Alex McLeish is partial to a good movie. So when a reporter wondered whether Sir Alex Ferguson was like The Godfather, with all his protégés resembling the mob waiting for "Don Fergieone" to vacate the firing line, the Birmingham City manager found the comparison impossible to resist.
"I guess you could call him that," McLeish said, nodding. A broad grin suggested he was aware how the answer would play in certain parts of the press, especially with a resurgent Birmingham facing what he anticipates will be a "wounded" Manchester United side at St Andrew's tonight.
McLeish does not, however, buy into the idea of himself, Steve Bruce, Roy Keane, Gordon Strachan and Ferguson's son Darren, newly installed at Preston, vying to inherit the mantle. "There's no doubt he'll be a long time in the game yet," the former Scotland manager said. "As he keeps saying, with his health being good, and a very active mind, there's no reason to retire."
That McLeish felt the need to offer such a testimonial nevertheless reflected the fact that his mentor from Aberdeen's glory days has endured a testing week. After the FA Cup humiliation by Leeds, would Fergie have come down hard in training on those he accused of a "shocking display"?
"The players he has got, like the ones at Aberdeen, have a certain amount of pride," McLeish said. "We didn't necessarily need the whip to be cracked. I think we knew. He doesn't have to berate people. He can use psychology to get a performance out of people who don't play as well as they should. I was a beneficiary of it many times."
Pressed to provide an example of Ferguson's psychological wiles, McLeish shook his head. "I can't tell you," he said. Then came the smile again. "He'd kill me if I did." Not that the boy from Barrhead, now 50, finds pitting himself against the knight from Govan, 68 on New Year's Eve, a daunting prospect, despite having failed to defeat him in four attempts with Rangers and Birmingham. Nor is he perturbed by the thought of an angry Ferguson looking for a reaction from United's Cup flops.
"We grew up with that type of manager, so it seemed natural. His great rival at Dundee United, Jim McLean, was the same type. He ruled in a tough way. As young kids we assumed every manager was like that."
Changes in the game, from spiralling salaries to the influx of overseas talent, have led to different styles of management developing. Ruling by fear, or throwing crockery around, is no longer a viable mode of operation. "Sir Alex knows he couldn't do it the same way if he was starting out now," McLeish said. "The superstars in his dressing-room would get their agents to do all sorts of things to get them out.
"In those days there wasn't much money about. We were playing for bonuses and to pay our mortgages. There was a driving force in that as well as Sir Alex's drive. But the other managers from that era – where are they now? He has evolved with the different personalities and mindsets, whereas others were culled."
Tonight's is not a match Birmingham are expected to win, yet McLeish is confident they have the ability and unity (they will be unchanged for the ninth consecutive league fixture) to set a new top-flight record for the club. The Christmas win at Stoke made it 11 games without defeat, equalling the sequence by the 1907-08 Blues before their run was ruined by United and they ended up being relegated.
"We know United don't lose too many," McLeish said. "They have the capacity to bounce back very quickly, and they certainly have the class and quality within the ranks to do that. They might be a bit wounded this weekend, which won't make it any easier for us.
"At some stage we will lose a game. Fact. But the players at this club have risen to every challenge thrown at them. We wanted them to show their character when they suffered a setback, and they've done it time and again. Two years ago, when we were relegated, we couldn't get a shut-out for love nor money. This season the players have got nine [a total bettered only by Chelsea]. If we can get something from the United game it'll be another fantastic challenge they've met."
With each positive result, achieved against a backdrop of speculation over how he will invest the £40m war chest provided by new owner Carson Yeung, managing heightened expectations increasingly becomes part of McLeish's job. "Our aim remains as it did at the start of the season: to stay in the Premier League," he said, reluctant to tempt providence even with 32 points already on the board. "If we can do that, then next season we would be looking for the next step: to consolidate."
Win this one, though, and supporters will be setting their sights higher. History offers scant hope, Birmingham having failed to beat United in 22 attempts since 1978, the year Ferguson took over at Aberdeen and advised a young, red-haired defender to give up his accountancy studies and commit to football.
The pair remain close friends, but as one of Don Corleone's sons tells another when proposing a "hit" on two "family" members in The Godfather: "It's not personal. It's strictly business."Reuse content