Interview: Mark McGhee on football ambition and delusion

Mark McGhee has returned to Motherwell for a second spell as manager. Picture: John Devlin
Mark McGhee has returned to Motherwell for a second spell as manager. Picture: John Devlin
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Motherwell manager and Scotland assistant Mark McGhee trained with a major design firm then had a hugely successful playing career but admits that management has left him unfulfilled – so far. He is busy drawing up new (secret) plans for the youth set-up at Fir Park

On the journey to Fir Park to meet Mark McGhee the taxi driver – obviously – has some advice. “Dinnae listen to that one’s shite,” he says with a chuckle. The cabbie insists he’s pleased to see the manager back at Motherwell, although then comes the familiar, fateful Lanarkshire kicker: “I’m a Celtic fan, by the way.” But enough about this fellow, can you guess McGhee’s first words, more or less, when we get to his office? That’s right: “Avant-garde.”

Pat Bonner snatches the ball fromMark McGhee during the Aberdeen v Celtic Scottish Cup final in May 1984. The Dons won 2-1. Picture: Brian Stewart

Pat Bonner snatches the ball fromMark McGhee during the Aberdeen v Celtic Scottish Cup final in May 1984. The Dons won 2-1. Picture: Brian Stewart

We’ll come to that but first, time for lunch. I’m in the canteen with Pearo and Lazz – Stephen Pearson and Keith Lasley to you – and the rest of the boys, with the boss insistent I join them. He’s waiting for meatballs and rice which arrive in a great steaming pile. “Christ,” he says, “am I supposed to eat this or climb it?”

On-loan goalie Connor Ripley drops by our table to say goodbye. “He’s got a day off tomorrow because his mum’s re-marrying and he’s giving her away,” reveals McGhee, the lad’s dad being Stuart Ripley, ex-Blackburn Rovers. Stephen Craigan, under-20s coach, joins us and we try to remember if Ripley Snr was ever capped. The chat works its way through England managers and the international tournaments at the end of the century, until McGhee says: “I played at Euro 96.”

Craigan and your correspondent: “Eh?”

McGhee: “The veterans’ game before England v Scotland at Wembley, of course – the big one. [Glenn] Hoddle was in charge of their old boys and Gordon [Strachan] was our manager. Big Alex [McLeish] with that lovely dry wit of his was winding up Hoddle and the wee man was driving us on. But it was a scorching hot day and we’d had a good bevvy the night before. I think I’d had four bottles of red wine and I was sure I was going to boak on the hallowed turf. The next day most of us – reinforced by my brothers – played again at Rod Stewart’s place and there was another shindig at night. What an exceptional weekend that was.”

McGhee during his time in charge of Leicester City. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Allsport

McGhee during his time in charge of Leicester City. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Allsport

Then, the meatball mountain conquered, we head along corridors decked in claret and amber. It’s a route without windows under the old stand and I’m pretty sure we’re lost and that any second we’ll be back where we started but McGhee – narrow shoulders and that solemn, head-down gait you’ll remember from his playing days – knows where he’s going. He was at Motherwell before and, to the surprise of some but not himself, he’s back.

It’s been the walk of a fiercely-determined individual – and the key word here is individual – right from the off. Early on at Morton, just in case the football didn’t work out for him, although it was always going to, he kept up with his architecture studies. That’s a heck of a lot of studying, I say – seven years? “It’s a tough course but a noble one. I grew up in Cumbernauld where you couldn’t avoid architecture: all those new buildings, some not so nice, but our church and my high school were really striking. Funnily enough, I ended up training with the practice which had designed them, Gillespie, Kidd & Coia. They were modernist, pretty avant-garde, into cubism and influenced by Le Corbusier… ”

Ah, the Frenchman who proposed we all live in the clouds, in skyscrapers? “Well, his vision was somewhat different to that of the Red Road Flats. He envisaged amenities which I don’t think were really provided in Glasgow. Le Corbusier had a dream, maybe a pipedream.” That’s me telt.

McGhee was individual, too, in his choice of club after Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. Scots venturing abroad in the 1980s were rare, exports to the Bundesliga non-existent, but the striker, after banging in 63 goals for the all-conquering Dons, went right ahead and joined Hamburg. He was in just as much of a tearing hurry in his early days in management when he was viewed as Son of Fergie, although the haste with which he changed clubs brought him another nickname. “I got called Judas and pelted with chocolate coins everywhere I went,” he says. And now? Has reaching the age of 58, becoming a mature dad to Archie, a hugely energetic seven-year-old to add to his two children from his marriage, slowed him down? No, it hasn’t, and neither has the failed Euro 2016 campaign alongside his mate Strachan. If anything, Scotland not qualifying for France explains why McGhee’s at Motherwell.

The well travelled manager did not enjoy a period in charge of former club Aberdeen. Picture: SNS

The well travelled manager did not enjoy a period in charge of former club Aberdeen. Picture: SNS

“I’ve loved being involved with Scotland, it’s been an absolute honour and a fantastic experience. Nevertheless, not getting to the finals was highly embarrassing and almost humiliating for Gordon and myself. Hopefully, for as long as Gordon wants to keep trying and is allowed to, we can get the team to a World Cup or the Euros but beyond that, because we’re exactly the same age and I’m not the younger man being groomed for the job, I don’t see myself as his successor.

“Much as we’re friends we’re different. Gordon might be fulfilled right now but I feel totally unfulfilled by my career.” What would fulfil him? “That may be the trouble: I don’t think anything ever will. I’ll probably keep on pursuing something I imagine is out there and maybe one day I’ll nail it and understand what it is – but maybe I won’t. So I remain hugely ambitious…” he says. Then, with a comic’s perfect timing, adds: “… and partially delusional!”

McGhee gives good quote. Journalists like him because he invariably feeds them a line. Like the other day when he said that, in his first spell at Fir Park, Rangers’ use of EBTs had cost him bonus money after the Ibrox club pushed his team into third place. “I stressed to the guys I was joking but they printed it anyway. Bill McGarry, who was my boss at Newcastle, told me when I was manager at Wolves: ‘You talk too much. Tone it down a bit’. I tried to take his advice and, for the next briefing here I did think: ‘Tell them Lasley’s fit, so-and-so’s injured and nothing else’. But somebody will say something interesting and often I’m not able to stop myself.”

The manager who says too much has cause to check himself today when I ask about the poster on his wall. It shows a gallery of top sportsmen and a single word, which appears to be an acronym. “Aha,” says McGhee, as I crane forward to read it, “that’s top secret.”

The development of young Scottish footballers is the big issue right now. In the debate sparked by Strachan almost everyone agreed we weren’t doing it right. McGhee concurred but was already working on a model for how Motherwell could improve their own system. That was something he and chairman Brian McCafferty agreed should be part of the remit for his return. The model is still a work in progress and therefore under wraps but McGhee, brimming with enthusiasm, will tell me it’s no re-hash of what’s gone before but “radically different”. Young footballers, while participating in a team game, will be encouraged to think of themselves as – here’s that word again, an important one in McGhee’s book – “individuals”. There will be greater emphasis on “personal responsibility”. The players will have to become “almost selfish”.

So what was Mark Edward McGhee like when he was the same age as the mollycoddled fitba tyros of right now? The son of an electrical engineer in the oil industry and a social worker who did good work in infertility counselling, and the second oldest of five children, he’d never even visited Aberdeen for an afternoon before Ferguson sold him a Le Corbusier-type dream of cloudbursting success for the Dons. “He told me he expected them to win a European trophy in five years. I mean, it sounded crazy: Aberdeen hadn’t won a championship for a quarter of a century. But I just thought, yeah, I believe this guy.” This turned out to be a cautious prediction, McGhee & Co only requiring four years to lift the Cup Winners’ Cup with our man’s chugging run and cross crucial to John Hewitt’s winner.

How did the cerebral McGhee fare in the banter stakes, given that, historically, footballers with degrees were usually lambasted for having their brains located in their heads? “There was no problem at Pittodrie. We had McLeish, [Willie] Miller, Strachan, all bright, thinking guys, and then there was Stewart Kennedy who we called our Philadelphia lawyer because he was the one who’d argue the case for bonuses with Fergie.

“What people forget or don’t know about Fergie is that he liked a challenge. I had plenty of full and frank discussions with him. ‘Uh-oh here we go,’ he used to say, ‘it’s McGhee and his big words’. That was one of Gordon’s favourite Fergie-isms. Now that we’re working together with Scotland he’s taken to using it.” Those dandy Dons had five glorious years together and, once they’d cracked how to beat the Old Firm in Glasgow, they didn’t let up. A two-fingered McGhee salute which perhaps wasn’t V for victory was emblematic of those successes. He smiles: “Roy Aitken told me the Celtic players, looking at us in the tunnel before our games, used to think we were all on drugs!”

As with so many who played under him, Ferguson became both role model and mentor when McGhee forged his own career in management, firstly at Reading. “I tried to be as driven and single-minded as him, no doubt about that. A player there picked up on something which was pure Fergie: ‘Boss, you always say ‘When we score’ and ‘When we win’ and never ‘if’.’ I wasn’t aware I was saying it but was pleased it had resonated.”

Reading were second-tier and aiming for the promised land of the Premier League. When Leicester City offered to fast-track him there, he ignored the advice of the master and took the job. “Fergie told me to sit tight as something better would come along. That’s the decision I would change, if I could have my time again. If I’d stayed Reading might have got promoted and I think I probably would have spent most of my career in the Premier.”

If his abrupt departure from Reading caused upset, these were whimpers compared to the accusations of unprincipled and mercenary behaviour which followed his switch from Leicester to Wolves and also brought some Filbert Street hardcore to his front door for a 2am protest. “That was tough,” says McGhee, who, while conceding he was ultra-ambitious, believes he didn’t deserve all the flak directed his way. Firstly, the Reading chairman, initially at least, gave him his blessing to go. And the prime mover in getting him to Molineux was Ferguson.

“He was instrumental. Without his influence Wolves wouldn’t have happened.” But that experience started to go sour following a failed promotion bid with owner Jack Hayward declaring he would no longer be the “golden tit” supplying endless finance. McGhee was sacked (his career dismissals amount to five) and his association with Ferguson curdled.

“I don’t recall an actual fall-out but something happened and we no longer had the more intimate relationship that had existed for a long, long time.

“Now? There’s no contact between us. We shake hands if we find ourselves in the same room but that’s it. There was speculation about a problem between Darren [Ferguson’s son and a Wolves player] and myself but the pair of us got on okay. “I reckoned at the time Fergie was disappointed that, in his eyes, I failed at Wolves and still think that’s the most likely cause.

“He’d led me to believe that, if I made a success of the job, then I’d be a contender to succeed him at Manchester United.”

Does McGhee regret they’re no longer close? “It’s unfortunate but I’m over it. And I’m content that since he’s withdrawn his influence I’ve been able to get other jobs. I’m still in the game and still working, despite him having placed a cross at my door!” Does he feel like attempting some rapprochement? “Listen, I’ve only got respect for him. I’ve never said a bad word against him and I never will. But I think that when you’re in the dark side with Fergie that’s where you are. You just have to get on with it!”

Those other jobs included Aberdeen which he’s disappointed didn’t work out. The manager who says too much thought he was simply being honest by admitting he’d been keen on managing Celtic and that didn’t get him off to the best of starts back at Pittodrie. Before then he’d like to think he’d changed his style, still ambitious but not quite as cold-eyed about it. A successful businessman he got to know at Reading, Bernard Goodall, became his other mentor. “He was a fantastic guy who made me realise I had to consider other people because until that point my career had been everything. He died prematurely and I said in the eulogy at his funeral that he was the type who embarrassed you into being a better human being.”

Now, with a chuckle, McGhee accepts he’s no longer the big, hot name in management. “I realised that early on with Scotland when there was a shout of ‘Gaffer!’ and I instinctively looked up but of course it was directed at Gordon.”

Well, he says he’s accepts this but then he’ll add: “I still think that after four or five years here, doing a fantastic job, there might be something bigger out there for me.” As of this moment, though, he’s certainly in the right place, the best place.

His previous spell at Motherwell brought great joy through Euro qualification and great sadness, too, with Phil O’Donnell dying on the pitch. McGhee earned much praise for the dignity with which the club dealt with their loss. He was in contention for the Scotland job in 2008 but told the SFA that if, chosen, he wouldn’t be able to take up the post until that summer. “I don’t know if that cost me the job but I wasn’t going to leave Motherwell in the lurch just a few weeks after Phil’s passing. At the end of that season, as a thank you for pulling together so wonderfully, I bought all my staff a watch. I’m still wearing mine and [academy director] Scott Leitch and the club doctor have still got theirs. We’ve got the anniversary soon and I’m sure it’ll be a poignant day.”

Motherwell, he says finally, are a special club. He seems to be searching for some of those big words which Ferguson used to ridicule him for. “There’s an honesty and a humility to them. They don’t think they’re something better than they are. They’re not delusional.”

Hang on, I thought he said that’s what he is. “Well, you know, we need one of us to be trying to raise the bar!”