Alex McLeish was just 48 years old when he was appointed Scotland manager and still on a learning curve, so he finds it strange people might consider him less suitable for the post now.
He remains puzzled at why he is cast as being past it, or having already had his time. International football was a slightly different arena when he answered the call to become Scotland manager in 2007.
“I used to think it was older coaches who go down that route but at that time it was trendy for young coaches,” recalled McLeish, now 58. “There was Marco van Basten, Jurgen Klinsmann and there were three or four others worldwide,” he said yesterday. It’s not the case now. Gordon Strachan, who left the Scotland post last week, is two years older than McLeish, for example. Then again, no matter where you are in life, it’s hard to turn down an offer to manage your country.
McLeish knew he should have told the SFA he was going to think about it, but could not help blurting out yes, he’d take it.
Some might find this jars with the circumstances when he left the post, 11 months later, following a near miss to reach Euro 2008. He resigned to join Birmingham City, then in the Premier League.
It was the chance McLeish always wanted – to manage in the English top flight. But some felt he couldn’t get there quick enough, leaving Scotland in the lurch after only ten games, seven of which they won, including against France in Paris.
The anger some felt was compounded by a sense of what might have been. There’s now the chance to find out. There’s a vacancy at Scotland, and McLeish is free, having not worked in football since May. Might the manner of his departure last time around harm his chances this time?
As far as McLeish’s development is concerned, it was the right move. Even though the team were relegated in his first season, McLeish got Birmingham back up. He also guided them to their first major honour since 1963, with a win over Arsenal in the League Cup final six years ago.
But they were relegated again at the end of the same season and McLeish resigned, only to pitch up at rivals Aston Villa days later, amid a storm of protest. As he suggests, he has certainly become more worldly wise, with more recent experiences including being manager of Nottingham Forest, where it’s rarely dull, and Belgian side Genk, who hired McLeish to reverse an alarming slump.
It was there he encountered the maverick Ilombe Mboyo, nicknamed Le Petite Pele. McLeish remembers being assured by the media that the striker was the player to get them back into the Champions League. “He had some injuries and he sailed a wee bit close to the wind in the dressing room,” recalled McLeish. “The press kept asking me how I was going to handle him? It was my job to man-manage him and try to get the best out of him. He was scoring goals and then we headed to Turkey for a winter break.” It was then McLeish received the phone call: Mboyo wouldn’t be coming because “he had broken his leg clearing snow from his garden.”
McLeish suspects the injury was sustained playing five-a-sides with pals. Whatever happened, Genk lost him for the rest of the season, and ended up failing to make the top four. But they rose from 13th to seventh in the months McLeish was there.
So, he is amused at those depicting him as past his sell-by date. He would regard himself as in his prime, all the better for having lived a little more. Speaking at a BT Sport event yesterday, he reflected: “That’s the irony.” He reckons he is better qualified now than when he last occupied the post. “With me being out of the game at the moment, I see a lot of jobs which I might have fancied in the last couple of years,” he said. “There’s also been some I’ve been offered which I didn’t feel was me. But there’s been some other clubs where I’ve felt: ‘I am sure I could do a job there in terms of my experience’. You feel as if you have much more common sense whereas in your early days you burst decisions without employing common sense first.”
It’s possible to imagine him making this point to SFA chief executive Stewart Regan, and whoever else is on the interview panel. McLeish also has an already-prepared answer should he be asked: So Alex, would you have done anything differently last time around?
“If I could turn the clock back the one I would change is my approach in Georgia, when I kept faith with the same team who expended a lot of energy in the Ukraine game,” he said, recalling the double-header that saw Scotland beat Ukraine 3-1 before falling to the Georgians, critically affecting their qualifying chances.
“We stuck with the 4-4-2 but it clearly did not work,” he explained. “In this game you never stop learning. You can be as experienced as Sir Alex Ferguson, and Sir Alex will still sometimes make mistakes. When it comes to those levels, the fine detail has to be spot on.”
It seemed too good to be true that McLeish was saying all this at Hampden, where SFA officials were beginning to sift through names on the sixth floor above, having named their performance director Malky Mackay as manager for one game only – a friendly against the Netherlands at Pittodrie on 9 November.
It’s unthinkable McLeish won’t be in their thoughts for the job full-time – he does, after all, have the best win ratio of any other Scotland manager. This alone should guarantee he receives an invite for a chat, which is the least he expects.
There’s certainly no other candidate whose credentials are so well supported by practical experience.