Football: Hope for a marked manager Interview: Mark McGhee

A man tipped for heroic deeds is still confident and waiting for the phone to ring.
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The Independent Online
Last Wednesday night found Mark McGhee at Ewood Park, watching the Newcastle FA Cup tie replay. Beforehand, he had stood chatting with Joe Jordan and Kenny Dalglish, among others. All, coincidentally, managers out of work. It must have been akin to a meeting of his profession's support group. The concept amuses the Glaswegian. "Can you imagine it?" he says. "Everyone sitting in a circle and then, one by one, we'd stand up. I'd say `Hello. My name's Mark and I'm a failed football manager'."

A wry smile crosses his features at the thought although, as every day passes, membership of Failed Football Managers Anonymous, as he suggests it might be named, becomes not quite so amusing. And the danger is you can become so anonymous that people actually forget. Specifically, chairmen forget.

Without hesitation, McGhee can recall the date he was dismissed by Wolverhampton Wanderers: 5 Nov-ember - "They waited until the day after we'd been beaten, by Ipswich". And he knows precisely how many jobs have been filled since then, and by whom. Also, that two have been filled by ex-players, Lawrie Sanchez at Wycombe and Chris Turner at Hartlepool, and Ron Atkinson has emerged from a broadcasting "retirement", all of which means that the pool of out-of-work managers is increasing.

You can easily conjure an image of the former Scottish international striding his home, obsessively consulting his television for news of job opportunities. "I look at the Teletext, but it's not like looking up my lottery numbers and hoping mine's going to come up. I certainly don't hope that somebody is sacked. At least, not yet," he says, emphasising that he is not serious. "But give it another couple of months..."

He adds: "I've had tentative enquiries from abroad already, but I am not convinced that there's going to be a job for me in England if I just sit and wait for the phone to ring. I'm sure people think I'd only take a job in the First Division, paying more than two hundred grand and with pounds 10m to spend; well, nothing could be further from the truth. There are clubs I'd go to here and work for nothing, purely to get back into football again."

McGhee and his wife Jacqueline, together with their two sons, live in a converted barn, a luxurious property, in Shropshire, 10 miles from Molineux. It is up for sale. Wolverhampton and its hinterland has somehow lost its allure and they are moving back to the Thames Valley, where his managerial career started so propitiously with Reading. "For that first month after I was sacked by Wolves, until I got over the initial shock, I never really opened the door. I became a recluse," says McGhee, a son of a retired electrical engineer, whose mother is a fertility consultant at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. "I was feeling angry and frustrated and that I should still be there. Every time Wolves played I said to myself, `Why am I sitting here?' "

It is the first occasion McGhee has been unemployed since he began his playing career at 16. "It hit me the hardest the day Wolves played Arsenal in the FA Cup. I happened to be driving past Molineux during the game. I couldn't hear anything but I could see the crowd through a gap, and it was weird, an almost surreal feeling. It was a sad moment. All I could visualise was Colin Lee standing there down in the dug-out, and my players performing."

McGhee prefers not to discuss his former assistant, except to say that they haven't spoken since. His relationship with the Wolves chairman, Sir Jack Hayward, became equally frosty in the final months of his tenure. McGhee probably realised his fate the day Sir Jack presented him with a model of an "Eddie Stobart" lorry. "I thought it was a hint that I should get moving," McGhee reflected ruefully. "Sir Jack and I had no relationship whatsoever, not since he blasted myself and his son Jonathan" - a reference to his famous "They think I'm a golden tit" speech. "He should have got rid of me then."

McGhee claims his outlay on players was pounds 8.7m, but that he recouped pounds 8.1m. "That's not the way I was told I was going to have to work. Jonathan [then chairman - he has since resigned as a director] went on record when I arrived, and said `It's not a bottomless pit, but it's a bloody deep hole'. I thought we could spend serious money. I really thought that I might be in the position to buy somebody like Paul Ince, who was in Italy at the time."

Wolves were 10th when he was dismissed; they're now eighth, having won two recent games. "I don't sit here, using energy, wishing bad things about Wolves or Colin Lee. All I would say is that it's not a healthy thing, when everything channels back to one man. All everyone talks about is `Sir Jack's money, we're doing it for him'. There's also unreasonable expectation, borne out of money equalling success. Instead of thinking in terms of 10 years, it's all short-term. Everything needs to be done in a season or the manager's going to be out."

Yet, only five years ago, this had been football's most aspiring young man. McGhee was the Joe Lampton of his time, though his stage was rather less Room At the Top, more the football club boardroom. He was a character depicted as being utterly consumed with naked ambition, whose confidantes prepared to write him a reference had included no less than Alex Ferguson.

Why, he was mooted as the natural successor to his mentor at Old Trafford. Indeed, it was the United legend who had originally rang the Reading chairman John Madjeski back in 1991 and advised him to fill his managerial vacancy with McGhee.

Yet, for all such advocates, many supporters among his former clubs relished the spectacle of the assured and articulate McGhee being thrown from the steed of his own galloping ambition, his features ground in the dirt. He still doesn't comprehend that antipathy, but accepts that he has not always dealt astutely with certain situations.

Now, he suffers from what might be described as Roy Hodgson's Disease, existing in purdah until a chairman believes he should be welcomed back into the football community. "People want to be associated with success, not failure. Maybe the fact that I was sacked is too fresh in people's minds. But whoever takes me on next will get twice the manager Wolves got because I've learnt so much in the last 18 months." He adds: "During these weeks, I've been trying to work out how I've got the reputation I have. Somewhere along the line I must have gone wrong, but I don't know how that was." How about his perceived arrogance? "All I've ever tried to be is honest. But also you've got to have a lot of front. For the sake of players and club, you've got to be seen to be in control."

Then there is a question of loyalty. It was eight years ago, having enjoyed a wealth of experience as a forward with Celtic, Aberdeen, Hamburg and Newcastle, his first managerial foray took unfashionable Reading close to the Premiership, before departing for Leicester with what should have been appreciation, but what turned out to be acrimony.

"I was 100 per cent justified in leaving Reading after John Madjeski gave me permission to talk to Leicester. Leaving Filbert Street, a year later, was different. I knew when I walked out of there that it was, in a sense, wrong. I knew I'd let their chairman, Martin George, down badly, and the players I'd brought in. People thought, when Wolves dangled the bait, that was me, off and out, no hesitation, no qualms, and that's where I got my reputation. But it wasn't like that. It was torture. Two minutes before I made the decision to go, I was staying. There was pressure from all kinds of people I respected to go. Against my own conscience, I took the job."

He adds: "I read the papers and I don't recognise myself. But, obviously, people are thinking that a guy who can up and leave Leicester after a year like that must be one kind of arrogant, callous bastard. All I can do to fix that impression is to go on from here and prove to people that's not the way I am."

Thus far, he has not submitted his cv. to anyone, although he was linked with Manchester United, when Brian Kidd left. "I could have done that job, after all I played 70-80 games in Europe, but I knew that was not what Fergie wanted. He wanted a career coach. But if John Toshack rang up and said he wanted me to be his assistant at Real Madrid, I'm there. I've even been taking Spanish lessons." Something tells you that this is one unemployment statistic which won't last for long.