‘THIS is Anfield’ is not the sign that will greet Mark McGhee this weekend. Nor will the sound of the Kop to his right rattle in his ears, the flash of a dozen cameras sting his eyes or the smell of blood from one of English football’s fiercest rivalries curdle in his nostrils as he takes up the position at the side of a grassy park he has grown accustomed to over the last 25 years.

Instead of trying to outwit Manchester United, the Motherwell manager will saunter down the brick-clad tunnel at Tynecastle, passing under the slightly less-subtle message of ‘blood doesn’t show on a maroon jersey’ scrawled on to the concrete beam above his head, before standing in the away dug out for what will be his 900th game as a head coach.

However, it could have been so very different for the 58-year-old.

For McGhee his ‘sliding doors’ moments came in 1997 and 2002. Twice he took teams into the play-offs, firstly with Wolverhampton Wanderers and then Millwall, and twice he was thwarted at the semi-final stage. Firstly going out 4-3 on aggregate, before five years later a last-minute Stern John goal put Birmingham City through to the final against Norwich.

The Scot recognises those as potential turning points in his career where a return to the bright lights of the English top flight, a place he briefly inhabited with Leicester back in the second half of the 1994/95 season, could have opened up for him. It is something that still rankles with the ambitious manager as he now strives for success at Motherwell.

“Losing in play-off games were the worst moments of my career,” he explained. “I lost narrowly in the last minute with Millwall against Birmingham in the play-off semi-final. That was painful. I lost with Wolves in the same circumstances to Crystal Palace. These were chances to go into the Premier League and they were life-changing games.

“That is the reason – and don’t misinterpret me here – why I’m managing Motherwell and not Liverpool. If II had won promotion on either of these occasions the chances are that’s the kind of place I would be.

“That’s the progression you need to make if you want to manage in the Premier League and I failed to make it so that’s why I feel unfulfilled.”

Standing in a corridor buried in Fir Park’s Phil O’Donnell Stand, McGhee is content to transport himself back in time to when the world of management was first thrust upon him.

“I can still remember my first game,” recalling the moment he became Reading manager back in 1991. “My first game as manager was Stoke City at home for Reading, the very last game of the season. I took over on the Thursday night, took training on Friday and was there in charge against Stoke on the Saturday.

“Was I nervous? Not really. It was the last game of the season and there was nothing at stake, other than me just getting a first win so I could then prepare for the following season.

“I was more nervous on the following Monday, when the first task I had was to release the boys who weren’t getting new contracts. That was a new experience for me. The funny thing is that the first boy I had in, to tell him he wasn’t getting a contract – and remember this was a decision made by other people, because I didn’t know these players – was Brendan Rogers.”

“It didn’t do him any harm, obviously. It was character building!”

Back in the present, McGhee is content to look forward with an air of positivity, despite several obstacles falling in his path in recent weeks. Ahead of tomorrow’s Ladbrokes Premiership game with Hearts, Motherwell captain Keith Lasley is suspended, while fellow midfielder Liam Grimshaw, a player the club were hoping to keep beyond this weekend, has instead returned to parent club Manchester United to be moved on to Preston North End.

It means the Fir Park club’s task of extending their unbeaten run to seven games has been made all the more difficult, but their manager’s confidence in those left to do the job is unwavering.

“We’re not going to use that as an excuse. I think we have a team that can go there and do itself justice on Saturday,” said McGhee. “We’ll have to do it in a different way and it’s up to me to find that with what we’ve got.

“I believe II have that and it will be up to the players to go out and stand up to what they will face. We know how difficult it’s going to be. We saw what they did too Aberdeen. They are very aggressive and physical and II say that in the nicest possible way.

“Their football style is aggressive and they are up and at you. They are not trying to hurt you. If we go there and try to fight them we will get beaten. If we go there and pass the ball and play football then we have a chance.”