people, there is a lot more to his game.

“I was in Aberdeen two weeks ago, and I was speaking to Joe Harper. He rates him very highly. He has seen much more of him. I can only go with the word of the experts.”

Should Fraser elect to go south, he might have been encouraged by the accent being placed on youth at Aston Villa by Paul Lambert, who replaced McLeish in the summer. It is reasonable to assume that having made the controversial switch from Birmingham City, McLeish might not have been given the leeway to be so bold.

Lambert, however, has overhauled things at the club to the extent that the team that beat Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday is the youngest ever fielded by the club in the Premier League, with an average age of 23 and four months.

“The young players we blooded last year have flourished for him this year,” points out McLeish. “Also, the ones he has brought in have done really well.

“He has signed young players who have been playing first-team football for a couple of years, just not in the Premier League. It’s a credit to those players and to Paul.

“They have also found a gem in Christian Benteke. They can get the ball up to him and have everyone buzzing around him.

“Andy Weimann, who we blooded last year, looks great and wee Barry Bannan is in fantastic form. That’s good for the Scottish cause.”