The day after his 27th birthday, Mark McGhee celebrated by scoring a header past Peter Shilton at Hampden.

The match against England on May 26, 1984, was his fourth cap. He never won another.

This astonishing statistic owes much to the riches that Scotland once enjoyed, with Kenny Dalglish, Maurice Johnston, Frank McAvennie, Paul Sturrock, Charlie Nicholas and others all ensuring McGhee could be discarded permanently despite a brilliant goal against the Auld Enemy. But it also speaks to the part fortune plays in football. McGhee was the very personification of the adage that a striker has to be in the right place at the right time when playing in a red shirt but circumstances conspired against him in the early to mid-eighties where injury and the strength of the competition restricted his international career.

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It is tempting, too, to suggest that, as a manager, McGhee also had the facility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His 22-year coaching career began at Reading and has stretched through Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Millwall, Brighton & Hove Albion, Motherwell, Aberdeen and Bristol Rovers.

It is not as if he has not enjoyed success; he has led teams to promotion three times. At Leicester, in 1994, he was the next big thing. As recently as five years ago, he was a contender for the Scotland job and would surely have been in the frame for any vacancy at Celtic, such was his success at Motherwell. But the chances were not offered or not quite taken when he was in the ascendancy.

Yesterday he faced the press as assistant manager of Scotland and had to field questions about failure. McGhee, now 55, reminisced about coming to Glasgow as a player with Aberdeen, at a time when "we felt as if we were almost invincible". It was an older and wiser man who visited the city yesterday but one who believes that every managerial experience has improved him.

He did not shrink from the accusations of under-achievement but firmly stated his intentions with the hint of a Caledonian bristle. This was in evidence when asked if he and Sir Alex Ferguson kept touch. "No," he said. " I do not know if he knows [of my appointment]. I do not even know if he knows Gordon is the manager."

Of adverse comment to his appointment, he said: "I have to say there has not been another person who has approached me, either from the press or the public, who have said there has been a negative reaction."

He added: "All I can do is try to prove myself. With every experience I have had in football, I can say I consider myself a better manager and a better coach, not a worse one. There is no place here for starting to discuss what happened to me at Aberdeen or Bristol Rovers. I believe I have a contribution to make and all I can do is give Gordon all the support I can and, in the process, prove to people that I am worthy of the position."

McGhee's role seems primarily to scout opponents and help in the task of watching candidates for the squad. He was generous but diplomatic on the claims of both Jordan Rhodes and Steven Fletcher and always keen to emphasise that he was content to be secondary to Strachan. "He is a very loyal person, he is a very honest person, he believes in old-fashioned values – good manners and family," he said of his friend. "All of those things are solid characteristics for somebody who is going to be in a position as important and as influential as the manager of the national team. You have to have standards."

His link with Strachan stretches back to Aberdeen and features prominently a couple of crosses. In May 19, 1984, the midfielder crossed at Hampden for McGhee to head the winner in the Scottish Cup final against Celtic. One week later on the same ground, there was an action replay against England.

"I think in my time as a player it was the highlight and that is not rhetoric," said McGhee who has a formidable collection of medals. With Aberdeen, he won three league titles, three Scottish Cups and the European Cup-Winners' Cup and Super Cup. At Celtic, he won two titles and two Scottish Cups.

But it is that moment when he beat Shilton that sticks in the mind. "I always valued that goal, partly because I did not have a huge international career. I only played four games but to have got a goal against England was, for me, rich. It was hugely important for me given I did not get a chance in a World Cup or a European Championship," he said.

He was bullish about taking Scotland forward, possibly toward one of those major tournaments, though was sharp in regards to the outrageous possibility of winning a World Cup. "I understand that Gordon wants a third member of the coaching team and if we get Fergie then, maybe, yes. Outside of that, I do not know about that. Gordon has as good a chance of being successful as the Scotland manager as most people would have," he said.

Of the disastrous qualification campaign for World Cup 2014, he was almost impossibly sunny: "It seems to be like it has almost been totally written off. I am far enough away maybe not to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation we are in. But I think with six games to go that there surely must still be hope. I think it starts with the Wales game."

This optimism follows both Strachan and McGhee stating their credentials Tartan Army foot soldiers. "Gordon is a passionate Scotsman. I would like to think I am the same, hence I feel that moment [the goal against England] was the big moment in my career. I read somewhere that he was at the game when they tore down the goals and I was there with my brother," said McGhee of victory against England at Wembley in 1977.

Of Strachan, he said: "We are both passionate supporters of the national team. We bring that with us."

McGhee, sacked by Bristol Rovers before Christmas after only 10 months in charge, is aware of the sudden changes in fortune that accompany a manager's career. But he believes his latest appointment offers him an opportunity. He was on the shortlist for the Scotland managerial vacancy that was filled by George Burley in 2008.

"I never played in a World Cup or European Championships and I have always wondered what it would have liked to have been at one of these competitions," he said. "Around the time I was interviewed for the job, obviously that was at the forefront of my mind. Now, albeit it as a second in command, it is still the same competitions. It is important."

McGhee has another chance at Hampden. A nation hopes he can reproduce the finishes of 1984.