Mark McGhee: Falling out with Fergie

Bristol Rovers manager Mark McGhee tells Patrick Barclay about failing to live up to his former mentor's hopes... and how he plans to climb back up the leagues

You don't have to be Glaswegian to manage in Bristol – but it does seem to help. In mid-October, Bristol City appointed Derek McInnes. Three months later, Bristol Rovers turned to Mark McGhee. Although McGhee has had only two matches in charge, both have been won, ensuring that Rovers in League Two, like City in the Championship, have enjoyed a gentle rise from the depths of their division.

Managers from the Glasgow area are thriving. Malky Mackay has just steered Cardiff to the Carling Cup final. Steve Evans's FA Cup heroes from Crawley are neck-and-neck in the League Two title race with a Southend guided by Paul Sturrock, though his origins lie well north and east of Glasgow. McGhee grinned when I pointed it out. "There's bound to be an anomaly," he said, "and Luggy's always been a bit like that."

"Luggy" Sturrock was a contemporary of McGhee's in their playing days. Sturrock helped Dundee United to one Scottish championship. McGhee won two with Aberdeen – plus the European Cup-Winners' Cup – under the daddy of all Glaswegian managers, the most distinguished of the seven currently operating in the Premier League, the one who isn't David Moyes, Alex McLeish, Paul Lambert, Owen Coyle, Steve Kean or Kenny Dalglish.

McGhee was Sir Alex Ferguson's first signing for Aberdeen. He was also the first to try to knock his block off. It was the day after the European final in 1983 and the players, some having worked harder at erecting a facade of sobriety than others after the flight home from Gothenburg, were lined up in the tunnel at Pittodrie, changed and waiting to take a lap of honour. The delay was caused by the absence of Ferguson and his captain, Willie Miller. McLeish, Miller's central-defensive partner, was among those preparing to return the fans' salute, although the Aston Villa manager may not clearly remember what happened next because it took place in something of a blur.

The trophy was lying on its side and McGhee bent down to turn it vertical. Ferguson appeared and wrenched it from his grasp, spitting: "Willie's taking that." McGhee had intended no offence and the champagne in his system mixed with outrage. He took the manager by the lapels and ran him into a kit room, where the the first punch was about to land when a posse arrived and McGhee's wrists were held (conveniently for Ferguson's retaliation).

McGhee stormed away – a club publication diplomatically explained that he had been "too overcome by the emotion of the occasion to join his colleagues" – and went to sleep off the celebrations. The next morning, aghast, he resolved to go to Pittodrie early, in the hope of apologising.

Ferguson was there, but to McGhee's shock and delight, Ferguson himself took the blame, acknowledging that he had come to a misguided defence of Miller. That was why McGhee told the story. It goes a long way towards explaining why, after he stopped playing to manage at Reading, Leicester, Wolves and other places, the centre-forward and his erstwhile boss became friends.

When McGhee left Leicester for Wolves, it was on the advice of Ferguson. And when, one day, McGhee's office phone rang, the voice on the line had no need to introduce itself.

"Cole or Collymore?"

Ferguson was about to break the British transfer record. He had decided to favour the predatory gifts of Andrew Cole over the superior all-round play of Stan Collymore but sought McGhee's opinion anyway. "Collymore," McGhee said. Ferguson explained that Manchester United spent so much time in and around the opposition penalty area that a finisher was the priority. The next day, McGhee read that Ferguson had offered Newcastle a £7m deal for Cole.

Yet when McGhee lost the Wolves job in November 1998, the calls stopped. Not only that: a few weeks later, when McGhee went to a match at Blackburn on behalf of Mick McCarthy, then the Republic of Ireland's manager, Ferguson walked straight past him. The relationship has never been properly repaired, although Ferguson did return a call in 2008, when McGhee was at Motherwell and inquired about a vacancy for an assistant manager at Old Trafford.

"He told me that something had already been arranged,'' McGhee recalled. Michael Phelan got the job. McGhee asked if Ferguson had any advice that might help him get back into the Premier League. "One of the things he told me was to learn Spanish and Portuguese so that I could coach players from Europe and South America in their own languages. I did it, to an extent. I did start to learn Spanish."

Asked why he sought help after being snubbed, McGhee said: "I have no issue with him. He helped me in my playing career and, in the beginning, in management too." So what might have been Ferguson's issue? "There have been all sorts of theories, but I think I simply didn't live up to his expectations as a manager. I think that, when I didn't get Wolves promoted to the Premier League, he was disappointed in me."

McGhee went to Wolves as a managerial meteor: the equivalent of Coyle, say, or a more nomadic Lambert. He had won the Second Division with Reading, then moved to Leicester for a year before taking up the Molineux challenge. He took Wolves to the play-offs. As McGhee put it: "I hit the crossbar." At Millwall, a play-off was almost as unkind, thwarting a second successive promotion. When he did emerge triumphant from the play-offs, at Brighton, they could not stay in the Championship and he was sacked.

He took Motherwell into the Uefa Cup and the next stop was Aberdeen. There was need to ask, for McGhee left soon after a 9-0 defeat at Celtic with the club second from bottom, but McGhee did confirm that it was the lowest point of his career, adding: "Not just because of my history there but because, for the first time ever, I wasn't able to make any impression whatsoever. I just came up against a brick wall. I wasn't able to engage the players or anything."

Why? "I'd rather not say. But I'm sure Craig [Brown] and Archie [Knox] are trying to do something about it now."

McGhee, 55 in May, is too young to give up. "When I went to Leicester in 1994," he said, "I imagined that I'd spend the rest of my career managing in the Premier League." He even dreamed of succeeding Ferguson. "Everyone's entitled to a dream. But I stopped being the hot ticket after Wolves and know I'm never going to get that call from the chairman of a top club now. But I feel totally unfulfilled in that respect. I still feel I can achieve what I set out to do.

"It's just a question of taking a different route and you look at people like Mick McCarthy, Owen Coyle, Tony Pulis and Neil Warnock who have made the step up. They are an inspiration to me and maybe it can happen with the evolution of this football club."

Although Bristol Rovers may not look like a plum job from afar, the prospect of a move from a ground shared with rugby to a 20,000-capacity venue with room for expansion reminds McGhee of the Reading project he abandoned. That there is potential was evident last weekend, when Rovers' attendance of 6,164 exceeded all others in League Two and seven out of eight in League One.

McGhee used that in the build-up to the 2-1 victory over Bradford City. "I told my players that, much as I'm proud to be manager of Bristol Rovers, I'm embarrassed to be manager of a club sitting so low in League Two. I want to be better and hoped they felt the same. There are smaller clubs than us with smaller budgets who don't have 6,000-plus turning up to support them – and they're above us."

It seemed to work and maybe the Glasgow factor helped, for McGhee, after examining the usual suspects – the Scottish working-class ethic, the fear of failure, the example provided by Jock Stein and Bill Shankly to Ferguson – offered another explanation: "It's the accent. Somebody suggested this the other day and it tallies with my experience, even on the Tube in London. People seem to find it intimidating. There's an edge to it that gets people's attention. A bit of power and authority. And that's an important part of management."

And there you may have the hitherto secret weapon of Glaswegian managers: the master's voice.

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