New stage for old rivals
Over three years between 2002 and 2005, Martin O'Neill and Alex McLeish glared at each other across Glasgow's cavernous Old Firm divide. Now these best of enemies have been set in direct opposition once again, this time in Britain's 'second city': the industrial English heartland of Birmingham.
Their reunion has been facilitated by McLeish's decision to leave his post as Scotland manager to succeed Steve Bruce at Birmingham City, and with O'Neill situated just across town at Aston Villa, the man in charge of the city's third club, West Bromwich Albion, believes fireworks are in store.
"It should be fascinating," said Tony Mowbray, who was Hibernian manager during his rivals' stints in charge of the two Glasgow giants. "Alex is a very experienced guy who has managed in the Champions League with one of the world's biggest teams in Glasgow Rangers, so I would think the Premiership won't hold any fears. But it's interesting to see Martin on the other side of Birmingham. Having been part of the Scottish game when Rangers and Celtic - or Alex and Martin - went head to head four times-a-season was a crazy world with the media, yet here they are now in Birmingham both up against each other. It should be exciting."
If their record in opposition north of the border is anything to go by, that should be guaranteed. O'Neill and McLeish clashed on 20 occasions in the Old Firm derby and it was a measure of how closely their sides were matches that, of those, only three were decided by more than a single-goal margin.
McLeish, in the blue corner, certainly started well in this personal duel, emerging unbeaten from his first seven matches against a Celtic side which O'Neill had established as Scottish football's dominant force. Yet it was not by accident that the fiery Irishman had seen off McLeish's predecessor, the big-spending Dick Advocaat, and early talk that this new kid on the block held some kind of hoodoo over the Bhoys boss was made to appear very foolish indeed when O'Neill's team embarked on a seven-game winning streak in Old Firm derbies that spanned three seasons.
Indeed, ultimately, O'Neill enjoyed the edge in these
Glasgwegian battles, chalking up ten wins to McLeish's seven
and also emerging with a slightly superior trophy count: seven to
six. Nevertheless, speaking as news of the former Scotland
coach's move to St Andrews first broke, the Villa boss had
nothing but praise for the man with whom he is set to renew
"I think he's an excellent manager," said the Northern Irishman. "I had a lot of rivalry with him when I was manager of Celtic and he was with Rangers. He will be terrific for the Premiership, he really will be. I can't pretend to know what he does in his training sessions or how he motivates his players, but he is able to do that. I know the Scottish players think a lot of him."
McLeish, for his part, has also spoken of his "huge respect" for O'Neill, and will know only too well the scale of the challenge he faces in challenging the city supremacy of a Villa side that this week forced their way into the Premier League's top six with a 4-0 win away at Blackburn Rovers. Villa's American owner, Randy Lerner, is certainly in no doubt over the reasons for his side's recent resurgence. "Martin O'Neill is a very special person," said Lerner. "He was a great player, he's clearly an amazing manager and there's more to him than that. He's special. We have the best around, I do believe that."
'The new Fergie'
Birmingham City, of course, have just as much faith in their man. At his unveiling, McLeish revealed that he sought advice from former mentor Sir Alex Ferguson before taking the job at St Andrews, and chairman David Gold believes he sees a great deal of Ferguson in the Manchester United manager's one-time protégé.
"You know something, he even looks like Fergie at times," said Gold. "I would love to think he can become the new Fergie. He certainly has similar traits and their backgrounds are virtually identical. The two of them have trodden very similar paths and you can sense a determination and will to win in both of them. I see Alex's appointment as a coup; an extraordinary acquisition."
The Blues boss does, however, take charge of a club languishing just one point above the relegation zone, and although McLeish's desire to return to club football was an open secret, many were surprised that Birmingham were able to lure him south.
The 48-year-old's explanation was simple: "People say 'why not wait' for what they call a bigger club - but sometimes the opportunity is not there, and you can wait forever for a chance. I spoke to Sir Alex about taking this job. He was definitely positive. I knew how hard he worked and I think that kind of rubs off on you. There is probably a desire to prove yourself out of Scotland as well - the old chip on the shoulder that we Scots have."
And of course, this is not all that McLeish holds in common with his former manager at Aberdeen. Just as Ferguson has Arsene Wenger, so too does the Blues boss have an established nemesis of his own. Now all that remains is to discover whether it he or O'Neill who wins the battle of Birmingham.