Interview: Mark McGhee looks to Germany for inspiration

Hamburger thrill: Mark McGhee played in the Bundesliga for SV Hamburg in the 1980s, sparking his fascination with German football. Photograph: Bongarts/Getty Images
Hamburger thrill: Mark McGhee played in the Bundesliga for SV Hamburg in the 1980s, sparking his fascination with German football. Photograph: Bongarts/Getty Images
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IT WAS not quite a ‘His Master’s Voice’ moment, but when Mark McGhee started speaking about his love of German football and explained his desire for Scotland to play in a similar style to Germany, you could almost hear the echo of the voice of his great friend, the new national manager Gordon Strachan.

Speaking after being appointed assistant to Strachan, McGhee outlined his vision for Scotland along the lines that the manager had already portrayed – if nothing else, it was good to hear the new leadership singing from the same hymn sheet.

McGhee saw the German game up close during his truncated spell at SV Hamburg, for whom he played 30 times in 1984/85. But it is the recent development of a distinctive German style under their manager Joachim Löw and recent national technical director Matthias Sammer, now sport director of Bayern Munich, which enthuses McGhee.

“It’s something I believe in,” said McGhee. “I was fortunately asked by the League Managers’ Association two years ago to go to a big congress in Germany as I can speak German. It was amazing.

“I remember how freaked they were by the Spanish influence, Barcelona and the Spanish national team, and there was almost a feeling of self-doubt. It was a thousand coaches and all the top people were there on a panel, but the one steadying voice was Sammer, who stood up and said ‘wait a minute there is a lot of good things about the German game’, and talked about the way they were developing the style of play.

“I came back speaking to people about that, how they were trying to play quickly through the middle and get forward quickly in a real positive kind of way. If I wasn’t before, having played there, then certainly after listening to Sammer I came back very excited about the future of German football.”

Now the task is to adapt Scotland’s national team to the Germanic style: “One of the things I’ll be doing between now and the games we’ve got coming up is watching half a dozen of Germany’s last games.

“I’ll watch the full game to try to take some influence from those, in terms of how we can develop the way we’re playing because, definitely, they’re much more suited to us than Spain or Barcelona.

“We have to pass the ball, of course we do, but the German model is probably a much more realistic model for us, given the type of players we have.”

No Scottish fan will need reminding that Berti Vogts said much the same thing about changing Scotland, only to fail miserably. McGhee thinks he knows why Vogts failed, and what must be done to avoid a repeat – no one can make the Scots into Germans, but we can adapt their style to suit us.

He said of Vogts: “Coming from a pure German background perhaps that wouldn’t work, but with our Scottishness and Britishness, in terms of the culture and football, we’d only bring in influences as opposed to trying to transform Scotland into Germany.

“So we’d be looking at some of the aspects of the German play that are appropriate to Scotland and trying to bring them in.”

McGhee revealed that Strachan had been due to join him in Germany back in the 1980s.

“Yes he was, but the wee man sold me a dummy,” quipped McGhee.

“We’d already discussed that he’d be in Cologne and we were looking at maps. Of course there were no Google maps in those days, it was an atlas, trying to work out how far it was from Cologne to Hamburg. But then the wee man dropped his shoulder and ended up at Manchester United and by that time I was already over. I still speak to the agent that was involved at the time, and he still reckons that Gordon owes him money!”

McGhee blithely confessed that he doesn’t know many of the current Scotland squad and has also never worked with Strachan in management before.

He said: “I actually have no idea how Gordon works so the first thing I am going to have to do is stand back and see exactly how he does things. I am used to going in and working with people I have never worked with before so although Gordon is such a good friend, I am not fazed by that. It is an exciting prospect for me because I am quite sure there is loads I will learn from him and hopefully I can be an influence and help him.”

Strachan’s thoroughness, a trait seemingly shared by all who played under Sir Alex Ferguson and went on to be managers, will be one quality that Strachan will bring to his job as successor to Craig Levein, while McGhee sees a role for himself as a link to the players.

“I think he is going to be thorough,” said McGhee, “and I think he is going to need information because he is somebody who thinks a lot about what his team should be and how his team should play.

“I don’t think he is someone who goes on hunches. He is not someone who will say ‘so and so has done well so we will go with him’.

“I think he is going to want justification, in terms of evidence why someone should play and to understand exactly why he should play and what he is going to bring to it. I expect he is going to challenge me to give him good information and I hope that is the case.

“I will certainly aim to do that so it can allow him to make his decisions. I do not want sycophants around me and I don’t think Gordon wants that. One of the things he has talked about is trust and also trusting my judgment.

“You’ve got to build trust with players and you have got to build respect so if players are going to pour their hearts out to me, or whatever they are going to do, then I need to earn that in a sense.”

All of Scotland wants this particular old pals act to prosper, and if Strachan and McGhee bring a bit of Vorsprung durch Technik to Scotland, perhaps Brazil in 2014 is not out of the question after all.