Sport Soccer

Wednesday 23 August 2017

McLeish must ignore lynch mob

PAUL HAYWARD

Big 'Eck deserves a big cheque for what he is about to go through. With his move from Birmingham City to Aston Villa, Alex McLeish has succeeded in uniting a whole city against him. For new enemies now, Villa's manager will have to fan out to offend Walsall, West Brom and Wolves.

As defections go McLeish's cross-town dash has been received by Birmingham and Villa fans the way Philby, Burgess and Maclean signing up for the Kremlin went down in Whitehall. To tribalists it takes high rank on the list of line-crossing career lurches, up there with Sol Campbell from Spurs to Arsenal, Alan Smith from Leeds to Manchester United and Harry Redknapp bouncing between Southampton and Portsmouth. Implicit in the outrage is a belief that there are just some jobs a football man should never take.

Why? McLeish's suitability for the Villa post, you will notice, was barely discussed. Claret-faced and most certainly blue inside, the most trenchant Villa antis were too busy calling him "blue-nose scum" to come up with a better objection than his previous place of employment. Simply, McLeish could not be manager of Villa because he had just been manager of Birmingham. That was about as cerebral as it got.

The mistake is to confuse professional and personal allegiance. McLeish was dedicated to Birmingham from the day he took charge in November 2007 and his dedication ceased when he tapped out his resignation email. In a few cases, there is such an emotional symbiosis between player or manager and club that a defection looks unthinkable.

Throwing that idea out there, I gathered that minds would explode if Neil Lennon jumped from Celtic to Rangers, Alan Shearer took the Sunderland job or Kenny Dalglish left Liverpool for Everton. Surgical intervention would be needed in all these cases. The one on the move would have to be cut out of his milieu by people with scalpels. They are synonymous with their club, or at least anti-synonymous with the outfit they would be transferring to.

McLeish's life was never bound up with that of Birmingham. His leap required him only to decide he wanted to stay in the Premier League and not sink to the Championship with employers who had warned him, clumsily, that he was expected to bring the Blues back up instantly.

Lots of Championship clubs are telling their managers it's 12 months or bust. To what end? Do they think their managers would rather hang around in the Championship for five years? This pointless directive from the Birmingham board entitled the manager to feel he was on unsafe ground and the history of the club under Carson Yeung says they had only themselves to blame for McLeish's restlessness.

In that sense his move to Villa was a windfall for Yeung and his directors. It allowed them to chunter on about tapping-up and betrayal.

They could pose as the victims of an opportunist act that paid no heed to the psychological Berlin Wall that divides two of the midlands' biggest clubs.

If Villa fans need to worry it should be because McLeish is a cautious, not a speculative appointment. He has a record of making do. Retrenchment at Villa Park seemed to stop with the arrival of Darren Bent but will return if Ashley Young and Stewart Downing are sold. These bigger questions are merely obscured by the hysterical response to McLeish's supposed perfidy in staying local.

In a more politically attuned age people expressed objections by seizing the great platforms of public debate. Now they sign a Facebook page. Click here to stop Alex McLeish coming to Villa Park. Any protest that requires so little effort should be ignored on principle. Washing-up done? Ten minutes to burn before the news? Sign a Facebook page challenging a man's right to change jobs.

McLeish, a flinty sort, is right not to submit to such feeble pressure.

Meanwhile, Randy Lerner, Villa's owner, has performed a spectacular volte-face in cancelling an interview with Steve McClaren on public-reaction grounds and then hiring Birmingham's former manager in the face of an indignation whirlwind.

All this will fade because there is no deep emotional basis to the antipathy, beyond the club crest, and proximity. The real problem comes when a man whose work has been defined in opposition to Club or Culture X scrambles over the fence to join that organisation. So Alex Ferguson could never manage Liverpool, Dalglish could not jump ship to Everton, Shearer could not take Steve Bruce's job at Sunderland and Lennon could certainly not settle his differences with Rangers fans and relocate to Ibrox.

Well, they could, because they should be free to do so. Emotional restraint of trade is to be avoided. In no sense would it be morally indefensible. It would just feel wrong. But these days the lynch mob rides out on any old excuse.

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