I N the end, Alex McLeish and Nottingham Forest could tolerate each other for only 40 days.
The latest torrid episode in the former Aberdeen player's turbulent managerial narrative came to a swift end yesterday when he parted company with the club by mutual consent, having presided over just seven matches, delivering one win, two draws and four defeats. Sources in the East Midlands say McLeish had already made up his mind to leave prior to the 2-1 defeat to Birmingham City on Saturday, but decided to stay on as he did not want to be perceived as avoiding the ordeal of visiting his former club, whose supporters have not forgiven him for leaving St Andrews for their bitter rivals Aston Villa.
As usual, there were warm words from both parties. Fawaz al-Hasawi, Forest's Kuwaiti chairman – a man looking for the fourth manager of his family's six-month stewardship – thanked the Scot for his efforts, while McLeish issued a statement via the League Managers Association which spoke of the "privilege" of taking charge of such a "fantastic football club" but blaming "a difference in the understanding of the development strategy of the football club" for his departure.
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This all served only to obscure the real issue at hand. In the main, the above difference of interpretation related to McLeish's belief that, having removed the popular Sean O'Driscoll to make way for him the first place (O'Driscoll's last match was a 4-2 win at Leeds United which left the club a point away from the play-offs) Forest's wealthy owners might be prepared to give him some money to spend.
Although Gonzalo Jaro and Elliot Ward arrived on loan last month, and there was a short-term deal for striker Darius Henderson, and a young Kuwaiti goalkeeper called Khalid Al-Rashidi, Forest were unsuccessful in their pursuit of former McLeish charge Chris Burke. The club then refused to back McLeish's pursuit of Scotland B cap George Boyd of Peterborough, a £500,000 bid foundering on the rather strange pretext that the player had a minor problem with his eyesight.
McLeish's departure came little more than a fortnight after a cull which dispensed with the services of the Forest chief executive Mark Arthur, head of recruitment Keith Burt, and popular club ambassador Frank Clark. Not that the owners are averse to splashing the cash as they chase the bounty of a place in next year's Premier League. Decent fees were lavished on Simon Cox and Henri Lansbury during the summer, a time when, ironically, they were keener to land McLeish as manager than they were O'Driscoll.
Some might be tempted to think McLeish is the footballing equivalent of a toxic brand following his misadventures in Birmingham, but according to John McGovern, the Scot who was the bulwark of the Forest side that won back-to-back European Cups under Brian Clough during the 1980s and now covers the game for local radio, such an analysis is unfair. Indeed, he says, although results weren't good, McLeish won admirers for the dignity he showed in a difficult situation.
"I don't think Alex's reputation can be harmed in that space of time," McGovern said. "He seems like a very straightforward Scottish guy; there's a bit of grit about him and he will fight his corner. An issue arose where he thought he really had to fight his corner and he made up his mind to walk away. That is what strong characters do. I just hope he can find another job soon, because one month isn't nearly enough to prove yourself."
McGovern added: "Before the transfer window, Alex was very buoyant about bringing players in and in the end not one came in. I think that must have disappointed him as it disappointed the supporters. Perhaps the Al-Hasawi family are finding things a little bit more difficult than they thought it would be, because running a team in Kuwait is a lot different from running one in the Championship in England. Recreating the glory days of Forest is an impossibility unless you recreated a Mr Clough to do the job, because he was one of the truly inspirational managers that every player would run through a brick wall for and you don't get many like that in the game now."
The hunt for a replacement alights on roughly the same names McLeish beat to the job a month back. Roberto Di Matteo, most recently of Chelsea, former Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, and one-time player Roy Keane have all been mentioned, while a return for Billy Davies is the kind of polarising prospect that at least half the fans might go for. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, disposed of as a coach by McLeish, has also been linked with a return.
Whether any manager worth his salt would be prepared to work in such a precarious boardroom environment is questionable but McGovern says: "It is still one of the best jobs outwith the Premier League. Let's just hope to the sake of the club they get it right this time."
As for who takes the team against Bristol City this weekend, it may be a case of last man standing. Obvious candidates are the coach, Rob Kelly, and John Pemberton, who has been caretaker in the past on more than one occasion. McLeish can at least console himself with the fact he has some company: his 40-day reign was only a couple of weeks shorter than Henning Berg era at Blackburn, and four fewer than a certain Brian Clough managed at Leeds.