Alex McLeish breaks his silence after being forced out at Villa: The end was brutal, a real mental drain… I needed to get out
22:00 GMT, 27 September 2012
It was the morning after the night before at Aston Villa’s training ground. Chief executive Paul Faulkner, bruised by a 2-0 defeat at Norwich on the final day of last season, was waiting in an office.
Alex McLeish walked in.
‘I’ll prepare a dossier on what we need to do this summer as quickly as I can,’ said the club’s manager.
But McLeish sensed immediately that a dossier wouldn’t be needed.
At ease: Alex McLeish is able to relax after a difficult few years in management
‘It’s not going to happen, is it’ McLeish said, taking a look at his boss’s face. ‘You don’t have to say it.’
The two shared a brief conversation. The Scot left the room and spent the next hour shaking the hand of every member of staff at the training ground, thanking them for their support. Minutes later, he drove away from Aston Villa for the last time.
And so the most controversial managerial switch for decades between Birmingham’s two clubs came to an end.
Sitting where he is now, it is difficult to imagine that here is a man capable of sparking riotous scenes. McLeish is relaxed, refreshed and has shed a few pounds, helped by regular sessions with a personal trainer.
It seems a lifetime since hundreds of Villa fans besieged their famous stadium, demanding that owner Randy Lerner reverse his decision to take Birmingham City’s manager and install him at Villa Park. In fact, it is 15 months.
Making their feelings clear: Aston Villa fans show off a banner wanting McLeish out
The new manager was unwanted, while at St Andrew’s, the hurt was palpable. Despite the joy of a Carling Cup victory, the club’s season had imploded, ending in relegation from the Premier League.
That McLeish walked out was one thing. Joining Villa was seen as rubbing salt in the wound. Not since Ron Saunders made the trip in the opposite direction 31 years earlier had so much tension broke out.
McLeish led Birmingham to their first major trophy in 48 years, but when he left, a royal blue flag was manufactured. It bore his face, and, beneath the image, the words
‘Judas ginger rat’.
‘I really wanted to build a dynasty at Birmingham,’ insists McLeish. ‘I could have been at that club for 10 years if I’d been allowed more control. I heard David Moyes talking about his time at Everton and the fact that he is able to make so many of the footballing decisions. That sounds like utopia to me.
‘There are some top people at Birmingham. The gang behind the scenes. It was a crying shame we couldn’t build that club up because most of the ingredients were there.
Finding it tough: McLeish watches on as Villa struggle
‘In the season prior to the Carling Cup victory we finished ninth. I had a list of targets and had we signed them I’m sure I wouldn’t be sitting here with you now. Bobby Zamora was one, Mousa Dembele another. The Dembele one was gut- wrenching. Fulham moved quicker than we did. The wages were no better, the commission was.
‘Winning the Carling Cup against Arsenal goes down as my best achievement, either as a player or manager. Then we were relegated. Talk about high to low. It hit me hard.
‘I know you get what you deserve in football but I genuinely felt it was unfair. Injuries had conspired against us. Other things transpired. Sadly, I have to keep them to myself but I’d have left anyway.
‘I had to leave, regardless. My job at Birmingham had become untenable.I got letters from some fans after I moved. Some were angry, others were heartfelt, asking, ‘‘How could you do this to us You’re like a rat leaving a sinking ship’’. I felt dreadful. But my family knew what the job was doing to me. My wife Jill saw it in my eyes every night.’
Targets: McLeish missed out on signing Bobby Zamora and Mousa Dembele while at Birmingham
Then came a call from Villa Park. It was a lifeline. McLeish had lived on the fringes of Birmingham, and in Glasgow had been in the goldfish bowl as manager of Rangers. In terms of size, the two cities are comparable. Was he naive enough to think such a switch would not rouse similar passions
‘I knew there’d be a furore,’ he says. ‘But perhaps not to that level. I don’t think it was until I was in situ at Villa that I started to appreciate the depth of feeling. In a professional sense, I had moved from managing a club I had never supported, to another club I had never supported.
‘I never thought it would be so intense at Villa. But, just as I’d done at Rangers, I thought, ‘‘I can turn these fans round. If I get this side moving, they’ll take to me”. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t change my habits. I knew I had upset people.’
Because of that McLeish tried to avoid any potential confrontation. ‘No-one ever came up to me saying, ‘‘You ginger Judas’’, but I never put myself in that position,’ he says.
Happier days: Alex McLeish celebrates beating Arsenal with Birmingham to lift the League Cup
‘Maybe it was because people were on their own. If they’d been in a group, I’d have been savaged. I never frequented the places I had when I was Birmingham manager.
‘I didn’t go into the city. I had great pals at two of the best restaurants in Birmingham, huge Birmingham City supporters. I stopped going there.’
It would be wrong to write that Villa supporters never gave McLeish a chance. But their perception of the quality of player at the Scot’s disposal was misguided. But his position was undermined, at least partially, by the quality of his signings. While Shay Given had a solid campaign, Alan Hutton and Charles N’Zogbia were disappointing.
McLeish adds: ‘Randy Lerner had asked me to work on a project. He said, ‘‘We want you to work with the club, rather than at the club. We must drive wages down while remaining competitive’’. But when you lose the likes of John Carew, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, Gareth Barry, James Milner … the quality Villa had out on the pitch was diminishing. It was going to be a tough ask. It was a rebuilding job.
Time to reflect: McLeish has been out of football since the summer
‘I understand, given what happened towards the end of last season, that it was difficult for me to stay. But no-one is able to complete a project of that size in 12 months. I was confident I knew what was needed. There were big changes in my mind ahead of this season. We needed players. An influx of quality. It’s no secret, if you bring in a better quality of player, you produce an improvement in results.
‘I’d spent a season building up the internal infrastructure at the club. I signed Brett Holman. He has started the season like a house on fire. I was desperate to sign Gylfi Sigurdsson in the January window but it didn’t come off. As for this suggestion I’m a negative manager, it’s utter tosh.
'The way it all ended, it was difficult for me to go any further. The last day at Norwich was brutal. I knew I needed to be out of the job. It had become a mental drain towards the end.’
Interview over, McLeish retreats from the sunshine into the sanctuary of the restaurant.
An Aston Villa season ticket holder comes over and gives him a hug. It seems he has been forgiven in some quarters. But McLeish won’t be forgotten. Not in Birmingham.
Not for a long time.