McLeish refuses to let his job fears distract players from cup battle

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The Independent Football

What a difference a fortnight makes. Two weeks ago it was West Ham United manager Avram Grant who found his position under the spotlight ahead of his team's Carling Cup semi-final first leg against Birmingham City. But now, ahead of tonight's second leg, having seen his job prospects enjoy a remarkable resurrection, it is the Israeli's opposite number Alex McLeish who is the one facing question marks over his future.

The Scot, though, whose team kick off the biggest game of their season at St Andrew's tonight bidding to overhaul a 2-1 deficit, is for now at least retaining a dignified silence to ensure the off-field rumblings don't distract his team from the job in hand.

On-field matters were all McLeish was prepared to discuss at yesterday's press briefing, as he side-stepped questions about his position and comments by acting-chairman Peter Pannu released ahead of Saturday's 5-0 trouncing by Manchester United, a result which left them just a place above the bottom three.

Asked if he was concerned, McLeish replied: "Honestly, if you worry, you die, if you don't worry, you die. But, to be fair, I'm a conscientious person and of course that means you care." He was similarly non-committal when it was put to him that a victory could nullify the perceived negativity.

"I don't know," he responded. "At the end of the day, I've got to keep my focus on my team and the next game whatever happens, so I don't know how to answer that."

It is clear all is not well behind the scenes at St Andrew's. Relations between manager and board were hardly helped by Pannu's declaration that owner Carson Yeung could not be blamed if he was "not sure" the £26.3m he had invested since his arrival was "well spent" and that "most of the purchases [made by McLeish]... have not improved the team directly".

McLeish, in turn, last week admitted to being left frustrated by moves for Kenny Miller and Robbie Keane falling through – with Keane claiming the Blues' attempts to sign him amounted to no more than a publicity stunt.

It remains to be seen whether McLeish and the club's Hong Kong-based owners are on collision course, although that may become clearer later this week in the aftermath of tonight's game, which offers City the chance of a first major Wembley final for 55 years.

The former Rangers and Scotland manager admitted success for his side would at least leave people "walking around with their heads up rather than their heads down".

A veteran of the semi-final – McLeish has won 14 cups as a player and manager – he will send them into battle with a clear message. "My players shouldn't leave anything behind in the dressing room and I want them coming off without any regrets," he added.

"It would be a great honour to take them to Wembley and there is no doubt they are capable of winning this game."

The cup-tied David Bentley is likely to be replaced by Sebastian Larsson out wide.

Grant ranks forthcoming Premier League fixtures as more important than the Carling Cup, given the club's position at the bottom of the table.

The West Ham manager has a good record of getting teams to the final hurdle of competitions, having done so with Chelsea and Portsmouth, but has also left those clubs shortly after each final and is aware where his priority lies this season. "Of course the league is more important for us," he said, "but when there is a possibility of reaching a final, why not?"

Carlton Cole is set to recover from a knee complaint to start, replacing Frédéric Piquionne who is suspended.