In November 2007 Alex McLeish was given the opportunity to prove himself in the one environment that could make him quit his job as Scotland manager. The attraction of the English Premier League was high and the chance to take charge at Birmingham City offered the challenge he craved. McLeish had almost taken Scotland to Euro 2008, but described club football as a "fix" he needed to satisfy.
He is not the only one with such an addiction. It is a reason why Sir Alex Ferguson, who turned 68 just 10 days ago, will be in the opposite dugout today when Manchester United head to St Andrew's. McLeish saw that same desire 32 years ago when he played under Ferguson at Aberdeen and, like many more, he soaked up knowledge from a man he has always admired. "It's helped my education and made me better at what I've done as a player and coach," he said.
Ferguson made McLeish and his Aberdeen teammates believe they could beat anybody. Unfashionable yet undaunted, they challenged the dominance of Celtic and Rangers and humbled the European giants of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to claim the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983. Ferguson has spent 24 years mostly replicating that success at Old Trafford. With an unbeaten run of 12 games, including draws against Manchester City, Liverpool and the leaders Chelsea, Birmingham have performed way beyond expectations.
McLeish has got the best out of players whose best days seemed behind them. One, Stephen Carr, retired 13 months ago after being released by Newcastle. Two months later, he joined Birmingham and has been a vital part in defence. McLeish will now seek to build on this foundation with more quality and depth. The Spanish midfielder Michel has signed from Sporting Gijon, and Kenwyne Jones, the Sunderland striker, could be another addition, although McLeish will have to rely on the old guard against United.
The surprise FA Cup third round defeat at home to Leeds, now two divisions below them, last weekend - United's third loss in six games - highlighted the inconsistency of the champions. "They will be a bit like a wounded animal and extremely dangerous," said Mcleish. "I don't believe there will be any complacency from us. If we can get something from them then I think we will still be punching above our weight." A cautious approach is wise. As the United winger Ryan Giggs warned: "The turn of the year is when we are notoriously at our best." @Email:email@example.com Birmingham v Man Utd, 9.30pm, Showsports 1&2
On-loan forward Landon Donovan, who goes straight into Everton's squad for a tough away trip to Arsenal, is relishing the chance to debut against the Gunners. "Arsenal are a very good team playing very well right now," said Donovan, who has joined the Toffees on a 10-week loan spell from Los Angeles Galaxy while the Major League Soccer season is on a close-season break. "I'm hoping to play and it would be a great experience but I'm here to help this team win, whatever that takes." With injuries to strikers Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner, Croatian forward Eduardo, who has scored two goals in his past two games, is likely to start up-front again for Arsene Wenger's side who are suddenly back in the title race. Arsenal v Everton, 7pm, Showsports 1&2
Wigan are looking to record back-to-back victories for the first time this season. With midfielder Mohammed Diame their only injury concern, the Latics manager Roberto Martinez is considering giving several of the fringe players who excelled in last week's FA Cup win over a Hull a league start. "We've been working hard to get the levels of competition up and prepare our younger players to have an impact on the game," he said. Sixth-placed Villa need to get back among the goals if they are to avoid three consecutive losses. For Martin O'Neill's Champions League chasing side, the trip to lowly Wigan, who sit 16th, represents an ideal opportunity to get back to winning ways. They are boosted by the return of James Milner following a foot injury. Wigan v Aston Villa, 7pm, Showsasha