Desmond Kane

Motivator McLeish has Eck of a chance

Desmond Kane

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In the nation's capital, something stirs. It is a short distance for a rather longish day, but Alex McLeish remains suitably placed to negotiate the 10 or so miles between West London and Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

The Birmingham City manager purchased a place in Fulham last August, even if home continues to be where the heart is in football's august halls of residence.

The very essence of McLeish the manager will be poured into the goings on in North London on Sunday. He will be the life and soul of the party if City can smuggle the loot out of Wembley from an afternoon spent bartering with Arsene Wenger's lithe Arsenal lot in the latest rendition of the Carling Cup final.

McLeish will lead his side off the team bus beforehand. This is what leaders do. With his ginger barnet, freckles and the nose of a bouncer from Glasgow's Gallowgate, McLeish remains every inch the fearless Scottish centre-half. These are the characteristics that marked him out as a player of genuine quality. These are the etchings of a coach not lacking in candour.

McLeish has never been interested in being aesthetically pleasing. He knows that what works for fans is winning. He once said that a good central defender will break his nose several times in a career, because that proves he is not afraid to put his head in where it hurts for the cause. City's cause is pressing, in every sense.

In football like in life, it is best to judge a man by the company he keeps. McLeish has always kept up with the Joneses, but can he keep the common touch among the Wengers of this world?

He faces quite a challenge in layman's terms, but Wembley should feel like a home away from home. He has become used to such royal occasions during a starry career as boy, man and manager in Scotland.

McLeish runs into a team who have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous over the past few weeks: one minute eclipsing Barcelona in the Champions League, the next drawing with Leyton Orient in the FA Cup.

Carson Yeung, the owner of Birmingham, is from a different Orient and a different financial orbit. Yeung apparently wallows in billions, and celebrates his 51st birthday on Sunday. Many happy returns to the man from Hong Kong. What do you give the man who has everything? A return on over £80m of investment to place on the mantelpiece would be lovingly accepted.

There is no doubt who the discerning gambler is looking to stick his wedge on. Arsenal start as warm favourites. They are 4/9 in some quarters. Birmingham are priced at an inviting 8/1. Wenger's side have failed to lift a trophy in six years, but Birmingham have not attended a final at Wembley in the past 55 years. They last clenched a trophy to their bosom when they won the old League Cup in 1963.

Their manager covets the shiny stuff as much as a magpie with 19 trophies gleaned as  player and coach in Scotland. Lest we forget, McLeish spent five years as manager of Glasgow Rangers, a lifespan in such a suffocating job. He matched Martin O'Neill's celebrated Celtic side, winning seven baubles during their direct rival's harvest years when Henrik Larsson was wreaking havoc.

Alex has always been a delightful companion. Having dealt with him during his days at Motherwell, Hibernian and Rangers, one has always admired his progressive attitude. Wherever he has roamed, 'Big Eck', as he is affectionately titled, exudes a professional air in his narrative.

Arsenal do not like it up 'em. Unsettling the idealistic style of pass, pass and pass some more sounds antiquated, but it can be mightily effective. According to the former Scotland player Lou Macari, Gordon McQueen once delivered a withering critique of the former Manchester United manager Dave Sexton's coaching philosophy during some troubling times in a training session.

"I've got an idea, Dave. It's not as clever as yours, but you never know, it might work," commented McQueen. "Why doesn't someone cross the ball, I get my big stupid head on it and put it in the back of the net..then we can all f*** off home."

McLeish will hope Nikola Zigic plays the McQueen role on Sunday.

McLeish's past success is on the record. He joined Hibernian in the death throes of the 1997/1998 season having managed Motherwell to second place in Scotland in 1994. He failed to spare them from relegation to the Scottish First Division, but oversaw a rebuilding project that allowed the Edinburgh club to rejoin the Scottish Premier League in 1999.

He left the Scotland manager's position to run Birmingham in 2007 having witnessed the national side beat France 1-0 in Paris, but narrowly fail to reach the Euro 2008 finals. He suffered demotion to the Championship in his first season at Birmingham, but returned them to the Premier League a year later. He finished ninth last season.

If defenders such as Martin Jiranek and Liam Ridgewell want a lesson on how to defend properly, they should study old footage of McLeish's relationship with Willie Miller at the peak of their powers in the 1980s working for Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen. It was a partnership built on a principle of parsimony in a city that is known to cherish its bawbees. Goals were hard to come by facing the pair.

McLeish played in a truly great British club side that defeated Real Madrid 2-1 in the Cup Winners' Cup final of 1983.

He used to get tetchy when the subject of Ferguson reared its head during his days at Motherwell, Hibernian and Rangers. Perhaps this was because he wanted to be his own man rather than a Mike Yarwood version of Ferguson.

Gordon Strachan, Mark McGhee, Neale Cooper, Willie Miller and Eric Black have all enjoyed stints in management, but McLeish is the last man standing as his own man. Alongside Strachan, he is arguably the most successful yearling of Ferguson's Aberdeen stable to follow his lead.

Scottish managers are all the rage in England. Ferguson, David Moyes, Kenny Dalglish, Owen Coyle and Steve Kean are the selected candidates for their Premier League constituencies. There are more Scottish managers in the world's richest league than any other country, with a fair few others dotted around.

Glaswegian Steve Evans looked like a character out of Mike Bassett: England manager when he turned up at Old Trafford with his Crawley Town team a week ago before also most toppling Ferguson's United side out of the FA Cup. Unlike Fergie, McLeish realised from his days at Motherwell that he would prefer to rule with a velvet glove covering his iron fist.

"It was a pre-season game, it was a dreadful display and I really had a go at the players," he said. "Then afterwards, I sat down and thought about it and concluded this is not me. I am putting it on."

McLeish has never been an impostor. The trifling matter of how to deconstruct Arsenal is one that will fascinate him as over 30,000 Brum fans prepare to make the trip to London. There are worse ways to spend a day out.

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