Alex McLeish talks Birmingham demise, Villa hardships and his future
In the wake of his 2011 League Cup success with Birmingham City, the Guardian described Alex McLeish as "a top manager," remarking that he "got his tactics spot on for this occasion," and that "no one deserves the plaudits that will follow more." McLeish had finished ninth in the Premier League the previous campaign, having returned the Blues to the top flight in his first full season in charge. His future looked bright. How quickly things can change.
Six years on, he has been out of work for almost 12 months. Now refreshed and re-energised, he's eager to return and remind people of his abilities.
Birmingham were relegated three months after that cup success, condemned by a run of five defeats in their last six games, a period in which McLeish was without forwards Nikola Zigic and Obafemi Martins, with his last striker standing Cameron Jerome failing to score even once in the run-in. That summer McLeish left, joining arch-rivals Aston Villa. The reaction, on both sides of the divide, was ferocious.
"It took me by surprise," McLeish told ESPN FC. "I was backed into a corner when I left Birmingham. I felt that I was being undermined so I had to get out. The goalposts shifted and I had no alternative but to leave at the end of the season. But I didn't anticipate the reaction of the fans on both sides. I'm not on social media, but by all accounts I was getting slaughtered. I made sure I didn't get any feedback on that because that would have made it even worse. You don't want to be doing training every day on a downer, with your head down. I was going in there every day with my head held up."
Chasing Champions League qualification, Aston Villa had finished sixth on three consecutive occasions between 2008 and 2010. But it came at a great cost. Owner Randy Lerner decided to cut spending and manager Martin O'Neill left on the eve of the 2010-11 season. Gerard Houllier took over and Villa slumped, tumbling into the relegation zone by January. The Frenchman's heart problems prevented him from completing the season, though a mid-table finish was secured with a late run of form. That summer, Villa sold assist-machines Stewart Downing and Ashley Young.
"Because of the club, the heritage and the history, I committed myself without discussing targets or figures," said McLeish. "I assumed that I would have a few bob to spend." Instead, he was under instruction to dramatically lower the wage bill.
"I went back to see my wife afterwards. She saw my face and said, 'Not one of these years again?' She was with me at Rangers when they were downsizing and we went through a lot of pain. I kept thinking about Martin O'Neill's quote: 'It costs a fortune just to stand still in the Premier League.' My task was to reduce wages and remain competitive. Villa fans' expectations were that we should be competing with teams for Europe."
Villa actually started reasonably well and were still in the top 10 as Christmas approached, but 2012 brought a ruinous slump that spelled the end for McLeish. Having been 11th at the end of January after a 3-2 win over Wolves, Villa won only one more game and ended the campaign in 16th.
"When I left Villa I had a lot of sleep to catch up on," McLeish said wryly. "So many sleepless nights. You're laying there thinking about everything. You think what happens if we get relegated? Will it be the end?"
As a player, McLeish won 77 caps for Scotland and played nearly 500 times for Aberdeen. He played for Sir Alex Ferguson, winning three Scottish titles and the European Cup Winners' Cup against Real Madrid in 1983.
His first season as a manager, at Motherwell in 1994-95, brought a second-place finish, then their highest league finish in the post-war era. He returned Hibernian to the top flight in 1999 and came third in the Scottish Premiership in 2001. That brought him to the attention of Rangers, where he won the domestic treble in 2003 and, on a dramatic final day, another title in 2005 before the downsizing began to bite. He became Scotland manager in 2007, thrust into a European Championship qualifying group with 2006 World Cup finalists Italy and France. Scotland beat France in the Parc des Princes thanks to a spectacular James McFadden goal, but could only finish third. Then he travelled south to take over at Birmingham.
Life after the bruising Aston Villa experience has been anything but dull. His tenure at Nottingham Forest ended in 2013 after just seven games when he walked away, disenchanted with owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi and angered by the club's failure to sign George Boyd, now a regular with Premier League side Burnley. Forest have been through four managers since. A short, but enjoyable period followed at Genk in Belgium, where McLeish signed £15m Leicester City man Wilfred Ndidi for £70,000, and a spell at Egyptian side Zamalek came to an abrupt end when the owner began to interfere with selection. Now McLeish is hungry for a new project, and some stability.
"Any success I've had in the game has come when there's a great relationship with the people above me," he says.
"Money is not my God. I just want a project that I can get my teeth into. I want owners I can work closely with. I've been a winner throughout my career. I've had some failures, but sometimes it seems as if you have nine successes and one failure, it's the failure that gets held against you."
Still only 58, you suspect that we haven't yet heard the last of McLeish.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.