Big Eck was Scotland’s super-spy at Wembley
Alex McLeish went undercover to spy on Slovenia for Gordon Strachan.
Now he doesn’t just hope Scotland can fire their way into the World Cup play-offs – he knows they can.
While Hampden roared following Thursday night’s vital late winner against Slovakia, Big Eck watched Wembley wobble until England slayed Slovenia at the death.
He saw enough to know the Scots will not enjoy a walk in the park in today’s make-or-break clash in Ljubljana.
But the former Rangers and Scotland gaffer reckons the Slovenians’ lack of cutting edge could see them sliced open.
“I didn’t see the Slovakia game because I was at Wembley looking at Slovenia for Gordon,” McLeish revealed.
“Today is a must-win game. There’s no getting away from that. But so was Thursday night, and the players showed they’ve got the mentality for it.
“The question now is can they deal with Slovenia?
“I was reasonably impressed with them against England. I thought they did a decent job.
“But I didn’t think they looked like they had that bit of sharpness needed to finish moves off.
“Slovenia are at home, so they’ll still be dangerous, but Scotland are in with a chance.”
McLeish’s friendship with Scotland boss Strachan stretches back decades.
The pair were team-mates at Aberdeen and for Scotland, and managed on opposite sides of the Old Firm divide.
Big Eck recognises the depth of his old pal’s football knowledge better than anyone.
That’s why he hopes Strachan stays on as Scotland boss whatever happens today – even if he wouldn’t mind a return to the Hampden hot-seat himself.
“Gordon has been in the game a long time. You have to give him respect and say he knows exactly what he’s doing,” said McLeish
“I don’t see any reason why he should go if we don’t get a result today.
“Thursday night was the first time Scotland have won a big game at Hampden in a really long time.
“That’s a mark of the progress Gordon is making.
“If he does decide he’s had enough, there will be plenty of people who’d want a crack at the job . “I wouldn’t mind it myself in the future! “But Gordon has done well. He’s got great common sense, he keeps it real and he doesn’t come out with the jargon you hear from coaches nowadays.
“But, above all, he knows the game – and that’s what Scotland needs now more than ever.”
Scotland are one game away from a play-off place for the first time in 10 years.
McLeish was Scots boss the last time around, when a last-game defeat at home to Italy killed our Euro 2008 hopes.
The memory of the dodgy free-kick that led to Italy’s winner still rankles.
But McLeish prefers to remember that day for the way Scotland’s then midfield general shut down one of football’s all-time greats. “We were pretty close,” Eck admitted. “We knew we had to win, and we absolutely battered Italy in the second half.
“It’s a sore one, especially when I think back to the way Barry Ferguson played that day.
“Andrea Pirlo was at the peak of his powers at the time, but Barry had him on the ropes.
“He absolutely bossed that game for us. Pirlo couldn’t get a kick.
“We had that one great chance that James McFadden couldn’t quite get a connection on then, of course, Italy go up the park and the referee gives them a wee decision.
“That killed us. But we had to win, anyway. A draw wouldn’t have been good enough.”
That loss turned out to be McLeish’s last match as Scotland boss.
Less than a fortnight later, Birmingham City came calling, offering him the chance to realise a life-long ambition of managing in England.
He enjoyed great success at St Andrew’s, leading City to League Cup glory in 2011 before making the switch to deadly rivals Aston Villa.
Currently on the hunt for a job, McLeish is disappointed by the lack of opportunities top clubs afford to Scottish coaches.
But he insists he has no regrets about stepping down from the Scotland job when he did. “I don’t think like that,” he said. “I always wanted to manage in the Premier League and Birmingham City gave me that opportunity. “I want to do it again now. “Preferably I’d want to go to a bigger club and not have to stage a firefight.
“I’ve proved I can work in that environment before at Rangers.
“I also fulfilled my remit at Aston Villa, where I had to reduce the wage bill drastically.
“Unfortunately, you don’t hear fans saying: ‘Eck saved us a few quid’.
“I’m ready to come back in now somewhere – and I know I can do a job.”
Alex McLeish ran the rule over Slovenia at Wembley for Gordon Strachan