By Mark McWilliams, Trainee Solicitor at Leathes Prior
Alex McLeish is not flavour of the month in Birmingham or anywhere else. When he switched from Birmingham City to Aston Villa last year he was a traitor to the blue side and an unwelcome bluenose to the claret and sky blue. That should have been the nadir of his popularity but Aston Villa only narrowly avoided relegation and have been appalling to watch this season. Many are asking why he was appointed in the first place – he is synonymous with negative football that is boring to watch and uninspiring to support – goes the argument. Having presided over Birmingham City’s two relegations from the Premier League and failed so singularly with Aston Villa, he cannot expect another job in Birmingham.
At the beginning of 2007 Alex McLeish was appointed manager of the Scotland national team. McLeish’s tenure at Rangers had been trophy-laden but the performances in his final season were erratic and he departed amid protest from the fans. Scotland had been abject for years before Walter Smith’s appointment and his two years in the job saw a marked improvement in performances and prospects. There was a giddiness that seemed set to depart with Smith.
McLeish defeated Georgia at Hampden, the first time a Scotland Manager had won his first game since Jock Stein did so in 1978. Hope was restored. They had won three out of four when they arrived in Paris in September. Smith’s Scotland had recorded an improbable and inspirational victory against Raymond Domenech’s team at Hampden the previous October. It was the culmination of his tenure as manager but Scotland fans are used to disappointment. Gary Caldwell’s goal against France had seemed like something not to be repeated.
But it was repeated. The players walked out: Nicolas Anelka, Franck Ribery, David Trezeguet. Graham Alexander, Lee McCulloch, Craig Gordon. Patrick Vieira shook hands with Barry Ferguson. McLeish played 4-5-1, about as negative as formations get. Gordon punted a long ball up to James McFadden. McFadden blasted from about 35 yards and scored. France did not.
Scotland defeated Ukraine 3-1 at Hampden. After a depleted side lost in Georgia, qualification rested on their last match of the group, hosting Italy in November. Victory for either side would ensure qualification. In the 89th minute, it was 1-1. Giorgio Chiellini shoulder barged Alan Hutton near the corner flag. Somehow Italy were awarded the free kick. Andrea Pirlo delivered the cross. Christian Panucci converted the header. Scotland were out.
Group B included Italy, France and Ukraine– world champions, World Cup finalists and World Cup quarter finalists. Scotland shouldn’t have had a chance. They hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1998 but finished third, two points short of France. With one more victory, they would have qualified ahead of them. To come so close was a heroic, incredible achievement. McLeish did it with exciting, attacking football at Hampden against Georgia, Ukraine and even Italy. Alan Hutton marauded up and down the touchline. Scott Brown looked like Scotland’s best prospect in years. Darren Fletcher and James McFadden gave their best performances in Scotland shirts, Paul Hartley and David Weir excelled when their legs should have been failing. Against France and, to a lesser extent, Italy, McLeish knew his team’s limitations. Their defensive play was pragmatic and it worked.
Football is a fickle business and managers are judged against their peers in the league, without a consideration of resources or fortune. McLeish’ Aston Villa played terrible football but his squad was hampered by mediocre players, key injuries and a lack of investment. When his name is mooted for another job in the league, what will people say? Will they talk of his record at Rangers? Will they mention his League Cup triumph with Birmingham City? Will anyone give heed to the fact that McLeish’s Scotland deservedly defeated France in Paris, or that they dominated Ukraine and made Italy desperately clear their lines?
Probably not. McLeish’s Birmingham team was, admittedly, a little dull but few of the complaints about his appointment to Aston Villa were about style. It’s not clear when the Alex McLeish name became synonymous with negative football, but it is clear that the mantle has stuck. He is not likely to work in Birmingham, or the Premier League, again.
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