He started his managerial career with spells at Motherwell and Hibernian, before guiding Rangers to two championships and five cup wins in five years. McLeish spent ten months as manager of the Scotland national team which narrowly failed to qualify for the finals of the 2008 UEFA European championship. He then resigned this post in November 2007 to become manager of Birmingham City, who were in the Premier League at the time. Though Birmingham were relegated at the end of the season, McLeish guided them back to the Premier League in 2009. Birmingham then won the 2011 Football League Cup Final, but were relegated again from the Premier League at the end of the 2010–11 season.
Following this relegation he resigned his post at Birmingham to become manager at their city rivals, Aston Villa. This made him the first manager to move directly from Birmingham City to Aston Villa, and only the second manager after Ron Saunders to manage both clubs. Having only narrowly avoided relegation in the 2011–12 Premier League season, his contract was terminated by Villa at the end of his first season. McLeish was appointed manager of Championship club Nottingham Forest in December 2012, but left after 40 days by mutual consent. He managed Belgian Pro League club Genk in the 2014–15 season, and Zamalek of the Egyptian Premier League in 2016.
In recognition of his distinguished service to Scottish sport, in 2008 McLeish was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Aberdeen.
McLeish was born in Duke Street Hospital, Glasgow to parents Alex, a shipyard worker, and Jean. He has younger siblings Angela and Ian. After living in the Parkhead and Kinning Park districts of the city, the family moved to Barrhead, Renfrewshire soon after McLeish had reached school age. He attended Springhill Primary, Barrhead High School, where he was one year below future Aberdeen and Scotland teammate Peter Weir, and John Neilson High School in Paisley.
As a juvenile he played for Barrhead Youth Club, alongside Weir, and Glasgow United as well as training for a short period with Hamilton Accies. After a local cup final with Glasgow United in 1976 which was watched by a delegation from Aberdeen, including then manager Ally MacLeod, McLeish signed for the Pittodrie club the following day.
McLeish spent the majority of his first two seasons at Aberdeen in the reserves and also had a loan spell at local Junior side Lewis United. He made his competitive debut under Billy McNeill in a New Year fixture against Dundee United on 2 January 1978. His first major final appearance was under the management of Alex Ferguson as a substitute in a 2–1 defeat to Rangers in the 1978–79 League Cup. Over the next seven seasons however, he enjoyed great success, winning eight domestic and two European trophies. Highlights included scoring in a 4–1 victory over Rangers in the 1982 Scottish Cup Final on his 200th Dons appearance and a European Cup Winners' Cup win over Real Madrid in 1983.
During this period, McLeish formed a formidable defensive triumvirate with Willie Miller and Jim Leighton for both club and country. When Ferguson left in 1986 to go to Manchester United, he tried to get McLeish to sign, but it did not work out; he also had talks with Tottenham Hotspur. He won the Scottish player of the year in 1990, after a season in which Aberdeen won both domestic cups. He became captain of Aberdeen after the retirement of Willie Miller.
Even after he had won his first Scotland cap, McLeish's father asked then Aberdeen boss Alex Ferguson to persuade him to continue training as an accountant.
McLeish is Scotland's third most capped player, having gained 77 international caps between 1980 and 1993. He was first capped for the Scotland U-21 team while still a reserve player at Aberdeen by his former club manager Ally MacLeod, eventually gaining six caps at that level. His full international debut came on 26 March 1980 against Portugal, manager Jock Stein playing him in midfield alongside Archie Gemmill and Graeme Souness. He played in three World Cups with Scotland, in 1982, 1986 and 1990. He is a member of the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, the Scotland national football team roll of honour and Scottish Television's fan poll Scotland's Greatest Team. On the occasion of his 50th cap, against Luxembourg in 1987, McLeish was appointed team captain for the game. His final cap came on 17 February 1993 in a 3–0 win over Malta at Hampden Park during the 1994 World Cup qualifiers. He never scored in his 77 appearances for Scotland.
After his successful playing career he quickly went into football management with Motherwell in 1994, one year before he retired as a player. His first season at Motherwell saw him take the Lanarkshire club to second in the Premier Division behind Walter Smith's Rangers. However, he failed to build on this success and the next two seasons were spent in relegation battles. He resigned as manager to take over at Hibernian in 1998.
McLeish took over a struggling Hibernian side, which was relegated from the Scottish Premier Division in 1998 despite a slight upturn in fortunes under McLeish. He then guided the Edinburgh team back to the Scottish Premier League at the first attempt by winning the First Division championship.
Hibernian consolidated in their first season back in the top division, finishing mid-table and reaching the Scottish Cup semi-final. In the 2000–01 season, Hibs started very strongly. Eventually they had to settle for third place and a Scottish Cup final appearance. This performance attracted the attention of bigger clubs, including West Ham United and Rangers.
McLeish attracted top players such as Russell Latapy and former French international Franck Sauzée to Hibs. He also helped develop young striker Kenny Miller, who would later go on to play for Scotland.
During this period McLeish worked towards and was awarded a UEFA Pro Licence.
His work at Hibs was noticed, and he was linked with several moves to England, before he was appointed as Rangers manager in December 2001 after outgoing Rangers manager Dick Advocaat recommended McLeish to chairman David Murray.
McLeish was an instant success at Rangers, winning both the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup in his first season, but the big prize of the league title was essentially lost before his arrival. His second season saw him go one better when he won the domestic treble, with the help of players such as Ronald de Boer and Barry Ferguson.
Rangers' worsening financial state saw many of his top players leave in the summer of 2003. Celtic won the league comfortably in season 2003–04, and Rangers failed to win any trophies. McLeish was consequently put under pressure from fans after his poor signings and a record run of seven consecutive derby losses to Celtic.
The high-profile Bosman signings of Jean-Alain Boumsong and Dado Pršo in the close season of 2004–05 gave Rangers renewed hope of regaining the title from Celtic's grasp. McLeish's team won the 2005 league title on a dramatic last day, an outcome that had looked highly unlikely after Rangers fell five points behind leaders Celtic with just four games remaining.
After this unexpected success, McLeish and his Rangers team headed into the 2005–06 SPL campaign as favourites to retain the championship. McLeish made a number of signings, including Julien Rodriguez and Ian Murray, despite having little money to spend. After a reasonable start to the season, including a win over Celtic, Rangers suffered a series of poor results between September and November. This period included a club record of 10 games without a win. However the tenth match of this run, a 1–1 draw with Inter Milan in the Champions League, took Rangers into the knockout stages of the tournament for the first time.
Despite the poor domestic form, McLeish guided Rangers to the last 16 of the Champions League, where they were defeated on the away goals rule by Villarreal. They became the first Scottish team to progress this far in the European Cup since 1993, and the first Scottish team to progress through a European group stage. In December, chairman David Murray publicly announced his support for McLeish. Rangers then went on a good run of results in December and January.
This run of good results came to a sudden halt when they were defeated 3–0 by Hibernian in the Scottish Cup, prompting protests outside Ibrox against both McLeish and David Murray. On 9 February 2006, it was announced by chairman David Murray that McLeish would be standing down as manager at the end of that season.
It was later announced that he would be succeeded by former Olympique Lyonnais manager Paul Le Guen. Rangers beat Hearts 2–0 at Ibrox Stadium in his final match as manager.
McLeish said after leaving Rangers that he would not manage another Scottish club, because he felt that he had achieved everything in the Scottish game. He was linked in the media with a number of managerial positions in England while he worked as a television pundit for the BBC and Setanta Sports.
McLeish took charge of the Scotland national team on 29 January 2007. His assistants in the job were Roy Aitken and Andy Watson. McLeish's first game in charge of the national team was a UEFA Euro 2008 qualifying match, a 2–1 victory against Georgia on 24 March 2007 at Hampden Park. His second game was an away fixture against Italy on 28 March 2007 which ended in a 2–0 defeat.
McLeish's Scotland side then went on to defeat the Faroe Islands away in June, Lithuania at home in September before recording a historic victory in Paris four days later by defeating France 1–0 in the Parc des Princes. James McFadden's 64th-minute strike from 30 yards was enough to earn Scotland the win and returned them to the top of Group B with three games to play. This result has been hailed as one of the Scotland national team's greatest victories. Scotland's next success was at home to Ukraine, winning 3–1 at Hampden on 13 October. McLeish suffered his second defeat as manager, away in Georgia on 17 October. This result left him facing a decider against the World Champions, Italy. Scotland lost the game, McLeish's last, and Italy qualified for the finals.
Premier League Birmingham City's approach to the SFA for permission to speak to McLeish about their managerial vacancy was refused, but on his return on 27 November 2007 from attending the draw for 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification in South Africa, he resigned his post as manager of Scotland and was announced as Birmingham's new manager the following day. His assistants with Scotland, Roy Aitken and Andy Watson, were to accompany him. McLeish said he wanted to return to working with players on a daily basis and had "always harboured a desire" to manage in the Premier League.
He enjoyed a positive managerial debut with Birmingham, winning 3–2 away to Tottenham Hotspur. In the January 2008 transfer window, McLeish strengthened Birmingham's squad, buying David Murphy and James McFadden and signing Argentina under-20 international Mauro Zárate on loan, while generating funds by allowing fringe players to leave. He was unable to save Birmingham from relegation, despite the team recording an impressive 4–1 victory over Blackburn Rovers on the last day of the season.
McLeish changed the club's backroom staff and training procedures, appointed David Watson as goalkeeping coach, and overhauled the scouting setup, bringing in Paul Montgomery – the scout who recommended a relatively unknown Didier Drogba to West Ham United – to oversee player recruitment.
On the final day of the 2008–09 season, McLeish secured Birmingham's return to the top flight of English football at the first attempt with a 2–1 away victory over Reading. By mid-January 2010, he had guided them to a 12-game unbeaten run, a club record in the top division, set a Premier League record by selecting the same starting eleven for nine consecutive games, and been named Premier League Manager of the Month for December 2009, the first Birmingham manager to receive the award. By the end of the season McLeish had led Birmingham to ninth place, their highest finish for more than 50 years.
Following Birmingham's success during the 2009–10 season, McLeish agreed a new three-year deal with the club in September 2010. In February 2011, McLeish led Birmingham to victory in the League Cup, defeating favourites Arsenal 2–1 in the final at Wembley in what he described as "relatively speaking, ... [his] greatest achievement". However, a poor run of form followed the League Cup win, and Birmingham were relegated to the Championship on the last day of the 2010–11 season. The directors confirmed that McLeish would keep his job, and would be expected to return the club to the Premier League at the first opportunity. McLeish however opted to quit Birmingham City on 12 June 2011 by email.
On 17 June 2011, Aston Villa appointed McLeish as manager, just five days after leaving their local rivals Birmingham City. There was much controversy surrounding his appointment as Birmingham City claimed McLeish was still under contract and filed a complaint against Aston Villa to the Premier League while Villa claimed McLeish was a free agent. Aston Villa fans protested outside Villa Park and anti-McLeish graffiti had to be removed from outside Villa's training ground. McLeish made out of favour Manchester City goalkeeper Shay Given his first signing, and then recruited winger Charles N'Zogbia. McLeish's first competitive game as Villa manager ended in a 0–0 draw with Fulham at Craven Cottage. He gained his first Premier League win as manager of Villa in a 3–1 win over Blackburn Rovers. Following victory over Blackburn, Villa drew their next four Premier League games until winning against Wigan 2–0. Aston Villa finally ended their unbeaten start with a 4–1 defeat away at Manchester City. McLeish's side secured a surprise win over Chelsea just before signing LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane on loan. Keane helped to secure Villa a crucial win against rivals Wolves in a 3–2 victory. McLeish led the 2011–12 Villa team to 16th place in the Premier League, avoiding relegation by two points, and set an unwanted club record of only four home wins. McLeish's contract was terminated on 14 May, the day after the season ended. The reasons cited for his termination were the poor results and style of play used throughout his term as manager.
McLeish was appointed manager of Football League Championship club Nottingham Forest on 27 December 2012. His first game in charge was on 29 December 2012, a 2–2 draw against Crystal Palace at The City Ground, with Billy Sharp scoring an injury-time equaliser for Nottingham Forest. McLeish earned his first win as Nottingham Forest manager on 12 January 2013, a 2–1 victory against Peterborough at home. McLeish took charge of his only East Midlands derby against Derby County on 19 January 2013, drawing 1–1 at Pride Park. On 2 February 2013, after a 2–1 defeat to former club Birmingham City on his first return to St Andrew's, he refused to commit his future to Nottingham Forest and claimed he was unhappy. This came after the Nottingham Forest board pulled out of a deal to sign George Boyd on the final day of the January transfer window. On 5 February 2013, he left the club by mutual consent.
McLeish stated in November 2013 that he would like to re-enter football management in some capacity, in England, Scotland or abroad. In August 2014, he was appointed manager of Belgian club Genk. McLeish made his managerial debut on 30 August, in which Genk drew Oostende 1–1 away. It was reported in March 2015 that McLeish would leave Genk at the end of the 2014–15 Belgian Pro League season, as the club had failed to qualify for the Championship play-offs, although they did reach Europa League play-offs.
McLeish was appointed manager of Egyptian Premier League club Zamalek on 28 February 2016. After a series of poor performances from the team, he was sacked on 2 May with ten matches of the season remaining.As of 3 May 2016
Scottish Premier League (3): 1979–80, 1983–84, 1984–85
Runner-up 7 times
Scottish Cup (5): 1981–82, 1982–83, 1983–84, 1985–86, 1989–90
Scottish League Cup (2): 1985–86, 1989–90
Finalist 5 times
European Cup Winners Cup (1): 1982–83
European Super Cup (1): 1983
Scottish Premier League runners-up: 1994–95
Scottish First Division (1): 1998–99
Scottish Cup runners-up: 2000–01
Scottish Premier League (2): 2002–03, 2004–05
Runner-up 2001–02, 2003–04
Scottish Cup (2): 2001–02, 2002–03
Scottish League Cup (3): 2001–02, 2002–03, 2004–05
Football League Championship runners-up: 2008–09 (promoted to Premier League)
Football League Cup (1): 2010–11
SFWA Footballer of the Year (1): 1990
Scottish Football Hall of Fame: inducted 2005
SPL Manager of the Month (9): October 2000, February 2002, September 2002, February 2003, August 2003, September 2003, November 2004, February 2005, January 2006
Scotland national football team roll of honour : 1987
Premier League Manager of the Month (1): December 2009