Birmingham manager Alex McLeish is wary of Sir Alex Ferguson backlash after FA Cup exit

08 January 2010 05:22
Alex McLeish is willing to play the game. Would you agree, he is asked, that with Sir Alex Ferguson being something of a film buff that he could be described as "The Godfather" of managers, the head of the mob? "Yeah, I guess you could call it that. I can see the headlines now," he says.

And after helping with that piece of tabloid gold, the Birmingham City manager draws a line when he is then pushed to comment on whether it is Ferguson's hatred of losing (a "bear with a sore heed" as McLeish, with his Barrhead burr, recalls of him) that drives the 67 year-old on?

 Related ArticlesBirmingham v Man Utd: match previewFerguson heaps praise on McLeishNemanja Vidic faces 10-day lay-off with calf injuryFerguson: Neville retirement 'a load of nonsense'Transfer TalkSport on television"You are looking for a quote from me there that he doesn't like losing, but you show me a good loser and I will show you a loser," McLeish says, almost contemptuously. "I am like that as well."

With Birmingham hosting Manchester United at St Andrew's this evening it was inevitable, and right, that McLeish would be questioned about Ferguson, his relationship with his fellow Scot, which stretches back to the late Seventies when the latter took over at Aberdeen, and whether he has some sort of hold on his former players who have gone into management.

"No, I don't think he takes extra pleasure in that," McLeish says. "But I do think it'd hurt him more if it was one of his star pupils, he'd be disappointed to lose to one of his protégés."

With Birmingham on a run of 12 games unbeaten including 11 in the Premier League and a sequence of five straight wins McLeish has reason to believe that he can inflict that disappointment later on Saturday.

However he is also aware that, with United having lost to Leeds United in the FA Cup, the "bear" will be expecting a backlash. "I just know how he works," McLeish says. "His demands are top notch. It began in his Aberdeen days and to this day he has never stopped."

Ferguson has, McLeish says, "evolved" since he "ruled in a tough way" at Pittodrie. "You see all the different styles of management nowadays, with maybe managers not throwing a wobbly when things go wrong," McLeish explains.

"Things have changed since then and he knows that he couldn't do it the same way if he was starting now in the game. The other managers from that era where are they now? He evolved with the different personalities and different mindsets, whereas others were culled." There was "no chance" he could remain as he did then.

"The superstars he has got in that dressing room, they would get their agents and they would do all sorts of things to get them out," McLeish says. "In those days [at Aberdeen] there wasn't a lot of money about. We were playing for bonuses and to pay our mortgages. There was a driving force in that as well as Alex's own drive."

It is time to move on from Ferguson. McLeish is his own man and a man who has confounded expectations that, given the upheaval of a prolonged, messy takeover of Birmingham, which came at a time when he was under fierce pressure from the now former owners to get the club back into the top flight, including, public, provocative criticism from the managing director Karren Brady, he would struggle this season.

McLeish kept his calm and his dignity throughout the Carson Yeung saga and there is a definite sense that with David Sulivan and David Gold gone, the shackles have come off, a feel-good factor has returned and whatever the merits of the deal or the intentions and provenance of the new owners, there is that most precious of commodities in football: stability.

McLeish can even trace the turnaround of his team's fortunes to one match the 2-1 victory over Sunderland in October, which was only the second game after Yeung took over, and the first at home.

"Sunderland came back at us very strongly and, on another day, in an earlier game, we might've dropped points," he says. "But we met that challenge. The expectation levels rose from there. We got a shut out in our next home game against Fulham, scored a goal, came under the cosh a bit but managed not to drop points.

"So the Sunderland game was probably a bit of a turning point for the players with regards to belief: trying to keep the points instead of losing a late sucker goal through naïvety or a learning process coming into Premier League for first time."

Since then Birmingham have climbed to eighth. But McLeish does not expect to stay there. Survival is the goal. "Our aim at the start of the season was to be in the Premier League at the end of 2009/10 and that remains our aim," he says. "If we can do that then, next season we would be looking for the next step, to consolidate."

The history of the Premier League is littered with clubs who havecollapsed. West Ham and Reading spring to mind. There is another factor. McLeish does not want to talk about it but he does have, apparently, money to spend. And how.

Yeung has claimed £40 million is available this window and substantial offers have been made for Liverpool's Ryan Babel, at £8 million, and Kenwyne Jones, for whom Sunderland want £11 million, while Michel will arrive for £3 million from Sporting Gijón.

After rummaging around the bargain basement (Kevin Phillips), picking up items from the remainders bin (Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer), dusting others off the shelf (Stephen Carr) and, also, apparently paying way over the odds in desperation (Roger Johnson and Christian Benítez), McLeish can flash the cash.

Except he has a sense of duty, also, and talks of how he wants Birmingham to be around in 100 years time and not just live for the present, saddling the club with big signings on big wages. "I'm responsible," he says with an Arsène Wenger-style sense of custodianship.

He certainly is and he does not want to upset the careful equilibrium he has created, either. "At some stage we will lose a game. Fact," McLeish says.

"The players in this club have risen to every challenge that's been thrown down at them."

The manager has also.


Alex McLeishAge: 23

When? May 22, 1982.

What? Aberdeen v Rangers, Scottish Cup final.

What happened? Central defender McLeish equalised with a magnificent curling shot from outside the area as Aberdeen went on to trounce Rangers 4-1 after extra time.

What happened next? McLeish stayed at the club until 1994, winning 12 trophies and playing in three World Cups, before moving into management with Motherwell, Hibs and Rangers.

Spent 10 months as Scotland manager before joining Birmingham in 2007. Relegation in his first season was followed by an immediate return to the Premier League.


Alex FergusonAge: 40

What happened? The 1982 Scottish Cup was the second major trophy for Ferguson, who was already attracting widespread attention and rejected an offer to manage Wolves later that summer.

What happened next? Ferguson led his side to a European Cup-Winners' Cup success the following season and added two more league titles before managing Scotland in the World Cup and moving to Old Trafford in 1986.

There he remains, two European Cups, 11 league titles and 23 years later, managing players a quarter of his age.

Source: Telegraph