McLeish's optimism thanks to Ferguson

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The Independent Online

Alex McLeish started work as the Scotland manager yesterday preaching a manifesto of cautious optimism, continuity and commitment, and revealed that a chat with his mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, had helped him to decide to take the job.

McLeish, capped 77 times in a playing career that included hundreds of appearances for Ferguson's all-conquering Aberdeen of the 1980s, has signed a contract with the Scottish FA until the World Cup finals of 2010. The former Motherwell, Hibernian and Rangers manager, who won seven trophies at Ibrox in four years before leaving last summer, will be joined by coaches Andy Watson and Roy Aitken.

Their first ambitious aim is to maintain Scotland's fine form in Euro 2008 qualifying. Under Walter Smith, the Scots won three of their first four matches, including beating France, to lie top of Group B, the toughest section, above France, Italy and Ukraine.

The next four games are against Georgia at Hampden on 24 March, against Italy in Bari four days later, in the Faroe Islands on 6 June, and at Hampden against Lithuania on 8 September. On form, nine points from those is a realistic goal, but Scotland are still considered outside shots behind the current chasing trio to fill one of the top two places necessary to reach the finals in Switzerland and Austria.

But that did not stop Ferguson from urging McLeish, 48, to seize the chance. "I spoke to Alex and he advised me to take the job without hesitation," said McLeish. "It's a marvellous opportunity and a massive challenge."

There, in a nutshell, McLeish summarised why he was both tempted to change his mind about holding out for another club job, but why overoptimism should be avoided. Qualification would be among the greatest achievements in Scotland's history - and McLeish would be a national hero - but equally by November, without success, his reputation could have taken a battering. One predecessor, Berti Vogts, can testify to how tough that can be.

To temper expectation, McLeish reiterated yesterday: "It is a very, very difficult group. We had a bonus result against France [1-0 in October] and a marvellous performance. But rationally everybody would expect France and Italy to be still the clear favourites."

Not to put too much of a downer on proceedings, he did add that Rangers, under his care, were expected to be ousted from the Champions' League last season from a group including Internazionale and Porto. Instead McLeish took them to the knockout stages for the first time.

Minor miracles do happen and McLeish hopes to continue with Smith's sterling work since 2004, especially building on the "team ethic", aka self-respect, that Smith helped his players to claw back.

"We want to keep the momentum," McLeish said. "There has been a wee bit of turmoil [with Smith leaving for Rangers] but we plan to meet the players next week and assure them we want to keep things going the way Walter started."

There will be no dramatic change in personnel, not least because the pool of experience and talent required to make a fist of Euro 2008 is limited. "I haven't unearthed a gem with Scottish parentage in the last few days. We will go with the tried and trusted," McLeish said.

On the plus side, the majority of Scotland's finest play their club football for managers with whom McLeish can expect cordial relations, and help when he needs it. They include Scots in Smith at Rangers, Gordon Strachan (McLeish's good mate) at Celtic, Ferguson at United and David Moyes at Everton, as well as Alan Curbishley at West Ham, who have two key men - Christian Dailly and Nigel Quashie - on their books.

McLeish was inevitably asked what assurance he could give that he would not walk early if a good club job arises. "I signed a contact and I plan to see that contract all the way through," he said. It was the grandest promise of the day.

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