Every aspect of Alex McLeish’s appointment as Scotland manager is questionable. It is questionable as to the point of jettisoning Gordon Strachan for a kissing cousin of a successor. It is questionable as to the point of the SFA’s sub-committee for identifying and recruiting a new manager when all they seemed to come up with was one man – Michael O’Neill – they couldn’t land, and two others – Walter Smith and McLeish – who had previously held and bailed from the job the moment more enticing offers came their way. Indeed, it is questionable as to the very point of the SFA itself when the chief executive-less organisation has at its apex a president and vice-president in Alan McRae and Rod Petrie who have been exposed as purveyors of ineptitude.
For McLeish himself, at least the return to the national manager’s position 11 years after he first held it ends a series of questionable moves. It is little wonder he jumped at the chance to take the reins once more. There is much to wonder about in why he plunged into the posts he has occupied since he left a Birmingham City just relegated from the top flight for bitter rivals Aston Villa in June 2011 – only months after he had claimed the League Cup for City.
Two years later he had a curious two-month spell at Nottingham Forest. No more curious than his half season with Belgian club Genk in 2014-15, or his couple of months with Egyptian club Zamalek the following year. McLeish says he is a better, more “common sense” coach than in his first time as Scotland manager. He does, though, admit the sense in his recent journeying through football could be questioned.
His worst move was Forrest, he acknowledges, though he gives an honourable mention to Villa. “At Villa, people didn’t see the parameters I was working under there,” said McLeish, who waited two years for the offer he couldn’t refuse that came via the SFA but dismisses his chats with Rangers ahead of their appointment of Pedro Caixinha in March as “a box-ticking exercise” for them. “Forest, I never signed the contract so it was easy enough to shake hands and walk away. I turned them down six months earlier and it was January and I thought I have got to go back in. They came, I spoke to them and I took it. It was fine, it was a build up job and I thought doing that would take a bit of time to do. But the owner liked to have a little say himself…
“[When it came to Genk and Zamalek] I had actually spoken to Huddersfield the day before I went to Belgium. They thanked me for my interview and said I would have been in the mix.
“Genk were in the European Cup a few years before that, playing Chelsea in the Champions League and they had lost their way a little bit. It was a transitional year for them, they had finished 13th and had just fired the coach. They asked if I would come and coach for a season and I said definitely. They had some good players but quite a dysfunctional dressing room, there was a lot of fighting in there between the players which I had to sort out. We climbed from 13th to second place at Christmas then finished in sixth place. That sounded a better challenge than fire-fighting again. Since I joined Birmingham, there was a little bit of fire-fighting all the way and you don’t get the players.
“With Zamalek – a lot of people thought it was weird that I’d go to Egypt, but I knew they were in the top two of the Egyptian league. And again it was a chance to win most of the games. It took me away from fire-fighting in England.
“At Villa they said to me if you get up that side of the table you’ll get a bonus. But I’d never seen a team going up the league when you reduce the budget by £30 million. And that was the extent of that season. It’s draining and I was waiting on a fantastic opportunity and I believe that’s what this is.”
McLeish believes the timing of his Scotland return could prove just right. He will retain the support staff put in place by performance director Malky Mackay for his one game in charge and respects the greater emphasis on the science and analytical that Mackay has introduced to the Scotland set-up. He refused to box himself in about Scotland decanting to the Oriam performance centre he has yet to visit, but acknowledged that the SFA’s investment in such a high-class facility, and its potential benefits won’t be “ignored”.
It is likely he will gather his squad there for next month’s Costa Rica friendly at Hampden, and the subsequent trip to Hungary. As well as with backroom team of goalkeeping coach Jim Stewart, physios Richard Collinge and Steve Walker, from Montreal Impact and Rangers respectively, Celtic sports scientist John Currie, Rangers lead analyst Neil McIlhargey and SFA performance head Graham Jones, he will then have his own new “first team coach and trainer”.
He is understood to be in talks with James McFadden for one of those roles. Meanwhile, his previous working relationship at Birmingham and Villa with Peter Grant, Fulham youth development coach currently, should see the former Celtic midfielder step up from his role with Scotland under-21s. “Peter I keep in touch with, he lives in London as well. We see each other quite a lot, we work together and it will be very good information for me to get it from him.”
McLeish isn’t concerned about the problem centre-back position for Scotland that he filled with such distinction in winning 77 caps and helping the country to three World Cup finals.
He sees an upward curve across the board in terms of burgeoning Scottish talent and established performers – stating he will “not dictate” to Scott Brown about his availability should the Celtic and Scotland captain want to play on for his country in the competitive sphere.
“There are some [centre-halves] coming through, it is how quickly they come through which is the key for Scotland. Again I have already had reports about one or two centre halves and Peter was quite positive about a couple in particular. So maybe there is a bit of scope now. I know Gordon had a bit of difficulty but it is possible there will be an emergence at the right time.”
McLeish will rely heavily on Celtic players – “God, what a talent” he offered of Kieran Tierney, who he will not use at right-back as he was in the last campaign – and for the ill-judged summer friendlies in Peru and Mexico any push-and-pull with Brendan Rodgers will be avoided.
“Brendan is a smart guy, he came to see me when I was at Birmingham,” the Scotland manager said. “I think he may have been out of work at the time and he asked to come in, I think we had his younger brother [Malachy] working at the time in the scouting system. I could tell at the time he was going to be getting to a good level, with his analysis and the way he saw the game.”
McLeish had 10 games in charge of Scotland last time out as the country came close to Euro 2008 qualification. Now, with six friendlies and four Nations League fixtures, he has 10 games to mould the team before their assault on the Euro 2020 finals that will see Hampden as a host venue – which he hopes will remain the home of the national team beyond the end of its current lease then.
“That is quite comforting [to have the 10 games],” McLeish said. “It is really good for me to get that, I am not saying breathing space because I want to hit the ground running and get the Tartan Army onside and let them see these guys have learned a lot in their last campaign and are moving up gear and trying to get to another level. So the coming friendlies and group stage for the Nations League will be a chance to do that.”
The precious chance McLeish has of ending Scotland’s 22-year wait for an appearance in a major finals is beyond question.