Mellow McGhee taking one game at a time

Mark McGhee tells Mike Rowbottom how he completed his managerial rehabilitation following his disappointing failure at Molineux
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The Independent Football

Flexibility is the name of the game for Brighton and Hove Albion now that the Goldstone Ground is no more than a painful memory and a home to Burger King, JJB Sports, Comet and Toys R Us.

Flexibility is the name of the game for Brighton and Hove Albion now that the Goldstone Ground is no more than a painful memory and a home to Burger King, JJB Sports, Comet and Toys R Us.

While the club, currently five points clear of the Championship relegation places, plays at the desperately limited Withdean Stadium, it aspires to a proposed site in nearby Falmer upon which the Secretary of State is due to deliberate in February.

Meanwhile, the club is run from a town centre office block jammed between an NCP car park and the LA Fitness Gym. And this week a little room therein assumed a confessional air as Mark McGhee, manager, got something off his chest.

Reflecting on the early years of his managerial career which took him with unseemly haste from Reading to Leicester to Wolverhampton - after which he spent more than two years out of football - the 47-year-old Scot mused: "I wanted the biggest job I could possibly get to as quickly as I could get there at the expense of anybody else. And at Leicester, that was the chairman, Martin George. I've apologised to him many times for walking out in the way I did.

"That was just typical of the way I was at that time. When I went to Wolves I was riding a wave that made me feel indestructible. I felt that I would be successful there, and from there I would be going somewhere even bigger."

He paused, gazing at the tea-cup which he has just drained.

"Now I don't think further ahead than the next game."

As it happens, Brighton's next fixture sees them at the New Den this afternoon, when they meet the club which enabled McGhee to put his professional life back together before he parted company with them midway through last season. It will be the first time he has returned since leaving by mutual agreement after taking them to the Second Division championship and First Division play-offs in successive years. But the occasion will not be an uneasy one for him.

"I've no problem with going back," he said. "In the end, for a variety of reasons, both the chairman, Theo Paphitis, and I felt we were treading water. I said when Millwall came in for me that it was my last chance, because not a lot of people had banged on my door after I left Wolves. But I took my chance. People said Millwall were the wrong club for me, but it was quite the opposite. They have an edge, and I enjoyed that."

He also appreciated the passion of Millwall's fans, though not when it precipitated a riot after Birmingham, en route to the Premiership, had beaten them at home in the second leg of their play-off in May 2002. A thousand fans were involved; 127 police and 16 horses were injured.

"That was as bad as anything I've ever seen," McGhee said. "It led to a card identification scheme which lost us half our gate. Soon after that we lost a further £2m when ITV Digital collapsed. You would have hoped to push on after finishing fourth in your first season after promotion, but we couldn't."

The fact that Dennis Wise, whom he had brought in from the cold with a £10,000-a-week deal, eventually turned out to be the man who took his job is something he accepts with apparent equanimity.

"I've got no issue with that," he said. "When I left Millwall, the chairman asked me 'What should we do on Saturday?'. And my first reaction was to put Dennis in there. I didn't know it would be a long-term solution. That was something Theo decided, and he may already have had that in mind. But that was the answer I gave him."

Like McGhee, Wise had departed Leicester under a cloud, although for a very different reason - an assault which left his team-mate, Callum Davidson, with a fractured cheekbone. When the Scotsman defied opinion to hire Wise, he maintained: "Everyone makes mistakes and Dennis has been punished. He has paid the price."

It was a comment which might just as well have applied to himself. The reputation created by his swift exits from Reading and Leicester was, as he readily acknowledges, that of a ruthlessly ambitious man.

Yet, given his background, you could hardly marvel at the attitude. Having provided guile and goals in equal measure for Alex Ferguson's all-conquering Aberdeen side of the early 80's, McGhee was regarded as the man most likely to follow in the footsteps of his boss, possibly all the way to Old Trafford.

For many years, McGhee had Ferguson's ear. One of the many stories he absorbed was Ferguson's account of how, while manager of East Stirling, he had rung up his own father figure, Jock Stein, to ask his advice about the offer of a move to St Mirren.

"Son," Stein said, "sit in the stand at East Stirling, and then sit in the stand at Love Street. And don't phone me on a Saturday morning again."

The implicit message was one Ferguson took to heart - and McGhee accepts that he was influenced in turn. He will not divulge the conversation he had with the Manchester United manager before deciding to take the job at Wolves, but he makes it clear that Ferguson was "enthusiastic" about him moving on.

Despite speculation about their subsequent falling-out - with one line attaching itself to the way McGhee treated Ferguson's son, Darren, while he was at Molineux - the man now charged with steering a cash-strapped team clear of the drop speculates that it may have had something to do with his failure to raise the sleeping giant of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

"I think Alex believed that I would do a job there," he said, "and he judged that my performance hadn't been as good as he had hoped for."

McGhee's experience of a first significant failure in a career of previously unerring achievement came as a shock.

Gordon Strachan, his old team-mate at Pittordrie and a man with whom he still chats to on a regular basis, offered him a scouting role at Coventry City. There was some work with Sky TV, and on an internet venture. But the bad publicity he had earned for his career choices caused a number of chairman to offer him regretful rejection.

So bad did McGhee feel about the way he left Leicester that for a long time, whenever he drove up the M1, he had to look the other way when he got to Junction 21. Last month he returned for a supporters' evening to which past managers were invited, and endured a public grilling by the former Leicester midfielder and modern-day public announcer, Alan Birchenall.

"I was set up," he recalled, "but it gave me a chance to say to the supporters how much I regretted the way I left."

Today, Brighton fans would be more than happy with three points, ideally through a goal supplied by their former Millwall favourite, Mr Claridge. And McGhee believes you shouldn't bet against it.