Takeover talk but McLeish aims to turn tables

If the bookmakers are right, and Alex McLeish does become the first managerial casualty of the new Premier League campaign, perhaps he should consider turning his hand to diplomacy next. After all, the Birmingham City manager may well be responsible for bringing together Messrs Ferguson and Benitez in an enthusiastic embrace at Old Trafford today.

True, it will be his principal summer signings for promoted Birmingham – Barry Ferguson, the disgraced former Scotland captain from Rangers, and Christian Benitez, a 23-year-old Ecuadorian striker – rather than those psychological warriors Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez. But McLeish has shown himself adept at keeping a cool head while all around him panic, the latest example being his phlegmatic response to reports that Hong Kong businessman and chief shareholder Carson Yeung wants to buy control of the club, probably with damaging consequences for the former Scotland coach's employment prospects.

"What happens happens," the 50-year-old McLeish says, declining the opportunity to use the takeover talk as an excuse for whatever fate may befall Birmingham against Manchester United. "We've just got to get on with it. Steve Bruce was at the helm the last time [when Yeung previously tried to buy Birmingham] and the situation dragged on and became a distraction. Nobody's distracted me at all."

McLeish (pictured right) was a teenaged reserve at Aberdeen, where he eventually became captain of the club towards the end of Ferguson's trophy-laden era, when Birmingham last won at United all of 31 years ago. It was also the last occasion they scored from open play at the so-called Theatre of Dreams, Trevor Francis collecting the winner.

"On paper they should beat us every game," he said. "If we get a result against them it'll be a surprise. But some day a Birmingham team will get a result at Old Trafford. So why can't it be this one? That's my belief."

Does his close professional relationship with Sir Alex, which has burgeoned into an enduring friendship, give him any insight into the tactics and team selection the United manager may favour against Birmingham? "I wouldn't even attempt to second-guess him," McLeish said. "In terms of his team he has a squad full of superstars to choose from. He should be able to pick any team to hold their own against any other side in the Premier League."

Even the high-profile defections to Real Madrid and Manchester City will not, he suspects, weaken the champions unduly. "There's no Cristiano Ronaldo or Carlos Tevez, but when we look at the team-sheet we'll see names like Rooney, Berbatov and Carrick, so there won't be a massive difference. Ronaldo has been the one with the goal returns these past few years but you can see someone else taking on the mantle. We've got to be organised and difficult to penetrate."

Birmingham demonstrated both characteristics in finishing runners-up to Wolves in the Championship, without exciting their followers with a flood of goals. McLeish, who has added another of his Rangers side to the St Andrew's squad in French left-back Grégory Vignal, appears happier to be swimming with the big fish rather than being snapped at by lower-league minnows.

"Expectation levels last season were as tough as I've ever had. I don't know what they are this time, but the Blues fans will be expecting a lot. I always expect a lot of myself but you have to be realistic in terms of resources. I look at Wolves – they've maybe spent as much as much as us, with [chief executive] Jez Moxey saying there's more to come. By rights we aren't able to compete with others financially. But we've seen before that less well-off clubs have been able to survive in the Premier League, while expensive teams have been relegated."

Barry Ferguson's playmaking ability and Benitez's impressive strike-rate in Ecuador and Mexico, together with the £5m acquisition of centre-back Roger Johnson from Cardiff and the season-long loan of Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart, encourage McLeish's optimism. "It excites me," he said, referring to Old Trafford, though he may just as well have been assessing the season ahead. "We've got nothing to lose."

No comments: