After winning two rugby league Challenge Cups and the inaugural Super League title, McRae was unceremoniously shown the door. That was Gateshead's good fortune, because the new Super League franchise was then able to enlist his vast experience and expertise to guide their first campaign.
"A lot of people have tried to make plenty out of my going back to St Helens," he says. "But for me it's not so much an emotional issue as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the friends I made during three years at the club. I don't think I've got anything to prove there and I certainly don't think of it as a competition between me and the new coach."
All the same, McRae bridles at the suggestions that the new man behind his old desk, the former Great Britain captain and coach Ellery Hanley, is there to add the steel that was supposedly missing under his regime. "I think anyone who has said anything like that is probably showing some inexperience," he says. "It's a typical approach from someone who hasn't coached before - to come in and say this is what I'm going to do. What he'll find is that what you want to do and what you can do are two different things."
McRae believes that there are certain habits ingrained within the club that even Hanley might find hard to change. One of the criticisms that saw him deposed was that Saints regularly concede too many points to leading rivals like Wigan and Leeds, but that, he says, is the product of the long-standing policy of signing players whose strength is as attackers. "It's a trade-off, because there aren't many players around who are equally strong in attack and defence."
It is that emphasis, at once an advantage and a limitation, that will make McRae a very wary visitor to his old home today. Gateshead acquitted themselves well, for an entirely new club, in losing by only 10 points - and a couple of dodgy refereeing decisions - to Leeds in their first Super League game a fortnight ago. "But I think we are going to be under more pressure at St Helens. Leeds are the better team, but Saints have more individual brilliance. The only thing I would say is that they have perhaps been over-aggressive - and that cost them the match against Leeds."
McRae's main concern, of course, is with his present club. An honourable defeat at Knowsley Road might do no harm to their credibility, but he is aware that there is a trap in that sort of thinking. "The last thing I want is to get further into the season and have everyone talking about how we're playing pretty well - but not winning matches." Knowsley Road would be as good a place as any to start, hard though McRae tries to relegate his return to just another entry on the fixture list.
"It would be nice to win there, although I'd say that about any game. Players go back to their old clubs all the time, I suppose, and sometimes find a bit extra on those occasions. If we could do it, it would be a sweeter taste."Reuse content