Big Eck was Scot­land’s su­per-spy at Wem­b­ley

The Sunday Post (Dundee) - - Sport - By Sean Hamil­ton SPORT@SUNDAYPOST.COm

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

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