Profile He is becoming an increasingly visible player in Scottish football, but why is Paul McBride taking such an active interest, asks Richard Wilson
Yet there is little doubt that McBride himself will not be troubled by the thought of having created a stir.
As one of Scotland’s leading QCs, who has worked on a number of high-profile court proceedings -- including Gail Sheridan’s recent perjury case -- McBride is used to drifting in and out of the spotlight. But he is comfortable with the prominence that comes with his involvement in Scottish football, and representing one half of the Old Firm.
Two years ago, he switched allegiance from Labour to the Conservatives, but even that shift -- of politics, of identity -- did not bring the same exposure as his association with Celtic this season.
It is QCs who are often considered the archest court performers, the figures whose eloquence and delivery is able to thrive in the theatrical, combative environment of the High Court.
So a television camera or microphone will not daunt McBride -- a sharply-dressed, trim, confident and formidable presence -- and nor will his picture being splashed across the newspapers, or his name being hurled around the daily radio football phone-ins. As a QC, he works near that boundary between the legal sphere and the outside world, where publicity comes with the expertise.
Perhaps this was what Celtic were looking for. There are many lawyers who specialise in sport, including disciplinary procedures, so why employ a QC -- whose place of work is the High Court -- when challenging the SFA’s punishment of Neil Lennon?
McBride has a keen mind and is renowned for taking a painstaking grasp of his brief, but sending a QC in to pick through the legalities of the rule book belonging to an organisation still relying on a committee structure that has lasted for more than 100 years seems an excessive, or even unforgiving, act.
McBride brings stature, and so immediately lends a weight of credence to Celtic’s point of view. There was a sense of righteousness almost that an influential QC was taking the club’s case to the SFA, reducing Lennon’s first touchline suspension, then dismantling the association’s attempt to run a second ban consecutively.
Yet his comments about the SFA last Tuesday -- after Ally McCoist’s appeal against the touchline ban he earned following the confrontation with Lennon at Celtic Park last month was successful, and Madjid Bougherra and El-Hadj Diouf received only fines for their behaviour -- were a personal act.
Lennon later said that McBride was not talking on behalf of either him or Celtic, a stance which the club confirmed yesterday. So did he speak out entirely of his own volition, or with the tacit agreement of senior figures at Celtic Park, or based on his own judgement that his comments would not cause disquiet in the club’s boardroom?
McBride has called for the SFA to be streamlined and modernised (which Stewart Regan, the chief executive, has already begun to implement), but there might have been few pangs of sympathy at Celtic Park when Hugh Dallas was dismissed as head of refereeing earlier this season, or if George Peat was forced to leave before his presidency ends. Without being explicit, and with McBride at the forefront, an antagonism seems to have developed between the club and the SFA.
For McBride, the only child of working class parents who sent him to St Aloysius, the private Catholic school in Glasgow, and who is said to have taken a season ticket at Celtic Park after finishing his career as a Grade 1 assistant referee, there might be some personal attachment to the club’s cause. But his sense of himself, above all else, is as a QC, a problem solver for hire.
“He likes to consider himself as something of a fixer,” says Steven Raeburn, editor of the Scottish legal magazine, The Firm, who has known McBride since 2005. “Paul’s a player, in the sense that he operates within a functioning network and he knows his place in it. He’s a politician, with a small ‘p’, because he’s extremely well connected, and he’s trusted in those circles as well.
“I know him to be extremely generous with his time, he’s big-hearted in a practical sense and modest with it. He has a dry sense of humour, and likes to laugh at the absurdity of the legal environment. But he’s also an attack dog for hire.”
Having started studying law at Strathclyde University when he was 16, and graduating at 19, then 11 years ago becoming, at 35, the youngest QC in the UK, McBride has made startling progress in his career.
His skill is marshaling the legal complexities of a case and emphatically making his arguments in court (he once talked for five hours, interrupted only by a lunch break, without notes during a trial, and without hesitating or missing a point), but revels in the reputation of being the man people turn to when they need a difficult problem solved. He has acted for Allan McGregor, the Rangers goalkeeper, and is due to represent David Goodwillie, the Dundee United striker.
“It’s unusual for anybody within the legal profession to stand out in that [football] environment,” says Raeburn. “There are other high-profile QCs associated with clubs who, perhaps because of the way the dice rolled, [found] it limited their options for the future. You can see the parallels there. Other high-profile QCs got caught out in their private lives, being careless with their words. Unless McBride does that, his association with a football club is not going to shut doors.”
In a recent interview, McBride spoke warmly of his experiences running the line in Premier League games, and of his dismay at songs sung by Rangers and Celtic fans. Football, for now, is still part of his varied professional life.