A few ginger wigs and tartan hats started appearing in the stands. The Proclaimers soon became a fixture on the pre-match playlist at St Andrew’s. Bagpipes were occasionally played outside the ground. It was a clichéd kind of welcome, demonstrating at least a degree of optimism. After Steve Bruce’s reign had grown stale, and uncertainty over his future had seen him leave for Wigan Athletic, Alex McLeish was appointed as his replacement at Birmingham City.
His stock was at its highest, having taken Scotland to the brink of qualification for Euro 2008, finishing just behind Italy and France in their qualifying group. They memorably beat Raymond Domenech’s side at the Parc des Princes, with James McFadden’s 30-yard thunderbolt taking on iconic status. That result helped to set up a decisive meeting with Italy on home turf in November 2007, which proved to be the last game of McLeish’s first spell in charge of the national team.
Hampden Park was packed and supporters were hopeful of reaching a first major international tournament in a decade. Luca Toni stabbed in an opener after just 75 seconds to subdue the crowd. Barry Ferguson’s second-half equaliser had them believing again, but any lingering hopes were dashed by Christian Panucci’s injury-time headed winner from a disputed free kick.
After the match, McLeish expressed his frustration at succumbing to defeat in a game he felt that Scotland deserved to win, but was optimistic about using a positive campaign to spur them on to the World Cup. Self-deprecation and gallows humour had become a coping mechanism for supporters who had grown accustomed to disappointment, but this felt different. Pride had been restored and there were hopes of building for the future.
It didn’t last, as the man responsible for the revival in Scotland’s fortunes moved on with an unseemly haste. McLeish was gone within ten days of losing to Italy. His decision to resign was announced shortly after he’d returned from South Africa and the qualifying draw for the upcoming World Cup. Scotland’s task had just been outlined but his mind was already elsewhere. The pull of the Premier League was simply too strong.
McLeish’s decision to take over at Birmingham City, who had been promoted back to the top flight at the first attempt, and were sitting in 16th after three consecutive defeats, marked the start of more than five years spent managing in England. For McLeish, having achieved all that he felt he could in Scotland, it was a new world to try to conquer.
There were highs, lows, and a lot of middling drudgery as his reputation ultimately took a battering from which it is still to recover. The period included a League Cup win that he referred to as the greatest achievement of his managerial career, but also two relegations and a fraught relationship with supporters.
The whole adventure started so well, and in a thrilling fashion that bore almost no resemblance to what was to follow. In his first game as Birmingham manager, McLeish led his new team to a spectacular 3-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Victory was secured in added time as Sebastian Larsson dispossessed Dimitar Berbatov and smashed the ball into the top corner from distance. The euphoria of that moment wasn’t an omen of things to come.
Blues soon retreated into a steady and cautious approach, far removed from the strangely open nature of McLeish’s first match. They were dogged at home but insipid away, as an odd pattern developed. In the remainder of the season, they lost just once at St Andrew’s, by a single goal to Chelsea, but only twice failed to avoid defeat on their travels after the Tottenham aberration.
Too many home matches were drawn, when converting just one into a victory would have been enough to ensure survival. Failure to beat an execrable Derby, who finished with the worst points tally in Premier League history, and fellow relegation rivals Reading and Fulham proved fatal. Blues slipped into the bottom three with four games remaining, and not even a 4-1 win over Blackburn Rovers on the final day could save them.
Very few blamed McLeish for failing to keep the club up, but he’d already demonstrated some blind spots that would continue to blight his reign. During the January transfer window he had signed David Murphy and James McFadden, who he’d worked with at Hibernian and Scotland respectively. They were known quantities whose Birmingham careers regularly stalled. The other arrival, the talented Mauro Zarate, featured infrequently. Recommended by the owners, he wasn’t McLeish’s man.
Zarate made some stirring cameos and scored a match-winning brace against Manchester City, one of four goals he managed despite starting just six times. McFadden and even the lumpen Garry O’Connor, just entering the start of a long and sorry descent, were regularly selected ahead of him. The bias in favour of players McLeish knew, and had previously managed, could be self-defeating.
Under his guidance, Blues made an immediate return to the Premier League in 2009. It was the least that the club expected, having kept many of its best performers from the year before, and added some experience in the form of Lee Carsley, Kevin Phillips and Marcus Bent. Birmingham spent the vast majority of the season in the automatic promotion places, losing fewer games than the eventual champions Wolves, and beat Reading away from home to seal a second-place finish.
Still there was disgruntlement with McLeish’s style of play and his steadfast refusal to lift the handbrake. He created a compact and functional side that never aspired to be anything more. Blues had arguably the best squad in the Championship but seemed afraid to show it. McLeish was risk-averse in the extreme, and it’s difficult to imagine a more forgettable or uninspiring promotion campaign. They scored 54 goals, fewer than any of the top six by a substantial margin, and three of those in the bottom half, including relegated Norwich City.
The 2009/10 season, McLeish’s third as Birmingham manager, was his greatest triumph in England. The goal of promotion had been achieved and he had the chance to craft a side in his own image to take on the Premier League. Some smart business was done on a limited budget, with Roger Johnson and Scott Dann coming in to forge an impressive understanding at centre back. Their partnership, supported by Joe Hart behind them, created the solid base which underpinned Blues’ success.
Pass master Barry Ferguson arrived to get McLeish’s side ticking in midfield and the unpredictable Christian Benitez made up for his wayward shooting by dragging defenders out of position and creating space for a rejuvenated Cameron Jerome, who scored 12 goals that season. Birmingham enjoyed a 12-game unbeaten run, including seven victories, in the middle of the season to cement their place in the top half.
The football was improved, if lacking in incision, and Blues still finished in ninth despite a collapse in form during the second half of the campaign. It was the club’s highest finish since 1959, as McLeish’s emphasis on discipline and defensive shape had them punching above their weight. Where possible, he rarely deviated from a preferred starting line-up. Blues were undefeated at home in the league from September onwards and McLeish was named Premier League Manager of the Month for December, with supporters temporarily dreaming of Europe.
Much had changed off the pitch too. In October 2009, Carson Yeung’s protracted takeover was finally completed. The era of David Sullivan, David Gold and Karren Brady had run its course, with a mutual antipathy developing between owners and supporters. There was the promise of a new dawn for the club in all senses, which soon proved spectacularly wide of the mark.
In 2010/11, as Blues looked to build on an impressive first season back in the Premier League, some more exotic and high profile signings were added to the team’s steady and hardworking British core. In came Alexander Hleb, Nikola Zigic and Jean Beausejour. When Joe Hart returned to Manchester City at the end of his loan deal, Ben Foster replaced him. His goal spent a lot of time under siege as Blues became increasingly defensive. A lack of ambition and intent would be the club’s downfall.
McLeish’s approach was ruled by fear of defeat rather than a desire for victory. Much of the season was spent trundling along in the bottom half of the table, a few places above the relegation zone. An arduous league campaign was at least enlivened by a League Cup run, as a favourable draw saw Blues reach the semi-finals without facing an away tie and only once coming up against a fellow Premier League side. A pitch invasion greeted the 2-1 win over fierce rivals Aston Villa.
West Ham were beaten over two legs to set up a meeting with Arsenal at Wembley, in the midst of their much-discussed trophy drought. While the Gunners had grown accustomed to collecting silverware under Arsene Wenger, Birmingham had won only one major trophy in the club’s entire history, a League Cup success back in 1963. Nobody gave them much hope of adding to that total.
Blues embraced their underdog status and set out to frustrate Arsenal, while causing them problems from set pieces, with the towering Zigic selected as a lone striker. Although they occasionally rode their luck as Arsenal dominated, and Foster produced some fine saves, the move ultimately paid off. Zigic opened the scoring from a corner before Robin van Persie equalised.
After surviving some sustained pressure, in the 89th minute, the Serbian striker’s flick-on created confusion between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny and the ball squirmed free. Substitute Obafemi Martins was presented with an open goal to stroke home the winner.
It was a triumph of diligence, organisation, and a helping of good fortune, as McLeish delivered arguably the finest moment in the club’s existence. His teams had a habit of rising to a big occasion and he was excellent at preparing players for a one-off tactical battle where a gap in skill and ability had to be narrowed by other means. Unfortunately, over the course of a whole season, his innate caution dragged the team down.
Every point became a prisoner, and for Blues there weren’t enough to go around. They won just two of their final 12 league games after the drama of Wembley, and picked up a single point from the last 18 available. Paralysed by fear, they got drawn into an eminently avoidable relegation battle and fatally dropped into the bottom three on the closing day of the season.
The outcome might have felt harsh but some of the accompanying statistics were damning. Birmingham scored the division’s fewest goals, at a rate of less than one a game, and won just eight times. Although they only lost 15 matches, the same number as Sunderland in tenth, Blues didn’t have the necessary ambition or attacking threat to turn draws into wins. It was a familiar story under McLeish.
In stark contrast, Blackpool achieved the same number of points with an entirely different philosophy. Ian Holloway’s side were bold and adventurous, sometimes naively so. Despite vastly inferior resources and a patchwork squad of lower league journeymen, they proved that there was another way to compete. They carried the game to the opposition and provided great entertainment, scoring 18 more goals than Blues. If nothing else, Blackpool at least went down fighting rather than with a whimper.
That summer, something strange happened. As McLeish started reshaping his squad for another tilt at promotion from the Championship, he unexpectedly resigned amid rumours of interest from Aston Villa. Following threats of legal action, a compensation package was agreed and McLeish was eventually appointed on June 17, 2011.
There was a sense of frustration at him deserting a sinking ship that many held him responsible for setting on its downward course, but the majority of Blues supporters were surprised and delighted that Villa had paid to take a problem off their hands. Wembley aside, he had sapped a large part of the fanbase’s enthusiasm for football. As with his Scotland departure, McLeish’s decision to move on demonstrated a calculating careerist streak.
He represented a curious choice for Villa given his close association with Birmingham City and his well-established reputation for favouring a defensive and attritional style of play. After the heavy spending of the Martin O’Neill years, Randy Lerner’s dream of breaking into the top four still seemed too far out of reach without unsustainable levels of investment. The club was entering a period of managed decline, which McLeish was tasked with overseeing.
The odds were stacked against him from the start. Villa had finished ninth the season before, well adrift of the European places, and the team’s two star players – Ashley Young and Stewart Downing – were sold off for a combined £37million. McLeish was given little of that money to reinvest, and led a distinctly average and uninspiring squad to 16th, two points above the relegation zone.
The similarities with his final year at Blues were there for all to see. Villa drew too many games, by far the most in the Premier League, and won just seven, a total worse than every club aside from Wolverhampton Wanderers, who propped up the rest. They also scored 37 goals, the second-lowest total, and failed to win any of their last ten matches. Although never in serious threat of relegation, supporters rapidly became disillusioned with both results and performances.
The club’s average attendance fell to its lowest level in a decade. There were protests outside of Villa Park ahead of McLeish’s arrival and inside the ground in the games leading up to his departure. The atmosphere turned toxic and several banners appeared in the stands, including one that referenced his nickname and supporters’ displeasure at the developing situation – ‘Get the Eck out of here’ – during a 2-1 loss at home to Bolton Wanderers.
McLeish was always an unpopular appointment, and unlikely to remain at the club long term. He was sacked after less than a year in charge, his standing vastly reduced from the heights of a ninth-place finish in the Premier League with Birmingham and an unexpected League Cup win. Now he was synonymous with dour, negative football and a crippling lack of excitement. Managers aren’t obliged to encourage their teams to play expansive football, but it was as if the thought of doing so had never even crossed McLeish’s mind.
That season, Scottish managers had been in vogue. They seemed to offer a certain dependability and sense of tactical nous. The presence of McLeish, Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish, David Moyes, Steve Kean, Paul Lambert and Owen Coyle (born in Paisley, although he elected to play for the Republic of Ireland) meant that more than a third of top flight clubs were led by Scotsmen. The revival wasn’t to last. The 2017/18 season was the first in the Premier League era to get under way without a single Scottish manager.
A spell in the wilderness followed for McLeish as the Scottish revolution failed to take off. Kean and Coyle saw their sides relegated, while Dalglish was dispensed with by Liverpool. McLeish’s methods and outlook were no longer considered viable at the top level. His star was on the wane and he had to wait over six months for his next opportunity. It proved to be his last, and by far the briefest, of a complicated interlude in English club management.
Nottingham Forest used three different managers in the 2012/13 season as volatile new owners the Al-Hasawi family aggressively targeted promotion. McLeish was wedged in-between Sean O’Driscoll and the returning Billy Davies. He lasted just over a month and took charge of seven games, winning once. He was disappointed by a lack of signings in the January transfer window and left by mutual consent shortly afterwards.
Things had come full circle as McLeish’s final game saw him occupying the away dugout at St Andrew’s, and on the receiving end of a hostile reception from Birmingham City supporters. Forest slipped to a 2-1 defeat, and he departed within a few days. Interestingly it was Chris Burke, one of the players he’d signed for Blues before leaving, and had subsequently tried and failed to take to the City Ground, who scored both goals for the home team.
That result rounded off a miserable tenure at Forest and decisively brought an end to McLeish’s time in England. It had seen diminishing returns and increasing animosity, as he was branded dull and unenterprising forever more. He seemed to care about little more than grim survival, secured by any means necessary. McLeish was damaged goods, and this reputation rendered him seemingly unemployable in England.
He was forced to go abroad in search of work, but short stints at Genk and Zamalek did nothing to revive his fortunes. He spent almost two solid years out of work before he was offered the chance to return as Scotland manager in February 2018 following a long drawn-out and shambolic recruitment process that left the Scottish FA with few options once Michael O’Neill had turned them down.
McLeish’s last spell in charge of the national team didn’t last long but offered an effective launchpad into English football and the Premier League. Once there he discovered that the grass wasn’t quite as green as he’d hoped, and resentment started to fester. In the end, both sides were left feeling burned by the experience. McLeish won’t make the same mistake again, not that he’s ever likely to get the chance to do so. An unhappy marriage of convenience back in Scotland will have to suffice.