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December 1, 2017 by Kane Styles.
Alex McLeish became Birmingham City manager in 2007 and spent four seasons with the club. During that time, Blues recorded their best ever Premier League finish, reached an FA Cup quarterfinal, won one promotion and of course won the Carling Cup.
I caught up with him.
Kane: How have you been spending your time?
Alex: I’m based in London, Kane. I do my media work and try to keep myself busy and active, I always keep my finger on the pulse in terms of what’s happening in the premier league and all the divisions, I still watch to see how the Blues are getting on.
Kane: I have to bring it up; there has been a lot of speculation in the media linking you with a return to Rangers. The bookmakers have made you one of the favourites, can you shed any light on it?
Alex: I had to make a statement to say that there was no contact from Rangers. People should save their money, I guess for the odds to go to that level people have already spent a few bob. But no, it was just some false news, you wonder how these things happen actually.
Kane: You had a long and successful playing career; over 600 games for Aberdeen, part of Scotland’s 1986 world cup squad, are there any moments during your playing days that stand out?
Alex: We had some really marvellous times as a team at Aberdeen. Alex Ferguson came and got the ball rolling, in terms of winning trophies I think I won 12. The very first triumph was winning the league in 1980 for the first time in 25 years, grown men were crying. Sir Alex had only been there a couple of years and it was a big moment for him in his managerial career. I saw all these guys shedding a tear and that and I was like what are you crying for? I was used to winning and I came from a boy’s club team who were winning as well. When I went to Aberdeen we started to win reserve league championships and it just felt like there was natural progression, evolution for me as a young footballer.
Kane: Your first season at Birmingham City was the 2007/2008 campaign, how did the move to Blues come about after the Scotland job?
Alex: I was getting overtures from English clubs but there was no way I was going to enter any discussions about going to England before the groups stages had finished with France and Italy fighting for those two spots. I stuck to that and totally ignored it. I knew I always had the ambition to go to England having missed a few opportunities as a player. But as a manager I had the ambition and then after we were knocked out my agents were contacted again and this time it was too big for me to turn down the premier league. The other side of it was people saying that your country is the best thing and of course it is, I never actually thought I would be the head coach of my national team. When I got the phone call to take the job, it was an absolute no brainer. I knew the next tournament’s qualifying groups wouldn’t start until September, but I really missed the day-to-day action on the training ground and working with the players. When I did get the offer to manage a premier league club, and there was three of four at the time who came in, I chose Birmingham. I actually spoke to Sir Alex and he said he had a soft spot for the Blues, I kind of went on his recommendation and of course I don’t regret joining the club after all the good times that we had.
Kane: Your first game in charge was at White Hart Lane, a last minute winner from Sebastien Larsson, 3-2. What were your thoughts after that match?
Alex: I actually watched that game the other day on Sky and Seb Larsson’s goal and it’s in the top 20 premier league goals or something. But, the funny thing was before the game I said to the players there isn’t an awful lot of long range efforts, when players hit balls from distance the goalkeepers aren’t so smart. I said to the players, just a little thing before you go, if you get a chance to hit one from long range have a crack. We actually scored twice from long distances that game, Cameron Jerome got one. It was one of those games where everything came off, that little bit of tactical advice helped and hallelujah you’re winning in the heart of London against Spurs.
Kane: You took charge of the club with a group of players you didn’t bring in; do you think you could have saved Blues from the drop if you had a bit more time?
Alex: Yes, of course I feel like that. Steve Bruce will probably feel like he would have saved the club as well, we can all say that. But, you just never know and you can’t change the course of history. I certainly feel like if I also got my targets in January we would have been ok, one of the players I wanted was Gary Cahill. I was absolutely gutted because I had him in one of the boxes, I was talking to him just to get his thoughts and make my own influence play a part. I said to Gary it would be great, you can come here and you could look across the city and say Villa you don’t know what you lost. But, Gary chose to go to Bolton, okay there may have been a money difference but his reason for it was that he didn’t want to be seen as an Aston Villa reject playing across the city playing for Birmingham. We all know what guy has gone on to achieve. We had no pace in the centre-back position and I think ultimately that cost us, we didn’t really have the legs to be watertight. It was a very fine margin, there was a couple of games we could have won, but you can look back at every game and say if we did this and we done that. We brought in James McFadden who scored a couple of goals but he missed a lot of the season and wasn’t fully fit, losing your new signing so quickly was a shame after the impact that he made. I do feel that the missing link was getting a solid and younger centre-back, I tried to fix the spine of the team a little bit. It was a great lesson about recruitment, you have tor recruit well. At the time, we didn’t have much money in terms of transfers.
Kane: The next season you did get the chance to change the squad; you brought in the likes of Lee Bowyer, Stephen Carr and Kevin Phillips, how good were they for Blues?
Alex: Brilliant, tried and trusted premier league players. It was a good learning season for us; we were working with mostly free transfers. We brought those three guys in and they were superb professionals, absolutely superb. They were players who were scared of nothing, no challenge was too big for them and Phillips was a dream of a finisher. Stevie Carr coming from a potential retirement played a starring role for the Blues over the next couple of years. Lee Bowyer, I can’t speak highly enough of him, he was fearless, he was famous for his late runs into the box. He made a big contribution. They were three great guys.
Kane: Bowyer’s midfield partner, Barry Ferguson – you spent time with him at Rangers and Scotland, how highly did you rate him?
Alex: The thing about Fergie was he kept the ball all day long. You see with players when they hit a bit of bad form, they tend to not get into good positions but Barry Ferguson could take the ball in any arena, in front of any number of people. He had a knack for getting forward, I remember when we beat Everton away in the FA Cup, Barry scored a brilliant goal. You can’t not play good football with players like that in your team, Barry came and used all his experience and again he was a really shrewd signing. These days we would be spending £20-30 million on having players like him in the team. We went for experienced players.
Kane: Blues had some great days during the promotion season, beating Reading 2-1 on the final day – what was that day like?
Alex: Well that was a tough week; we were expected to beat Preston at home. We got done by a couple of worldie’s, Ross Wallace scored a peach of a goal. It was a devastating blow and if we had been lesser men in terms of mentality we could have crumbled at Reading. But, to see Keith Fahey and Phillips score made it all worthwhile.
Kane: The next season you led Blues to their best premier league finish, what was the key to success that season?
Alex: I think probably consistency of selection, we knew we really had to concentrate on the league but we had a couple of good results in the cup. We went 12 games unbeaten and I went on the philosophy of not wanting to change a winning team, so I didn’t rotate as much. I’m very proud of finishing in 9th position and I think we dropped some points towards the end of the season, maybe tailed off a little bit but we finished on a high at home against Burnley and had a chance to salute the fans.
Kane: The following summer, Blues were linked with some big names. Moussa Dembele, was that deal close?
Alex: Yes, I phoned Dick Advocaat who was a great friend and managed AZ Alkmaar for a while, I said listen I like the guy Dembele and I’m hearing from the agent that we can get him for a reasonable price. He said to me that I don’t even have to go and watch him, take him blind. I actually said to him that I’ve actually seen him and Dick said:” you will double or treble that fee in three years.” I went back, told the board, but three days later I took the agent back to New Street station and he shook my hand. His agent said: “Alex, I like my players to not have too much pressure and go to clubs where they will nurture them and then go to a big club.” He was happy for Moussa to come and he said how I seemed like a good guy who wants his players to progress. Then, I get the devastating news a couple of days later that Dembele had signed for Fulham and the rest is history. He would have been a dream for Birmingham.
Kane: That day at Wembley beating Arsenal to win the Carling Cup, was that the best moment of your managerial career?
Alex: Because I grew up supporting Rangers, winning the treble with them against Celtic was probably the pinnacle. But, because of the underdog side of things, Birmingham v Arsenal in the Carling Cup final made me so proud of how our team dismantled Arsenal that day. We worked really hard with the tactics and we beat a team who were probably rated ten times better than us, that has got to be up there and is hard for me to separate that victory and my Rangers treble.
Kane: The games leading up to that final; West Ham and Villa, what was it like witnessing those moments from the dugout?
Alex: They were two of the greatest nights that I have ever experienced as a manager. The first half against West Ham we were powder puff, I made changes at half-time and normally I wouldn’t make changes that quickly. But, I felt that we needed a drastic shake-up in the second-half. We absolutely crushed West Ham. The Aston Villa game as well, that game just showed you how far we had come, my first derby game was a drumming. My determination was to make our team better and in the end I think we had done that despite getting relegated. It’s one of the most unlucky relegations ever, we would have been on 40 points if we didn’t try and win the game against Tottenham but we knew Wolves’ goal difference was better. I go back to that word recruitment, at the start of the season I asked for Bobby Zamora and Fabrizio Miccoli. Miccoli was a bit like Aguero, he could bring people into play, he could turn and spin and score goals. Nobody could convince me that we still would have gone down if we had have got these players, we would have won a couple of more games and scored more goals. Bobby was on fire at the time, he was one of the best receivers of the ball in the league, he was very determined to join Blues. We didn’t make it and the goal post moved a bit with the money after we brought in Zigic despite me being told that we could still do the other deals.
Kane: After we went down that season, I have to mention it, you left for Aston Villa, how did that happen?
Alex: I felt like I was being backed into a corner, I was being told certain players were coming in that I didn’t approve of and I couldn’t continue in that fashion. I said look, I have no choice but to resign and that is an absolute shame. I got a phone call from Aston Villa who heard I resigned. I couldn’t believe It was from the club across the road, why couldn’t it have been Fulham or someone else.I wrestled with myself, and I asked myself whether I’d regret it for the rest of my career. Do I regret it; if I’ve made the decisions I’m never going to regret them, but will always wonder. It was a very difficult season. I was so gutted, it was one of the worst moments in my football career when the Blues were relegated. It was only a matter of goal difference really. Zigic hardly played due to injury after the cup final, him and Obafemi Martins, the two goal scorers in the final, almost never played for the rest of the season. We were not as potent.
Kane: How did your time at Villa compare to Blues, what was the difference?
Alex: I had such a rapport with everybody at Blues, it was a wrench to leave. I had to try and continue that relationship with the staff at Villa, I tried to keep everybody happy and mainly the fans. The fans make the loudest noise, a small number of the Villa fans gave me a bad reception but I had to use all my professional experience. I had to cut the costs and the wages and I recall Martin O’Neil saying it cost a fortune just to stay still in the premier league, so when you reduce the costs you’re not going to climb up the table. At Villa we started the season well, in the second half Robbie Keane went back to America and Darren Bent got injured and was out for the last three months. I had to bring the young guy Weimann in,who deserved a chance, to score goals to consolidate the team that season.
Kane: Blues have been struggling recently, what does the rest of the season have in store for the club?
Alex: First and foremost Steve has to get his players back from injury, if you lose even one player, sometimes it can really affect the team. Steve needs his strongest players back in the team, Blues haven’t been bad at home but it depends what happens in January. Another important thing is that if a manager changes the team too much it can be too confusing, that’s why with Villa I tried to keep a consistent level in the team and they were never in the bottom 3 at all that season. I was consistent with selection. Dunn and Given came back after 3 months of shoulder injuries. Their experience helped. I’m confident I could have built something there. We installed a data base of players including Benteke, who they bought after I left.
Kane: Finally, would you ever consider returning to Birmingham City in some capacity?
Alex: I have great affection for the Blues, I would definitely consider coming back to the Blues in some capacity. Whether that was recruitment or whatever, I’m not saying I want Steve Cotterill’s job he’s there just now and I encourage all Blues fans to give him their full support. Hopefully they can get to a level of safety where they don’t have to play under enormous pressure.
Follow me on twitter; @KaneGStyles.