His appointment as manager in October came at a time when the club had lost sight of their own ambition, a series of disappointing results having left them adrift of the play-off places in the second division and flirting with the threat of relegation. Fortunes have been turned round under McKinnon – whose tenure has included just two defeats – to such an extent that the visit of Alloa Athletic this afternoon presents an opportunity to pull second place into view.
It is a target which may not be reached, but Brechin have accelerated so forcibly since McKinnon's arrival – in the wake of Jim Weir's departure – that it seems pertinent to keep an eye on what might be up ahead. He was named second division manager of the month for November just weeks after his appointment and his team have lost just once in nine games, the last three yielded nine points and the same number of goals.
The 42-year-old has spoken about a need to address defensive deficiencies within his squad but, given Brechin had netted just seven times before his arrival, it has been his ability to draw greater conviction from his forwards, especially top scorer Andy Jackson, that has been more impressive.
McKinnon was sourced from a modest setting as he had swapped a coaching role at junior side Lochee United for a position as technical development officer at the Scottish Football Association. However, his career has featured some distinguished cameos. His formative years as a player were spent under the stewardship of Jim McLean at Dundee United, before the progress he made as a midfielder led to spells at Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest and a season at Aberdeen under Willie Miller.
None of those moves would lead to success on the pitch but some of the lessons McKinnon learned helped to mould him into a figure currently standing tall in the dugout at Glebe Park. Some but not all. Clough retains an aura for his successes at Derby County and Forest and his strength of character has left an indelible mark on the English game, but McKinnon was privy to some of his weaker moments. His two seasons at the City Ground were played out amid the nadir of Clough's alcohol abuse, with the coach later referring to his decision to start drinking as his "biggest clanger".
There is a sense of regret in the words of McKinnon, too. "Unfortunately, Brian Clough . . . when I went down he was at the end of his career; he was an alcoholic and everyone knows the stories about that. I didn't really learn much from him," the Brechin manager said. "But everyone knows Jim McLean. He was hard to work for but he certainly got the best out of people and was a very, very good coach on the technical side of the game, so I probably learned a lot there."
The reverence for his old United manager has survived the ravages of time but it is not unaffected by it. "He is losing his marbles," McKinnon said. "I'll meet him one day and he doesn't remember meeting me the day before. It's disappointing, but it probably happens to us all when we get older. But he is still on the ball when you see him, he is still sharp."
Those discussions centre on nostalgia, but McKinnon will cover current affairs with Miller. The then Aberdeen manager offered him a way out of that unsatisfactory spell at Forest and their relationship has been enduring, even if their solitary season together at Pittodrie was only endured. Miller was a respected figure at a club where he had spent his entire playing career but his spell as manager can be more easily glossed over, despite a couple of cup finals and comfortable league finishes. His work with his players and in preparing his teams is not collated within the statistics of his tenure but it is readily recounted by McKinnon.
The coach has been successful in putting his own stamp on Brechin, but there are elements of Miller's character which he wishes to emulate. "He could do the tactical side and the man-management side," McKinnon said. "I just thought he was excellent, as a person and as a manager. I don't know, the timing of it was just wrong. But I am surprised he's not been back in management, very surprised."
That sentiment can be turned on McKinnon, too, especially given how proficient he has been at Glebe Park. He had been linked with the post before, as well as a previous vacancy at former club Montrose, only to pursue positions which would allow him to gain a more rounded education as a coach. He had already been exposed to the vagaries of part-time football – his playing career would later flit between the likes of Portadown, Stirling Albion, East Fife and Montrose – but the demands of managing a squad who were unable to devote all of their time to football at Lochee has helped him to settle at Brechin. "You came up against a lot of pitfalls and I learned a lot there," McKinnon said. "It's been a great grounding."
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