‘Pioneer’ Alex McLeish is older and wiser as Scotland boss

A relaxed-looking Alex McLeish during his unveiling as the new Scotland manager at Hampden. Picture: John Devlin
A relaxed-looking Alex McLeish during his unveiling as the new Scotland manager at Hampden. Picture: John Devlin
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The image of an organisation
stuck in reverse gear has been all too easily applied to the Scottish FA as they circuitously made their four-month journey from jettisoning Gordon Strachan and rehiring his old mucker Alex McLeish.

The Back to the Future storyline was formally completed at Hampden yesterday when McLeish, just as he did back 
in January 2007, faced the media and posed with a Scotland jersey with his name emblazoned upon it.

But, whatever the merits or otherwise of his appointment, following a process which saw Michael O’Neill and then Walter Smith reject the opportunity in different ways, McLeish is happy to confront the notions of those who regard him as yesterday’s man.

At 59, he is still younger than many of his contemporaries in international management. Denmark have just been led back to the World Cup finals by 64-year-old Age Hareide, Portugal remain under the guidance of their Euro 2016 winning boss Fernando Santos (64), while Martin O’Neill has reached pensionable age and earned a new contract from the Republic of Ireland.

McLeish believes the experience he has gained in England, Belgium and Egypt since quitting as Scotland boss first time around leaves him better equipped to do the job now. He also bristles at any suggestions he is simply an “old school” manager in a quickly evolving side of the game.

“It’s probably the case that some people have that opinion of me,” he said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for experience but sometimes people will say things like ‘Will Alex know about sports science?’. But I put it into some of the clubs I was at. I was one of the pioneers in my younger days of introducing analysts and stuff like that.

“If you go back to when I was manager of Motherwell and Hibs, you will know there were things I was trying to do there in those areas. But sometimes you don’t have the money or resources to install it in terms of infrastructure.

“When I went to Birmingham City, the owner David Sullivan didn’t believe in that side of things – he just wanted to give me money for players. But sometimes even a thing like getting the pitch right for the players is what matters. I’ve always been into every aspect of the whole situation.

“The guys I worked with when I was at Genk in Belgium were absolutely at a fantastic level on the sports science side of things. At the Scottish FA, we have got Malky Mackay in there now with everything in place. It’s about marginal gains, attention to detail, whatever you want to call it.

“All these things can make a difference and I am going to use every tool that I can within the system to try to help the Scotland players get to the Euro finals in 2020.”

McLeish has been out of front line football since leaving Egyptian club Zamalek two years ago but insists he has very much kept his finger on the tactical pulse.

“It’s in the genes, it’s in the DNA,” he added. “I watch loads of games. I live not far from Chelsea’s ground in London. I go to a lot of their games. I’ve seen Antonio Conte doing his 4-4-2 and his 3-4-3 and his change of formations. It’s been interesting watching Chelsea for a year and a half. When you go to the games and you watch that level, you say ‘Well, I’ve coached at that level too’. Not Chelsea, but when you consider the players I had at Rangers in terms of Arthur Numan and co, I had that level.

“Managing in the Premier League, watching Chelsea, keeping an eye on and analysing the games, you say, ‘I’ve got to get back in there’.

“I remember in 2007, when there were rumours I might be offered the Scotland job first time around, I initially thought ‘Nah, I’m too young’.

“Then I looked around and saw there were other younger coaches taking charge of their countries at the time. It was a wee trend at the time. When you get that call from your country, it’s hard to say ‘No’. So the first thing I said was ‘Absolutely’. So I don’t think it was too early for me. I tried to carry on the momentum there was at the time under Walter Smith. We did that to an extent and just failed at the final 
hurdle for Euro 2008.

“Gordon Strachan was unlucky at the final hurdle as well for the most recent tournament and it’s now time to get over that.”

McLeish will start his second spell with challenge matches against Costa Rica at Hampden and Hungary in Budapest next month. He expects to appoint his backroom staff next week, with his former colleagues Peter Grant and Alex Rae both in the frame for roles, and will also turn his attention to the future of current Scotland captain Scott Brown.

The Celtic midfielder, who last year reversed his decision to retire from international football, was unhappy at Strachan’s exit and his position is uncertain once more.

“I’m writing nobody off,” said McLeish. “It’s a blank sheet when I come to name my squad. But I watched a Celtic
team playing to a great level
against Zenit on Thursday night and Scott Brown was in tremendous form, so of course guys like that have got to be uppermost in your thoughts.”

With Celtic providing so many players for the national team, McLeish will seek to establish positive relations with the Scottish champions and their manager Brendan Rodgers which could mean several of them are excused from Scotland’s end of season trip to play Peru and Mexico.

“Back in my day as a Scotland player, if we had been promised a trip to Peru and Mexico in the summer we’d have ben ecstatic,” he said.

“It would have been a case of ‘Hallelujah, brilliant!’ But I can understand the clubs’ stance with the way European football is now mapped out. I have to have a rapport with the clubs and that’s what I will do.

“I do understand that they maybe feel it wasn’t appropriate timing. But we are going to go and it may be a good opportunity for other players to get on the plane and impress the new manager. You can always try to look for something good out of something perceived to be negative.”