Alex McLeish: 'If we go up we'll have to punch above our weight'

The Brian Viner Interview: Birmingham City's manager is the son of a Govan shipyard worker, a tough Scot who aims to follow in some illustrious footsteps
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Even if you didn't know his name, and hadn't heard him speak, there could still be no doubting the nationality of 50-year-old Alexander McLeish. His hair is the colour of Irn Bru, his pale blue eyes look like they've squinted into more than a few Aberdeenshire squalls, and his nose appears to have met the forehead of an aggressive Glaswegian docker, although in fact it was probably that of an aggressive Dumbarton centre-forward.

Whatever, the Birmingham City manager is defined by his Scottishness, professionally as well as physically. When I ask him to explain the disproportionate number of Scots who have made an impact managing in the English leagues – shrewd, tough men such as Bill Shankly, Sir Matt Busby, Sir Alex Ferguson, George Graham and David Moyes – he smiles and says: "I think it's having something to prove, the England-Scotland thing, the old chip on the shoulder. Och, I don't know. It's about grafting, too. I drove countless hours in my Motherwell and Hibs days, coming down south to watch matches, heading back trying not to fall asleep at the wheel, stopping at motorway hotels in places like Gateshead. That's not unique to Scottish people, but..."

But... a propensity for hard graft is clearly part of McLeish's DNA. His father, Alex Snr, worked in the Govan shipyards, and died aged 43 as a direct consequence of his industriousness, returning to work far too soon after suffering a heart attack. It was 1981, and Alex Jnr was by then first-choice centre-half in a marvellous Aberdeen side managed by yet another Alex, Ferguson.

"My dad had a heart attack in the August, and I remember him saying it felt like he'd a herd of elephants on his chest. He was told not to go back to work until after January, but he was conscientious. 'This sitting around the house doesnae suit me,' he'd say. So he went back to work, doing the night shift, and on December 8th, 1981 – we were in Hamburg at the time for a Uefa Cup tie – he got dropped off a mile from the house by a guy who gives him a lift..." McLeish pauses, and corrects his tense. "Sorry. Gave him a lift. It was a cold crisp morning, it was certainly snowing in Hamburg, and... he collapsed a street away. A massive heart attack. He shouldn't have gone back, but if it'd happened two or three years later he'd still be here, with the technology. His two brothers, my two uncles, are still alive. One's had a double bypass, the other a quadruple bypass." Which begs an obvious question. "Oh, I'm fine. Perfect health. I have regular check-ups. But I've been a sportsman, where they would drink and smoke..."

His dad at least lived to see his boy winning the league, at least had the satisfaction of watching the son of a Govan shipyard worker take a blow-torch to the Old Firm duopoly. "And he saw me playing for Scotland. But he never saw the cup triumphs, the [1982-83] Cup-Winners Cup, or my managerial career." A small sigh. And maybe just the hint of emotion in those pale blue eyes. "He drove me incessantly. He was one of these fathers on the touchline, always correcting me. We used to fall out constantly, but in the cold light of day when I counted to 10 I realised he was right. He was a great driving force. And my mother too. She used to clean my wounds. Because in those days we played on ash pitches. Grass was a luxury."

McLeish is talking in his office at the Birmingham training ground, in the city's grassy and leafy southern outskirts. Those Glasgow ash pitches are history, and yet they helped to make him the player he was, which in turn made him the manager he is. Moreover, unlike Shankly, Busby and the others mentioned above, McLeish never played south of the border. He was a Scottish football man in every sense. Yet even when managing Rangers and winning a treble, even when managing Scotland and beating France in a Euro 2008 qualifier at the Parc des Princes, he yearned to test his mettle in the Premier League.

In November 2007 he got his chance, resigning the Scotland job and joining Birmingham the next day. But his mettle was not quite enough to keep Birmingham up, and so I ask whether, on the gloomy day last spring that the club was relegated to the Championship, did he think even fleetingly that he had perhaps done the wrong thing?

I don't expect him to say yes, and nor does he. "Coming here, I had to accept that we could go down, although if the points ratio after I joined had been the same before, we would have stayed up. But that's no criticism of [his predecessor] Steve Bruce and [his assistant] Eric Black, who are great friends of mine. A change of management can give impetus to a club, which is what Steve did at Wigan. I had a chance to go to a couple of other Premier League clubs before I took the Birmingham job, but I knew I wouldn't regret coming here, whatever happened."

For much of this season it has looked as though, by May, top-flight status would be restored. Yet there have been some wobbles along the way, and during one of them, City's managing director, Karren Brady, ventured in her column in The Sun that if he wasn't careful, McLeish might go the way of the recently sacked "Big Phil" Scolari at Chelsea. How did McLeish respond to being told by his boss, in The Sun of all places, that his job was on the line? The faintest of smiles. "I'm not going to get involved in that. Suffice to say Karren apologised and we moved forward."

Three points against struggling Norwich this weekend will propel them even further forward, with Birmingham slugging it out with Wolves for the title and both Midlands teams looking like promotion probables, if not yet certs. Until promotion is assured, McLeish won't allow complacency among his players, but there's not much he can do about the fans.

"I think they're starting to get on the march again," he says. "But if we do go up we'll have to try and punch above our weight. The directors keep a pretty tight ship here. Deep down they're conscious of situations like Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United, Premier League clubs that have slowly gone backwards. Saying that, we can't go up with the belief that we'll be straight back down. We're active every week scouting for players who fit the bill character-wise and according to our budget. And our Academy boys have just qualified for the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup, which is a feat in itself, because the Academy's been in the doldrums in recent years."

As for football clubs punching above their weight, McLeish knows his way from A to B. To Birmingham from Aberdeen, that is. He spent 16 years at Pittodrie, winning 77 Scotland caps and repeatedly keeping one of the great central defenders of the 1980s, Liverpool's Alan Hansen, out of the national team.

"I thought Big Al was a fantastic player," he says, when I bring this up. "I wish I'd been as good on the ball, as quick as him. But I was obviously doing something right. And maybe our style of play in the Scotland team suited me. Liverpool in those days played at a different tempo. It was Phil Thompson to Alan to the goalkeeper, to Alan, to Thompson. They would try to draw teams out, then pass through them, using the quality of Souness and Dalglish."

That illustrious pair were also Scotland team-mates, of course. And yet, plying their trade down south, there was an aura about them. "It was a bit them-and-us. The rest of us were a wee bit intimidated by the Anglos. But I always remember us beating a very good Spanish side, 3-1 at Hampden, and that night Kenny and his wife invited my wife and me out for a couple of drinks. I thought 'now I've made it, now I'm one of the boys'."

McLeish could have joined the so-called Anglos himself; Ferguson tried to recruit him for Manchester United. "Ian Porterfield, who had succeeded Alex at Aberdeen, was brilliant. He said he knew it was the stuff dreams were made of, and if it was right for me and my family then he wouldn't stop me. But the board wanted too much money for me, and Alex bought [Gary] Pallister for £2m a couple of weeks later. My dad had died by then, but if he'd still been alive he might have encouraged me to kick down the door of the Pittodrie boardroom, as Steve Archibald did every single day with Fergie, trying to get his move from Aberdeen to Tottenham. Alex put a chair outside his door just for Steve to sit on before he went in, and kick on his way out."

Our laughter fills the small office, but I risk a change of mood by asking McLeish about Ferguson's influence over him. It is a topic that often exasperates him. "Do they think I'm Fergie's love child or something?" he once complained to a pal of mine, a Scottish sportswriter. Nevertheless, it is a valid question.

"Well, there are probably some things I took from him without realising," he says, equably. "But I was always told in coaching courses to be my own man, and I remember at Motherwell trying to concoct a couple of screaming and shouting sessions, kicking hampers and so on. Afterwards I thought, 'I didn't really mean that, that wasn't me.' But I asked Sir Alex about Birmingham before I took the job, and he thought it was a good club, a proper old-fashioned English club, with fervent support. He felt it would be a good platform for me."

A platform for what, though? Could it be that Ferguson was eyeing his old protégé for the Manchester United succession. Maybe he still is, but McLeish must first lead Birmingham back to the big time.