That’s what friends are for: Mark McGhee teams up with Gordon Strachan at Scotland

11/02/2013 § Leave a comment

New Scotland manager Gordon Strachan (right) chose to bring in Mark McGhee as his assistant coach of the national team

New Scotland manager Gordon Strachan (right) chose to bring in Mark McGhee as his assistant coach of the national team

When Gordon Strachan was announced as the new Scotland manager on January 15, 2013, with his appointment also came immediate pondering from the Tartan Army on who would be the first to join his backroom staff. Would it be Garry Pendrey, the Birmingham City legend who assisted Strachan at Coventry, Southampton, Celtic and Middlesbrough? Or perhaps Gary McAllister, the Scotland legend who enjoyed an illustrious playing career and has been linked with the main national job on numerous occasions. In the end, it was neither, and wee Gordon chose to bring in another long-time friend— Mark McGhee.

Both are Aberdeen Football Club Gothenburg greats, as the two were in the starting 11 back in May 1983, as the Dons defeated Real Madrid 2-1 after extra time to win the European Cup Winners Cup under Sir Alex Ferguson. However McGhee’s appointment to become assistant coach of Scotland likely brings somewhat of a surprise after his two previous managerial stints were nothing short of a disaster. McGhee himself openly admitted to the failures in a press conference following his Hampden arrival.

Mark McGhee is unveiled at Hampden as Scotland's new assistant coach

Mark McGhee is unveiled at Hampden as Scotland’s new assistant coach

When Strachan resigned as manager of Celtic back in May 2009, after a resurgent Rangers side under Walter Smith stopped the Parkhead side from winning four SPL titles in a row, he openly stated that he hoped pal McGhee would be given the opportunity to take over Celtic. McGhee was manager of Motherwell at the time and only failed to lose 36 of 88 games in charge of the Fir Park side, and lead them to become a top flight force once again.

Back in those days it seemed as though Strachan’s calls for McGhee to take over at Lennoxtown were sensible enough. But that didn’t happen. Celtic plumped for Tony Mowbray and McGhee would end up back at Pittodrie as manager of Aberdeen in June 2009, a club at which he made 164 appearances. McGhee, a boyhood Celtic fan who also played for the Hoops 88 times scoring 27, admitted on arriving at Aberdeen his disappointment at losing out to Mowbray for the Parkhead job, as well as the fact he saw the Celtic manager’s position as bigger than that in the Granite City. Yes, it was all downhill from there.

McGhee was an old fashioned centre forward in his day and scored 63 goals for Aberdeen. Yet despite having written himself into Dons folklore as a player, his spell as manager would do anything but and would end up putting a sour taste on the Gothenburg great tag. His first competitive game in charge resulted in an embarrassing 5-1 home defeat in the Europa League to unknown Czech team Sigma Olomouc. The Dons lost the return leg 3-0 in the Czech Republic, losing 8-1 on aggregate. What followed was an SPL campaign full of inconsistent performances and what seemed like constant pressure from the media.

In February of 2010, McGhee’s team lost at home to Raith Rovers from the division below in the Scottish Cup and as he left the Pittodrie dugout, he was allegedly spat at by members of the Aberdeen support, possibly the same people who had sung his name so many times in the past. He did last the summer to lead the Dons into another SPL campaign, and in November 2010, Aberdeen were defeated 9-0 in an away league match against Celtic resulting in the clubs worst defeat in its history. The end was nigh. In McGhee’s 62 games in charge at Pittodrie, his team were only able to win 17 games. The days of Gothenburg, or even a 1-0 playoff promotion win as manager of Brighton and Hove Albion, with Leon Knight scoring the winning penalty at Cardiff’s Millennium to down Bristol City and take Brighton back to the Championship— those days were long gone.

McGhee arrives at Hampden

McGhee arrives at Hampden

That terrible reign as Aberdeen boss would be followed by arguably an even worse one, as manager of English minnows and League Two side Bristol Rovers. McGhee took over there in January 2012 after just over a year in the managerial wilderness. McGhee took over from Paul Buckle and initially helped what was a struggling Rovers side consolidate a mid-table 13th place finish. At the start of this season, Bristol Rovers were tipped for automatic promotion under McGhee. Those hopes were dashed by Christmas and McGhee was sacked again on December 15 after yet another embarrassing result. A 4-1 defeat away to York City saw McGhee’s side lose four goals just over half an hour into the game.

Prior to his two managerial disasters at Aberdeen and Bristol Rovers, McGhee had enjoyed relative success at notably Reading, Leicester, Wolves and Millwall, as well as Brighton and Motherwell. But it was indeed those two most recent spells that had forced eyebrows to be raised upon his appointment to assist Strachan. Why plump for McGhee ahead of the more popular McAllister or even Pendrey, with whom Strachan had formed a formidable partnership many a time. The fact that Pendrey is English may not have sat too well with the Tartan Army and Strachan was perhaps aware of that, but quite clearly, friendship goes a long way in life, and seemingly it aided McGhee’s case big time as he was allowed to stroll through the Hampden doors.

McGhee had a terrible ending to his spell as Bristol Rovers manager

McGhee had a terrible ending to his spell as Bristol Rovers manager

McGhee recently lead his first training session as Scotland coach and assistant manager, prior to Strachan beginning his tenure as national team boss with a 1-0 win over Estonia thanks to a Charlie Mulgrew goal. That friendly was played at, where else, Pittodrie. A decent homecoming for Strachan and indeed McGhee this time round. Following that first session, McGhee was quoted as speaking of how nervous he was ahead of instructing a group of fiery and industrious Scots. Being a manager and number one for so long, it would have been something the Glaswegian had not done for many a year. Seemingly however, his formula worked, with Scotland triumphing over Estonia, amidst the re-emergence of forgotten winger Chris Burke. Burke had been brought back into the fold for the first time in six years by Strachan, who had been pinpointed to his talents by ironically Pendrey, after a series of scintillating wing displays for Birmingham.

The fact that the Estonia game on February 6 was so soon after McGhee’s appointment from January 21, arguably allowed for less scrutiny time from fans and media upon Strachan’s decision to call for him. That win against Estonia was the best possible start for the two, who prior to the game were also joined by Motherwell manager Stuart McCall to the fold. The match saw Scotland implement a more exciting, attacking style under Strachan. A trait that has been called for extensively by the Scotland support following a series of defensive and stubborn approaches to ties during the Craig Levein era.

There is once again renewed hope within the Tartan Army, and whether Scotland improve on that impressive start, only time will tell. Strachan’s move to bring McGhee in as part of the new national team setup was one that arguably pulled his mate from the depths of despair. But then, I guess that’s what friends are for.

Glasgow Evening Times picture

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