Interview: Andy Ross
Alex McLeish’s first managerial role brought with it not only the pressures of venturing into unchartered territory but also the daunting task of following legendary boss Tommy McLean at Fir Park.
In a playing career that brought fantastic success at club level with Aberdeen and 77 caps for Scotland, McLeish had forged the reputation as one of the most respected players of his generation.
He looked set to continue his career at Pittodrie for one more season, before an unexpected call came from Fir Park secretary, Alan Dick.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind! I had signed for another season as a player at Aberdeen, but was looking to getting into coaching, then the call came from Alan Dick who offered me the role of player/manager,” McLeish remembered.
“The role of player/manager was one which appealed to me, I wanted to keep playing but also to ensure I remained in the game after my playing days were finished.
“My game plan was to work under a respected gaffer and learn the ropes that way, but when I spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson he told me to get stuck right in and that Motherwell was a great wee club where I would be left to control things like team selection and transfers – nobody would interfere.”
“We had a pre-season camp in Holland and it was clear the quality that was in the squad. I didn’t go in with the attitude that my reputation in the game would automatically earn me respect, it was a mixture of positivity and an element of trepidation given what Tommy had achieved at the club.
“Me and (assistant boss) Andy Watson wanted passing football and we had plenty of players who were able to produce that, my aim was to take what Tommy had built up and make it even better.”
The first hurdle that McLeish faced in charge at Fir Park was the UEFA Cup first-round clash with Faroese side Havnar Bóltfelag.
It was one which the Steelmen handled comfortably, progressing 7-1 on aggregate and setting up a glamour tie with German giants Borussia Dortmund – an occasion which Motherwell fans and ‘Big Eck’ still recollect to this day.
Motherwell would lose the away-leg narrowly 1-0, passing up a number of good opportunities in the process before going down 2-0 at Fir Park in a highly controversial encounter played out on a Wednesday afternoon in front of a bumper crowd and the German television cameras.
“Dortmund is one of these occasions that remains very vivid right up until this day. We had a really good game plan and the preparation was very good,” said McLeish.
“I had played in the first five matches in my role as player/manager but dropped myself for that game – I didn’t feel like I had the same power in my jump and I was losing a bit of pace.
“We prepared for the game tactically and on the night even had some really good chances. I remember we spoke about long-range efforts as I had noticed Stefan Klos liked to wander from his goal, Stevie Kirk tried his luck a few times and came very close.
“After the game the Dortmund staff were highly complementary of our performance, but they did then add ‘we will score in Scotland’.
“I think the afternoon kick-off did take a little bit of the shine off the second-leg, but the club had received a brilliant offer from German television and it was one which kept us strong financially going forward – from a passion point of view we obviously would have liked to keep it at night time under the floodlights, but money played a part too.
“We didn’t like the pre-match press stuff that the Dortmund players did, they indicated we would kick them off the park. The Swiss referee Anders Frisk clearly read these reports going into the game and it played on his mind – they had built us up to be a team of thugs.
“It showed very early on when Dougie Arnott went in hard on one of their players and he went down screaming as if he had been shot. It was the same when Rab Shannon put in a fair but robust challenge 20 minutes later, both were sent-off and that left us with little chance in the tie.”
Despite European disappointment, McLeish’s side continued to turn on the style in the Premier League and the team’s style of play was not just winning over the Fir Park faithful, but prominent figures within the Scottish game too.
“We had a style of play that we were after and we kept to it, every day in training was about passing. I knew I had inherited a great team and my mindset was always on improving it further.
“One of the biggest compliments came from Tommy Burns and, while Celtic fans may cringe now hearing this, he said that he ‘wanted his team to play like Motherwell’ and that was obviously fantastic for me and my players to hear.”
Results in December of 1994 were to prove costly in terms of challenging Rangers for the league title in McLeish’s first season, but a second-place finish was a one place improvement on McLean’s final year in charge and secured European qualification for the second successive season.
Motherwell were paired with relatively unknown Finnish side Mypa-47, but were stunned in the first-leg 3-1 and, despite a 2-0 victory in the away-leg, exited the competition at the first hurdle.
“Mypa had some great players, but I think we were just caught cold in the first-leg, we had a lot of rebuilding to do after the first season and unfortunately couldn’t quite turn it around in the second-leg.”
McLeish had secured the services of Spurs striker John Hendry during the summer as he prepared for life without the likes of Coyne and Arnott who were moving towards the end of their playing careers.
Despite their advancing years however, the former Aberdeen defender quickly realised both players would be much more difficult to replace.
“The unfortunate thing is these guys don’t last forever and you do need to try replace them. We had watched John Hendry in the Spurs reserves and his movement reminded me a lot of Tommy Coyne,” said the former Scotland and Birmingham City gaffer.
“He wasn’t able to hit the ground running though, that can affect confidence and make a huge difference. The task of replacing Tommy was massive as well, he was vastly underrated – although I can assure you he was never underrated by me.
“In the end, it was the more experienced signings that came through for me, guys like Owen Coyle and Willie Falconer were exceptional – it goes to show you that sometimes you can’t beat the old yins!”
The arrival of Falconer from Celtic was to prove a massive factor in Motherwell ensuring survival in what was to be a hugely contrasting second season in charge for McLeish.
Between December 1995 and late January 1996, Motherwell managed just one goal in nine games – that coming in the form of a Joe McLaughlin own-goal in the 1-0 win at Falkirk.
Falconer chipped in with six goals before the end of the season and, despite finishing the season in eighth, there were to be further challenges ahead.
Paul Lambert and Rob McKinnon both departed Fir Park for free at the end of their deals with the club, the first major impact of the Bosman ruling which allowed players to move between clubs at the end of their contracts without a transfer-fee being required.
“We were the first big victims of the Bosman ruling. I tried so hard to get a hold of Paul that summer, I spoke to his wife and learned he’d been in Eindhoven on trial then, obviously, he made his move to Dortmund,” the 58-year-old reflected.
“You can’t blame either of the guys for looking to further their careers and they both did fantastically well, I’m very proud of both.”
Much like his second season at the helm, the 1996-97 campaign was to be fought out at the wrong end of the table.
Like the previous season, it was the arrival of an experienced striker that was to boost the team – Owen Coyle joining from Dundee United and forming a formidable partnership with Coyne.
In their penultimate fixture of the season Motherwell visited Ibrox, to face a Rangers side expecting to clinch their ninth successive league title on home soil. On the other hand, ‘Well were languishing second-bottom of the table and in desperate need of points to avoid a relegation play-off.
McLeish’s side were in no mood to play the role of party guests and produced a stunning display to ruin the party – leaving with a vital three-points and a 2-0 triumph. On the final day Mitchell van der Gaag’s incredible free-kick secured a share of the spoils against Dunfermline and another season in the top-flight.
“At Ibrox we had to try and frustrate them as much as possible on the day, a big part of the occasion was how they made our team-talk very easy,” the Scotland hall-of-famer remembered.
“On arrival there were loads of ex-players turning up for the party with their wives, just waiting for when they disposed of Motherwell and then there was all the press stuff too – the players were so wound up and determined to prove a point and they did!
“Nobody wants to be the manager of a team that suffers relegation, saying that though a relegation shouldn’t break you. In the end, we survived – the tension in the final game against Dunfermline was incredible, in the end Mitch scored a fantastic free-kick which ensured we stayed up.”
Another summer of transition followed the relegation scare, but McLeish was unable to push his team up the league table – a good start being cancelled out by a 10-game winless run between October and December.
McLeish wouldn’t see out the season at Fir Park, Jim Duffy’s departure from his role as Hibs manager prompting the Easter Road side to approach Motherwell for their manager.
He was able to end his tenure on a high though, recording an incredible 6-2 home win over his future employers in his final fixture in charge.
“The situation with Hibs was pretty surreal, I knew I was in the running for the job but thought there was two or three guys ahead of me in the running. My final game obviously went very well for us, but when the approach came a few days later I felt I had to take the opportunity to further my managerial career.
“I loved my time at Motherwell, it was a great place to start my career in management – of course there were some tough times but there were also many amazing highs too.”
McLeish’s managerial career has gone from strength-to-strength taking him to the heights of managing the Scottish national-side, Rangers, Birmingham City and Aston Villa.
He admits he still retains an interest on events at Fir Park and believes there is a comparison to some of the English Premier League’s established sides.
“Motherwell remind me of the likes of Everton and Stoke City in the English Premier League, they are very consistent and steady without really competing for the title,” said McLeish, whose last managerial role was a brief spell in charge of Egyptian side Zamalek SC.
“I’m sure ‘Well fans will be determined to see their team start winning trophies and success in the cup competitions certainly isn’t beyond them. This season I’m sure they’ll avoid being dragged into the dogfight at the bottom of the table.”
As well as retaining a keen interest in the national side McLeish also confesses to having concerns about youth football not just in Scotland but across the UK.
While he admits he doesn’t possess all the answers to improving the declining fortunes on the park, there are important changes that must be made to avoid young talent being lost to the game.
“I know it’s modern times but I dismay about the academy world that currently exists within football. It dismays me to hear of £1 contracts and hearing kids aged nine or ten told that they won’t make it – I would like to see more opportunities being afforded to boys’ clubs too.
“We are too small a country to exclude talented youngsters, they must be given a chance. It’s been so frustrating for me meeting young kids ready to chuck everything because they aren’t getting their chance with the academy teams
“I had to talk round a friend’s son recently who was ready for giving up the game, eventually he moved back to a boys’ club closer to home, there’s no doubt though that we are losing potential in the current setup.
“I don’t know too much about ‘Project Brave’, but some of what I have heard is very concerning. It’s not a think-tank we need, it’s a do-tank.
“With the national side Gordon’s got a big battle on his hands, I look at certain positions such as centre-half and worry that there’s seemingly nobody coming through.
“You need to be able to trust your guys and know they won’t let you down. It’s not nice seeing Scotland’s position in the rankings – there’s a lot of work ahead to turn things round.”