Alex McLeish: 'In private I feel like I want to jump off a bridge'

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The Independent Online

It might have been when Aston Villa were parading the European Cup through the streets of the Second City in 1982, or when Johnny Giles's West Bromwich Albion celebrated promotion six years earlier.

Either way, the euphoria was enough to prompt one West Midlands sage to state: "I haven't witnessed scenes like this since the Blues last stayed up."

For a club who once considered no season complete without a successful last-ditch scramble for survival, Birmingham City don't do final-afternoon dramas nearly as well these days. Sometimes they don't even manage to take the fight to the last day.

Had Reading beaten Tottenham last weekend while they lost limply at Fulham, Birmingham would already have been down in a 37th-game repeat of how they came off St Andrew's two seasons ago after drawing against Newcastle to discover that Portsmouth had moved out of their reach by beating Wigan.

The only requirement for Alex McLeish's team today is to take more points from their home game against Blackburn than whatever Reading help themselves to at Derby and Fulham glean at Portsmouth.

The gloomy backcloth is the knowledge that a win for Reading or Fulham definitely puts Birmingham down 12 months on from their anti-climactic finish to 2006-07, when defeat at Preston North End rerouted the Championship title out of the clutches of Steve Bruce and into Roy Keane's hands at Sunderland.

It is an unpromising position – one that perhaps made McLeish's attendance at an end-of-season Midlands football lunch this week a major effort. At least the organisers did not position him with Martin O'Neill or Tony Mowbray, and the circular seating plan spared him jibes that he should fill that place by Paul Jewell at the bottom of the table.

"Nobody will hurt more than me if we fail to stay in the Premier League," McLeish said. "In my private time I feel like I want to jump off a bridge, and people have said it will be a blemish on your career if you go down. But did relegation hurt Steve Bruce or Harry Redknapp in the long term? They are inspirational to me. Steve hasto be a role model because he had Birmingham in this division for four years.

"People won't judge it as my team until I have brought in some new players. Even if the worst was to happen, I still have a long-term plan. You don't build a team overnight. [The club's co-owners] David Sullivan and David Gold have the power to inspire the fans and, 100 per cent, we share a vision."

The crassness with which Sullivan "bigged up" McLeish as the superior new model to replace the clapped-out Bruce version has rebounded painfully. While Wigan have sprung to early safety by taking 32 points in Bruce's 23-game-old tenure, Birmingham have mustered a mere 21 from their 23 and have to hope they can do what Southampton did on the last day of the Championship season by leaping clear as the anchor is raised.

McLeish exudes far greater dignity in acknowledging that his mistake in letting Wilson Palacios go is one of the reasons Birmingham are eight points and six places adrift of Wigan, the Honduran's new club. The manager has at least been told that his job is safe whatever happens. In addition, James McFadden, who provided the champagne moment of McLeish's 10-month spell in charge of Scotland by stunning France at the Parc des Princes, told him this week that he would not jump ship.

Remarkably, it is 25 years ago today that McLeish, now 49, lined up in an Aberdeen team who made history against Real Madrid on a thundery, rain-lashed night in Gothenburg, winning the European Cup- Winners' Cup. So, after all the honours as a player, the titles and cups as a manager and the acclaim as a national coach, does he wish he had stayed put north of the border?

"I have no regrets," he insisted. "I was told it would be a hard job. I have had quite a good record for winning and I need to prove that here, whether it's this year or next. I would have been on holiday with the missus now in Dubai, but I like a challenge.

"On Monday, I could be a hero or people could be thinking he was never the right man for the job – and I will feel like looking for that bridge."

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