McGhee marks out Leicester's future

The writing is on the wall for Filbert Street's ambitious young manager, writes Phil Shaw
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The Independent Online
In the reception area beneath Filbert Street's imposing double-decker stand hangs a dayglo banner declaring: "The Future's Marked Out". Mark McGhee came up with the wordplay, and the early signs are that Leicester City will not be marking time in the First Division.

The writing is also on the wall in the Leicester manager's office. A graph has three targets picked out: 51 points, Relegation; 74, Play-offs; 90, Champions. The curve plotting their progress to date shows a team on course to fulfil McGhee's loftiest aim.

Today, five months after the end of their latest brief sojourn in the Premiership, they take a two-point lead to third-placed Barnsley. Many Leicester supporters, accustomed to their side flitting between the divisions, might be satisfied to see Oakwell temporarily replaced by Old Trafford in next year's fixtures.

The 38-year-old McGhee, who was Alex Ferguson's first signing at Aberdeen and has plainly absorbed some of his restless perfectionism, is committed to changing that mentality.

This one-time goal-poacher has undergone a transformation himself since joining the gamekeeper's ranks four years ago. "When you're young you don't see yourself as management material, although on reflection I always had something to say. Probably too much at times.

"After I eventually took over at Reading, I remember ringing Jim Smith, who was then at Portsmouth, and saying: 'I'd just like to apologise for all the shit I gave you in the two years you had me at Newcastle. I realise now what a pain in the arse it must have been'."

The last Scot to manage Leicester, Jock Wallace, was also renowned for his plain speaking. "This city needed something to believe in," he once announced, "so I gave it me." McGhee's legacy at Leicester will, he promises, be the sort of improvement he left at Reading. "That was a thousand times better than I found it. They could have no complaints."

The former Scotland striker is convinced that, increasingly, the Premiership is "the only place to be", but has no plans to leave just yet. What is happening at Leicester, on and off the park, persuades him that they can break the mould which has them cast as too big for the First but not big enough for the Premiership.

"Leicester have never been a Newcastle or a Wolves who've fallen from grace," he says. "The potential has been unfulfilled, but that's what attracted and excited me. There's enough support to get 30,000 in consistently once the rest of the stadium is developed. The revenue generated by bums on seats will go back into the playing side."

The team is already much changed since McGhee succeeded Brian Little last December, in personnel and in style. The new regime discovered, in the manager's words, "a squad short of Premier League quality". Survival might have been possible had he bought four players of the requisite class, he maintains, but that was not feasible.

In the event, McGhee had to sell Mark Draper for pounds 3.25m to Aston Villa before buying. Scott Taylor, a midfield powerhouse, followed him from Reading; Steve Corica, an Australian striker, made a strong impression before breaking a leg; and they will be soon be joined by Zeljko Kalac, a 6ft 7in goalkeeper from Sydney, and Pontus Kamark, IFK Gothenburg's Swedish international defender.

The long-ball game which led Leicester into the land of milk and money 18 months ago is no more. "I'm certainly not knocking it, but my education has been with clubs who passed the ball," McGhee explains. "That's all I know." Significantly, one of his first buys was Garry Parker, a playmaker surplus to Little's requirements at Villa. However, a surprising number of his predecessor's players remain.

"In this country we tend to underestimate what players are capable of. We don't ask enough of them. There are people here passing a ball better than we ever thought possible, simply because we've encouraged them to do it. It was funny when we played Reading. Both teams looked the same and were trying to do the same things."

Leicester have long had a reputation as a selling club: from Banks, McLintock and Shilton through Allan Clarke and Nish to Lineker, Alan Smith and McAllister. "It'll be the same for some time yet," McGhee concedes. "The important thing is that we don't sell to pay the bills. If we can sell a Draper and bring in several quality players, that's good business."

Gary McAllister remarked recently that it did not hurt Leicester enough when they went down. McGhee detected a similar fatalism during the summer. "There was this sense of 'At least we'll win more games next season'. That's what we've got to fight.

"I've told my lads not to look back on last Sunday's Derby-Millwall game on TV and say: 'Well, at least we're better than those two', but to consider the Man Utd-Liverpool match and think: 'We'll never beat them unless we improve'."

Mention of United is a reminder of McGhee's link with Ferguson when Aberdeen won the European Cup-Winners' Cup more than a decade ago. The pair are often portrayed as disciple and mentor, which brings a wry smile to the face of the former. The relationship was, he admits, volatile at times.

"I'm more complimented by comparisons than Alex, because I don't have to say how good a manager he is. But I think they're ridiculous. We're both Scottish and that's about it. I don't mimic what he did, though of course it's had an influence on me."

Did it extend to flinging crockery and pies around during the half-time team talk? "It's been known," he grins. Yet his own favourite Fergie story features flying underwear.

"After a reserve game at Forfar he was shouting and wagging a finger at one of the boys. In anger he kicked the laundry basket, and these pants flew through the air and landed on another guy's head like a hat. He didn't move, just sat there rigid.

"Fergie didn't even notice until he finished raging. Then he looked at the boy and said: 'And you can take those f-- pants off your head. What the hell do you think you're playing at?' "

There was more to Ferguson's man-management than control by fear. According to McGhee, he not only appreciated that every player was different but knew who craved reassurance and who responded to a rollicking.

"He also did what he's still doing at United. He gave us a persecution complex about Celtic and Rangers, the Scottish FA and the Glasgow media; the whole West of Scotland thing. He reckoned they were all against Aberdeen, and it worked a treat."

But the most valuable lesson McGhee learned, cemented during a spell with Hamburg, was the importance of possession and patience. "When we got into advanced areas in Scottish games, all we wanted to do was pump the ball into the box. In Europe, it was crucial not to cross unless it was to someone. You came out again and just kept the ball. I like to think I bring more of that into our matches."

Leicester, he insists, are "bigger than Aberdeen", whose achievements in the Ferguson era fuelled his faith in the capacity of middle-ranking clubs to muscle in on the elite. The future is marked out, and the cups coveted by McGhee are not the kind which mess up the dressing-room walls.