McGhee emerges as a born-again manager

Nationwide kick-off: Millwall the rebuilding site for the one-time tyro who got lost on his way to the top
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The Independent Football

If he is chastened by experience, he conceals it well, this former member of Sacked Managers Too Bloody Anonymous, as he arrives at Millwall's training ground. Behind that slightly bookish exterior is a character who, even in adversity, has never lost that touch of arrogance. Mark McGhee once bore a look which read: "Keep clear. Important career in progress". This time, though, you sense, it will be different. Not a Saint Mark, maybe, but at least Mark II.

Little more than five years ago, Mark McGhee was a prized commodity, in much the same way as Martin O'Neill is today. Indeed, during the three years that the Scot was establishing an esteemed reputation at Reading by taking the Berkshire club to second place in the First Division, a few miles down the road at Wycombe Wanderers the Irishman was preparing himself to join the élite. Only back then it was McGhee, the former Aberdeen, Celtic and Newcastle striker, who was regarded the natural successor to Alex Ferguson, who was once his mentor.

McGhee was a young manager in so much of a hurry that he seriously lost his footing. Today, having picked himself up and done his penance of nearly two years on the fringes of the game, his link only maintained by occasional appearances on Sky Sports, he is a wiser man.

"I haven't changed the way I've managed," he says. "But I've learnt a lot. I was in too much of a rush to reach the top. The one decision that I made that I truly regret was leaving Leicester. It wasn't just because I joined Wolves and what happened there [he was dismissed 18 months after taking them to the First Division play-offs].

"When I left Leicester [in 1995], I did it for totally selfish reasons. I thought it was a step up the ladder for me in terms of my managerial ambitions. I did it without any regard for the chairman, Martin George, who had been brilliant for me, or for the players who I brought in, people like Pontus Kamark, who I had brought from Sweden and persuaded that he should come to Leicester because I was there. I just upped and left them there. I now realise there are other things you have to consider."

Worse still, perhaps, he admits: "I didn't even consider my family, really. They had just moved to Leicester, moved school, moved house, when I said, 'Right, we're moving again'. I now realise that when I make any decision like that in the future I've got to consider everyone. That was the major change in my thinking."

So, you put it to a man whose managerial status is once again in the ascendancy, would he be staying put at the New Den? "I would hope to be here for a while," he says quietly.

Unusually for an incoming manager, he did not have a full restoration job on his hands, more one of putting the odd brush- stroke to the task partly accomplished by his predecessors, former players Keith "Rhino" Stevens and Alan McLeary. "Between arriving and the end of the season, the only signing I made was Steve Claridge on loan. All I did was come in and try to reshape them a little bit, and try to instil as much self-belief as I could. It didn't need radical surgery."

McGhee, 44, who applied for jobs at Bristol City, Aberdeen and also spoke to Portsmouth before Millwall's chairman, Theo Paphitis ,welcomed him back into the fold, added: "At the time, I wasn't getting desperate," he insists. "I didn't think, 'That's it – I'll never get a job'. But I was realistic. I did think it was possible that I would never get another job."

Having returned the Lions to the First Division he last campaigned in with Wolves, a return to the Premiership is very much in his plans for a team with an average age of 22, though the former Scottish international accepts that patience will be required. "All these lads are excited about testing themselves against the big clubs, big names," says McGhee, who is particularly looking forward to Millwall's first meeting with his friend Gordon Strachan's relegated Coventry City in November. "They all think they are good enough. But they have got to find out if they are. You can't believe the air of expectation around here at the moment."

He adds: "We are not making any ridiculous claims that we are going to do a Fulham or anything. But these lads should have belief in themselves and shouldn't fear playing anyone on the day. It's entirely possible. But it won't happen overnight. We have a three-year plan to develop a team who can have a serious go at getting out of this division. We have got the good young players, but it will also require a bit of clever investment to bring in the four or five players over the next two seasons to make us realistic contenders."

Those he believes will flourish include the former England youth winger Steven Reid and Irish striker Richard Sadlier, together with the prolific Neil Harris, when he returns after recuperating from treatment for testicular cancer. Originally it was thought that the 24-year-old would be out for the season, but McGhee says: "The prognosis is now very good. He has had two weeks of radiation therapy; then after four weeks of recuperation, he's back training. We expect him to be playing again in November, maybe even October. That's given everyone a lift, because when you first hear about it, you obviously fear the worst. He has coped incredibly well with it. I'm not sure that I would have done."

Crowd problems, perceived as much as real these days, remain a stigma for the club. Two planned pre-season friendlies in Germany – one against Eintracht Frankfurt – were cancelled on police advice. "I have got two posters advertising our games in Germany, which I have had framed," McGhee says wryly. "I am going to put them up in our gym, as a sort of ironic statement for everyone who visits the place.

"These are games that never took place, but the point is that Millwall really should be able to go and play in these sort of places without worrying about problems. I am saying to supporters, if you enjoy going to watch your team playing in Germany, or wherever, pre-season, then you have to help us.

"Until we have a run of Millwall going to First Division clubs and being patted on the back and complimented on their behaviour, then we are still going to have a problem. I think I can have a part in it. I have the opportunity to speak to the public and media. We want to get to the stage where we can travel anywhere in Britain, or Europe, and be welcome, and not worry about the fans."

Europe? Now that would be something for the much-maligned south-east London club. But under the talented guidance of a character who has received the harshest of educations in the world of management, you couldn't possibly dismiss it.