Premier League Clubs Managed: Birmingham City (2007-2008), (2009-2011), Aston Villa (2011-2012)
The Midlands and especially, the city of Birmingham dominated the management career of Alex McLeish in the Premier League. The Scot was a huge success in Scottish football but his English spell wasn’t so rewarding. Despite winning the League Cup in 2011 with Birmingham City, two relegations and an uneasy season at Villa Park in 2011-2012 meant it was an unfulfilling experience in the top-flight for McLeish.
Early Scottish success
As a player, McLeish was a central defender for Aberdeen during their own monopoly of Scottish football in the 1980s. He scored in the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup final over the mighty Real Madrid and made 493 appearances for Aberdeen across 16 seasons. His performances saw him voted Scottish Player of the Year in 1990 and it led to international recognition from Scotland on no fewer than 77 occasions.
McLeish’s first management role came at Motherwell where he made the final appearances of his playing time. Under his guidance, the Lanarkshire club finished second to Rangers in 1995 but he was unable to build on this and in the next two campaigns, relegation battles followed. He left Motherwell in 1998 to take over at Hibernian.
McLeish arrived too late to stop the Edinburgh side sliding out of the top-flight but he guided them straight back into the Premiership and soon consolidated Hibs into a comfortable, attractive side to watch. He even managed to tempt the likes of former French international Franck Sauzee to Easter Road. Hibernian finished best of the rest in 2001 behind the Glasgow dominant Celtic and Rangers combination. The latter had noted his good work and at Christmas time in 2001, he was chosen by Dick Advocaat as his future successor.
Stopping the Celtic steamroller
Any doubts about McLeish’s appointment by Rangers supporters were instantly quelled. Although the title was always going to go to Martin O’Neill and Celtic long before his arrival in 2001-2002, McLeish did preside over a domestic cup double against the old enemy. The likes of Barry Ferguson, Peter Lovenkrands and Ronald de Boer made swift contributions as Rangers swept the board in 2002-2003. McLeish was keeping the winning tradition going at Ibrox. How they wish they had these days back nowadays…
Another title followed in 2005 and also under his guidance, Rangers reached the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, becoming the first Scottish side to get through the group stage since the competition’s reformation in 1992. However, Celtic had bounced back and regained the grip on Scottish football. With fan pressure growing, McLeish stood down in the summer of 2006.
After a brief hiatus from the game, he took over as manager of his country in January 2007. Under his reign as Scotland manager, the Scots stunned France in Paris to beat them in qualifying for the 2008 European Championships. Sadly though, a defeat in Georgia ended any realistic hopes of a first major tournament finals’ appearance in 10 years. A loss to Italy in the final round of games ensured Scotland’s brave failure was complete.
Days after the Italian defeat, he resigned and took over the vacancy at Birmingham City which was left open after Steve Bruce went to Wigan Athletic. His chapter in English football was about to begin.
Highs and lows with Birmingham
McLeish’s debut match as Birmingham manager was a memorable one. Sebastian Larsson’s stunning strike helped the Blues’ to a 3-2 away win at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur. They briefly climbed to 11th in early March but a poor run of results towards the end of the season ended with the team’s relegation to the Championship, despite beating Blackburn Rovers 4-1 on the final day of the season.
Things did improve. An immediate promotion back to the top-flight followed and then, he produced a sound 2009-2010 campaign which saw Birmingham finish an impressive ninth; their highest finish in over half a century. Among the achievements was a club-record 12-match unbeaten run in the top-flight and the Manager of the Month award for December 2009.
In 2010-2011, expectations were therefore fairly high and there was a victory over champions Chelsea, plus creditable home draws with Liverpool FC and Manchester United. In February 2011, Birmingham stunned favourites Arsenal at Wembley Stadium to win the Carling Cup 2-1. However, a nightmarish run followed in the Premier League. Just two wins in their last 11 matches saw the club relegated for the third time in just over five years. Birmingham’s plight was confirmed by a 2-1 defeat on the final day to Tottenham Hotspur.
The board wanted to keep McLeish in charge but in June 2011, he controversially resigned from his position via e-mail. Five days later, he liked the Midlands so much; he stayed in the region and became Aston Villa boss. Protests were held outside Villa Park on his appointment. He was not the fans’ popular choice. McLeish signed Shay Given and Charles N’Zogbia on his arrival. Neither signing would ultimately work out well. Villa did remain unbeaten until mid-October but there was never any comfort in the role, or a great brand of football being played by his team.
Chelsea were beaten 3-1 at Stamford Bridge on New Years’ Eve but just four wins were achieved all term at home and relegation was avoided by a mere two points. His contract was terminated by Randy Lerner after defeat at Norwich City on the final day consigned Villa to a lowly 16th-place finish.
Since then, Alex McLeish had the briefest of spells at Nottingham Forest (7 games) following by stints working in Belgium and Egypt. Alex McLeish has experienced the highs and lows in football management. His teams weren’t the prettiest to watch but they were very successful in his homeland. It didn’t quite work out though in England.