THE fabled G12 corridor at the man-bun sector of Glasgow’s west end seems an unlikely setting to be interviewing a weathered, pre-loved Scottish football manager, like Ian McCall. In reaching our arranged meeting-place I’ve already spotted several of this arrondissement’s more exotic species in their late summer plumage.

Three elderly cyclists are holding up the traffic and plainly not giving one Friar Tuck. Their apparel, all psychedelic blues and yellows suggests they’ve recently been given gift tokens for landmark birthdays and used them all in the same half-price sale.

A group of women have just emerged from a patisserie, their leggings and designer hoodies suggesting it’s to the yoga class next. Ladies who crunch. Today, as always, is labradoodle day on Hyndland Road. 

You wouldn’t immediately connect this perjink neighbourhood with a chap such as McCall. His professional playing and managerial career spans 40 years and more than a dozen clubs – most of them in Scotland’s blue-collar sector. He had two seasons at Rangers where he is remembered as a skilful winger who perhaps didn’t quite make full use of his natural ability.

Yet, he’s one of the west end’s most recognised ‘faces’ like Bobby Bluebell and Kevin Bridges and that chap from the Blue Nile and Zara who posts those glorious west-end mum videos on social media. Sometimes, there’s entertainment to be had watching how diligently the locals try to convey insouciance when somebody famous appears in their midst.

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I’ve got a bone to pick with McCall and I need to get it out the way early doors. I’ve known him for many years, having been introduced by a mutual friend and I normally like the way he cuts about. And then he had to ruin it all by signing my nephew, Ciaran for Partick Thistle.

Two years later he was released by McCall despite – in my opinion – delivering a series of solid performances at right back.

“What was that all about,” I ask him. “Ah, Ciaran; he’s a lovely lad and has loads of ability, but, well … you know.” And his voice trails off amidst football’s usual argot of disappointment: “tight budgets” and “difficult decisions” and that old one beloved of football managers seeking to channel compassion: “it was probably better for the lad”. What he really means is that our Ciaran has a university degree, so he’ll always have options.

But what do I know about professional football management or about any aspect of playing the game at a senior level; me who rose to the dizzy heights of player/manager at a University team where the matches were what used to help us sober up between drinking sessions.

And besides, McCall is rather good at his job. He’s known throughout the game as a manager who possesses that elusive alchemy of turning ordinary players into something much better. And if he’s not doing that he’s spotting natural talent long before others are alerted to it. One former player tells me: “if you need a manager to make the most of limited resources then Ian McCall’s your man.”

The Herald:

Ian McCall celebrates at Dens Park, during his time as Ayr United manager

Considering that his career now spans five decades in this ruthless trade you’d think there was little left that could shock him. So did McCall … until 7.23pm on the evening of February 12 this year. His Partick Thistle players had just delivered their best performance of the season in a narrow 3-2 defeat by to Rangers at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup. “If it hadn’t been for Allan McGregor (the Rangers goalkeeper) rolling back the years, we could and should have been 3-0 up at half-time,” he says.

“That call on the coach back from Ibrox to Firhill was inviting me to an impromptu meeting in the boardroom. I kind of knew what was coming next. You get a sense of these things.”

McCall was summarily sacked in a meeting that lasted all of 40 seconds. “Look, I’ve been around the block plenty of times, but all I felt was hurt, disbelief and anger. I’ve been a full-time manager in more than 900 games. No one is more aware than me of how brutal this industry can be, but this felt different and it felt wrong. I felt like collateral damage.”

It seemed that the decision had been taken to dispense with his services several weeks before Ibrox. A wretched run of league form had wrecked a brilliant start to the season.

He lists some mitigating factors. “There was a five-game period when the heart was ripped out of team after a cup quarter-final against Aberdeen at Pittodrie. In our other 18 games we took 33 points, which is title form. 

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“Anyone who thinks we would not at least have reached the play-offs with a fully fit squad either didn’t see us in our first 15 games or doesn’t get football. Moreover, 75% of the goals in our last 15 games, including the play offs, were scored or assisted by players I was unable to pick due to injury.”

Some context here, for those unfamiliar with the Game of Thrones eviscerations that have consumed Partick Thistle in recent years. Several factions have strived for ownership of the club, including a fans’ group. Bodies have been tossed into the canal behind Thistle’s Firhill stadium at monthly intervals.

Time, as it always does, has drawn a little of the sting. McCall loves Partick Thistle and thinks the current Chairman, Alistair Creevy is re-acquainting them with stability. He also salutes the job that his replacement (and friend) Kris Doolan is doing.

“As the waters calmed, I began to try to find a way in which I agreed with what happened. And I did.

“You see, I was becoming a huge pain in the ass to the board as I was constantly seeking information in the midst of the acrimony that existed between the supporters and the old and new board. I needed to protect the players from it and also to ensure that our most sellable assets were tied down to contracts that would bring in decent cash when it came to selling them.”

The Herald:

Ian McCall celebrates a League 1 title triumph and promotion to the Scottish Championship with Partick Thistle in 2021

“Look,” he says, “I was away from the game for four years following my first stint as manager of Thistle in 2011. That was a very dark period in my life, during which I never believed I could be in a position to manage a football club again.”

His three-year intermission in 2011 was due to a chronic gambling problem which he felt he could only address properly by removing himself from the pressures of running a football club. “I got a lot of help from some special people during that time and I was lucky that the friends I’d made in football never forgot what I’d done in improving all of the teams I’d managed.”

Governments in the UK give licence for the multi-billion, on-line betting industry to prey on football people. Footballers’ working weeks leave them susceptible to the betting company jackals. Have his own battles with addiction helped him identify problem patterns in others? “It’s a constant occupational hazard,” he says. “But I’ve been providing counselling to a small group of people in the game who are facing what I faced. I’m just thankful I’m in a position to do that.”

We discuss some of the talented young players that Thistle have on their books right now. He’s due much of the credit for their development, but he insists that most of this is down to the hard work of the youth coaches. He mentions Alan Archibald (now a first team coach at Kilmarnock), whom he describes as “arguably the most significant figure at Thistle since 1971” and Neil Scally, for the endless hours they devoted to the youngsters’ development.

He insists too on invoking a degree of perspective in dealing with his own sacking. “The worst part of football management is having to tell players they’re being released. It happened to me, of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

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“It’s when you have to take a young player aside and tell him that you won’t be renewing his contract. He and his family will have invested a lot of time and emotion in trying to make his dream come true and the disappointment in their faces when they think their dreams have been crushed is indescribable. It never gets easier.

“However, the football community has a big heart and they gather round at times like this. There’s always another door waiting to be opened.”

It’s what sustained him in his own darkest moments and now he’s fielding calls again. They want McCall to spin some gold from lead, as he’s done with most of the clubs he’s managed.

“I still have the fire,” he says. “If I don’t get another suitable opportunity, I can savour the last nine years, a period I thought I’d never get due to my own demons.”

It’s been eventful: two championships; the Covid relegation; a promotion; two Premiership play-offs; many good players (including some, like Lawrence Shankland who have become internationals).

“Even my fiercest critics can’t say I didn’t leave the sides I managed in a far better position. Ultimately, for me, that’s the job.”

I tell him that if he hadn’t binned our Ciaran he’d still be in a job. Had to be said.