Interview: Neil McCann, football pundit and former player

Presentable and articulate, Neil McCann is a more than acceptable face for Sky's coverage of Scottish football. Yet news of his appointment was met with surprise in some quarters. By his own admission, he was a guarded interviewee as a player.

Instead, the winger let his feet do the talking. You couldn't shut them up at the old Wembley in '99, when he won the man of the match award in the second leg of the Euro 2000 play-off between Scotland and England. These feet spoke as eloquently as he struck the goal which saved his first - and last - club from (another) brush with death in October 1995. His chip against Airdrie sealed Dundee's place in that season's League Cup final and in doing so kept the bank manager from the door for another few years.

Then there are the two goals scored in the Parkhead hothouse as Rangers emerged triumphant in the bedlam to re-assert themselves as Scottish champions in 1999.

For a variety of reasons, he was not always so comfortable when his opposite man was a reporter. He has had to adjust to life in front of the microphone. McCann has found it equally difficult - actually, make that impossible - to hang up the boots, to abandon a career for which he sacrificed all else when growing up in Port Glasgow, on the footballer-flooded west coast.

"The first six months at Sky were hard," he admits. "Obviously I was trying to get to grips with a new job in which I didn't have any experience. I wouldn't say my education was brilliant when I was younger - I managed to get a couple of O'Levels, one being English.

"But school was never my priority. I could have been decent, I think. But like so many down that way I wanted to be a footballer, and that got all my attention. I was pretty sure that would be happening. Luckily enough it did happen."

Having signed on YTS forms for Dundee as a 16-year-old during the 1990-91 season, there was not much inclination to continue studying as he went straight into digs in the city.

"I am still working on my grammar," he says. "I am still working on my vocab. I watch the football when it's on all the time. You ask most footballers about watching football on television. They will say they probably go and do something else at half-time and then get back for the second half, after the analysis has finished. Now I make sure I am watching and learning, and I make sure I am watching from the top of the show."

He is clearly au fait with the jargon, and, 37 in August, he is certainly fresh faced enough to comply with Sky's thirst for glamour. McCann does sometimes fret about possessing enough glitz, particularly when parachuted into situations where he is mixing with English-based footballing personalities. He needn't feel intimidated. Only once, when narrowly failing to make the Scotland squad for the World Cup in 1998, could he possibly be identified as a nearly man.

"I was playing some of my best football at Hearts in the 1997-98 season," he recalls. "I thought I had a wee chance of getting in the squad but it never happened. I was really disappointed. When I look back Christian [Dailly] was playing wide left in the opener against Brazil, and I remember thinking: ‘I must have been close'."

His opinions still pack a punch as he seeks to jostle for position amongst such heavy weights of the shiny suited broadcasting game as Graeme Souness and Jamie Redknapp, the equally well preserved graduates from the inner sanctum of the dressing room.

"I take it seriously," he says. "It's a great job, But it never ever beats playing football."

McCann has something on his high- profile peers. Neither Souness or Redknapp managed to kick back their leather chairs, unfasten the microphone from their slim-fit shirts and nip away to lob in a last-minute winner for one of their former clubs during the course of this season. McCann's turn for Dundee against Raith Rovers in February, when he made his first senior appearance since signing off for Falkirk in their Scottish Cup final defeat to Rangers in 2009, was something no pundit in the land could have been able to adequately explain.

"I got a text from Charlie Nicholas leading up to the game, saying [Dundee manager] Barry ‘Shinner' Smith must have lost the plot," smiles McCann. "I texted him back, saying I am going to record Soccer Saturday and I can't wait to see your face when Jeff Stelling says I have scored the winner in injury-time."

Reader, it happened. Almost as impressive was McCann's subsequent celebration, which saw him race towards the heaving mass of home fans before being summarily flattened by his team-mates.

He had originally feared his Dundee colleagues might be stand-offish, repelled by the prospect of this particular big-time Charlie stepping back out of the studio and straight into the first-team. There was another reason for him to be apprehensive. Just weeks earlier McCann had been on duty at Dens for the cup match with Motherwell. Dundee's 4-0 defeat meant he was given little opportunity to say anything nice about the players he suddenly found himself getting changed next to in the dressing room. "[Gary] Harkins gave me a few digs," he recalls. "My reply to them was: ‘was I wrong!?'"

Just like back in his pomp, he let his boots provide the most effective answer. McCann's injury-time strike against the then First Division league leaders, now firmly installed as a YouTube favourite, saw even Stelling lose his customary cool as he spluttered out the incredible details. Having not played for Dundee since 1996, McCann, who had come on as a second half substitute, needed just over half an hour to embed himself back in the affections of the fans.

Remarkably trim, McCann's waist size can't have expanded an inch since he made his debut for Dundee as an 18-year -old, an occasion that is further dated by the identity of his opposite man that afternoon at Dens - Airdrie's Walter Kidd. His next outing came at Ibrox in front of 40,000 people. He exhibited the composure which has seen him slip so effortlessly into the pundit's chair when giving Gary Stevens a dose of twisted blood. His performance saw him highlighted on Sportscene later that night.

Now McCann is the one running the rule over players after he made the most of an opportunity flagged-up by Davie Provan. "A vacancy had come about for Sky's SPL coverage, they were looking for someone who could come in and who was still fresh from the game," recalls McCann. "Davie felt I might fit the bill."

His first assignment was at the Emirates Cup two summers ago. He worked with Stelling and Ray Parlour on the opening day and then expected his first co-commentary gig to be the Rangers v Arsenal clash on the following afternoon. However, an unexpected combination of results meant he was asked to deliver expert opinion on Paris St Germain v Atletico Madrid instead. Diligently, he set about studying their matches from the previous day, only to be handed a shock when the team lists were submitted. There had been 21 changes. "It was probably a bit of a car crash but I think the studio stuff was OK," recalls McCann. "I was a wee bit nervous - I'm still a wee bit nervous. But that's to be expected when you are on live television and you don't have a re-take."

He perhaps faced his sternest test yet on Wednesday night, when providing analysis on the Hearts v Celtic fixture. Like the rest of us, McCann watched open mouthed as Neil Lennon was assaulted by a supporter live on television. In its own way, this was McCann's greatest examination. He came through it with flying colours, firmly answering any criticism that he is sill too close to the game to provide the analysis that counts.

In any case, Sky wanted someone who was still recognised for his deeds on the park. At times this season, McCann has been all but plucking blades of grass out from in between the studs of his boots as he took his seat in the studio. Sky couldn't hope to have employed anyone more fresh from the pitch, which is why you imagine they won't stand in McCann's way should he consider the possibility of making a similarly flexible arrangement with another club next season.

It could even be with Dundee now they have emerged from administration, although Partick Thistle, where his friend Jackie McNamara has just been named manager, is another option. McCann is also set to complete his coaching badges this summer.

Frustratingly, having been only permitted to play three games for Dundee as a trialist, he remains on 99 appearances for the Dens Park club. "I'll maybe get to that milestone," he says. "I have left the door open."

"I am not hanging by the phone. Barry has lots of others players with whom he needs to sort out contracts. I am well down the list before he gets round to asking this old guy back."

Much has to be resolved before then, including the destination of the Premier League title this weekend. With Rangers in pole position, McCann will be in situ at Rugby Park tomorrow and bringing his extensive experience to bear on the unfolding events. He has tasted a ‘helicopter Sunday' before.

"When Rangers beat Dunfermline 3-1 in 2003 I came on at half-time when we were 3-1 up and made the last three goals, including winning the penalty for the all-important last goal," he recalls. "I remember it vividly. There was a weird eeriness because we were not sure if we had won the league or not. We were half celebrating and half not. Then all of a sudden the news came through [that Celtic had only won 4-0] and it just erupted.

"We won the treble that year," he adds. "I made the last four goals of that season - the three against Dunfermline and then I delivered the free kick for Amo [Lorenzo Amoruso] to score the winner against Dundee, in the Scottish Cup final."

It was a perfect way to sign-off from life at Ibrox, where he had successfully won over the doubters. Although clearly not in Neil Lennon's league when it came to battling prejudice, McCann, as Rangers' next major Scottish Catholic signing after Maurice Johnston seven years earlier, had to overcome some serious challenges.

McCann's heavy frown is what most reporters can recall from his press conference upon signing for Rangers from Hearts in December 1998. "I always felt there were loaded questions around each corner," he explains now. "I always remember that when I signed for Rangers, which was probably one of the best days of my career and a real life-changing moment, I was sitting there glum-faced because one of the first questions to be batted straight at me was something to do with my religion.

"That impulse to be guarded stayed with me right through my career," he continues. "You probably know yourself if you have been in one of my press conferences. I am not probably as cutting as some I could mention, but I am quite defensive."

He admits that even those who come up to him in the street might find him initially quite guarded. But, he adds, "anyone who knows me knows what I am like". Being paid to give his opinions on television means he might have to get used to strangers offering him theirs, although he hopes, too, that his switch from one high-profile job to another might be seen as an inspiration for others, particularly those watching on from the streets of his youth.

"If people from Port Glasgow look at me and think ‘he has done all right' then that's magic," he says. "And if it inspires a few lads from down there to go and do the same, then brilliant."