x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

McLeish: Two-footed tackles French gift to British game

If there is a true heir apparent to Sir Alex Ferguson then more and more it seems to be Alex McLeish.

Jack Wilshere, left, was given a red card for a mistimed tackle on Nikola Zigic.
Jack Wilshere, left, was given a red card for a mistimed tackle on Nikola Zigic.

LONDON // If there is a true heir apparent to Sir Alex Ferguson then more and more it seems to be Alex McLeish.

McLeish, the Birmingham City manager, might not have the gold-stamped CV of others predicted to take over from Ferguson when he eventually abdicates from his throne at Manchester United, but "Big Eck" - as McLeish is known - he has something far more evocative. He possesses a similar psyche to Ferguson.

Nor surprising really since he is not only a fellow Scot, but played under Ferguson for Aberdeen in the early 1980s when the club stole the thunder of the Glasgow giants Rangers and Celtic in Scottish football, thus carving the foundations for Ferguson's managerial career.

Peas from a pod you might say. And Ferguson will have been proud of how McLeish taunted Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, in the wake of Birmingham City's 2-1 defeat to the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.

The so-called Fergie versus Wenger mind games have been a feature of the Premier League over the past 14 years since the erudite Frenchman arrived to joust with the United manager and challenge what had started to become United's omnipotence. The battle is not just for trophies but the moral high ground as well.

And McLeish's straight-faced, but sarcastic appraisal of what he really thought of Jack Wilshere's red-card tackle in the final minute of Saturday's encounter - and more to the point Wenger's sheepish response - was a master stroke of subtle but poisoned rhetoric straight out of Ferguson's handbook.

When McLeish was asked who was really to blame for the proliferation of violent tackles in the English game - which have prompted Wenger to embark on a moral crusade, blaming clubs of Birmingham's status - Big Eck, well aware of Wenger's roots, retorted: "The French."

Citing his experience of working with French players when beginning his managerial career in Scotland with Hibernian, McLeish said: "A new trend of two-footed tackles? I don't think that's a British thing. When I brought French players to Scotland, it was a feature of French players: two-footed players.

"Franck Sauzee at Hibernian, a fantastic player, went into tackles with two feet. It must have been allowed in France. There were a few other players who we trialled, and I saw it as a trait in the French game." Touche.

Wenger agreed that Wilshere, 18, had deserved to get a red card for his challenge on Nikola Zigic, the Birmingham forward, but added: "It was his first tackle in the game. He didn't spend the whole game kicking people."

If that was meant to be a dig back at Birmingham - and a feisty history between the two clubs has emerged since Eduardo, the former Gunner, suffered a broken leg at St Andrew's in 2008 - it did not work.

It might irk Wenger, until he has the chance to respond, but according to McLeish, English football only starting becoming sinister when the French got involved.

sports@thenational.ae