Interview: Derek McInnes, St Johnstone manager

IT WAS a closed doors match at Murray Park but emotions were still running high. So high that close friends Derek McInnes and Ally McCoist were in the middle of exchanging some unpleasantness. There was none of the good natured ribaldry which often passes for dug-out verbals and certainly no evidence of the friendship shared by the former Rangers team-mates. It was a measure of just how driven and competitive both are beneath their personable exteriors and how exacting their own demands are.

"Yeah, I had one run-in with Coisty," admits the St Johnstone boss with a sheepish smile. "I think we both said a few things in the heat of the moment that we shouldn't have so I think it's better to just concentrate on the job."

The teams meet up again on Saturday and this time it will be in full view of thousands inside Ibrox Stadium. But McInnes sees little likelihood of further furious words. "I don't have much banter with any manager when I'm in the technical area. That's probably more down to me but I don't try to have anything to do with the other dugout, I just try to focus on the game. And, to be fair, I do genuinely believe that Coisty's banter is not as good as it used to be so I think he is growing old!"

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Still in touch with Ian Durrant and able to call on the advice of Walter Smith ("I feel as though I could speak to the gaffer at any time, he's always been very willing to be at the end of the phone"), it's the relationship with his former travelling companion that remains the most enduring.

"I still speak to Coisty every other day. On his side, things are serious now, as they are on my side so there's not so much banter going about or laughing and joking and we don't really have that much time to socialise but there's still that friendship. There's a seriousness to our jobs now but we both still want the other to do well.

"He likes to talk about the game and even when he did have good banter, I always felt that about him! We used to travel in (to training] together and we always spoke about the game and used to like watching games and talking about them on the way in the next day so I always thought he would come back round to this side of things and now he's there he will be determined to do a good job. He's been successful at everything else that he's done and I'm sure he will be determined to do a good job. They have done up to now and although there's a bit of pressure on them to keep producing the goods, that's just life at Rangers."

Both winners in their playing days, they now share an ambition to mirror that success in their managerial careers. While McCoist is eyeing up a time when he will step from Walter Smith's shadow and become the gaffer in his own right, McInnes has already assumed that responsibility. And he's doing pretty well, thank you very much.

While McCoist was the cheeky chappy, McInnes is considered more understated, a guy with a dry wit. He is also the guy who hated to lose and who would nark at others who did not share his work ethic or abdicated their responsibilities on the field. Those traits endure but the flipside is a desire to ensure life at St Johnstone is fun as well as fruitful for all involved. The spirit is still there, it just plays a supporting role to the serious ambition.

As the photographer moves him from one backdrop to another, he is accommodating and obliging, albeit a little uncomfortable. As a player he says he did not like managers who hogged the glory when things were going well and disappeared into the shadows when the inevitable tough times materialised. He is unlikely to do either. Astute as he is humble, as a manager he still recognises football as a team game, something that has served him well in his fledgling years as St Johnstone boss. Taking over the manager's job when Owen Coyle departed for Burnley midway through the 2007-8 season, McInnes guided the team to third place in the First Division. A year later he ended the Perth club's seven-year exile from the SPL. This year they are intent on hanging around.

Already they have impressed, jettisoning the reputation they earned in the First Division as dogged competitors who won battles rather than entertained.

"We had to fight and scrap for a lot of stuff and I think the First Division lends itself to that. Very rarely do teams come up really playing a load of good stuff, in fact I can think of only one in recent times, and that was Alex McLeish's Hibs team. Most teams need a load of winners and that aggression about them as a side."

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This term, though, statistics show that there is more to them than that. Most games see them compare favourably with the opposition when it comes to shots at goal and before yesterday's round of matches they were the third-highest scorers in the league. They are comfortable in possession and able to pass their way from one territory to the other. Eye-opening for some observers, it is no surprise to McInnes.

"At the start of last season I told the players that I thought too many were messing about in the First Division and that it was now or never and they had to go and win the league," says McInnes. "I said they were good enough to go and play in the Premier League. I told them there were already players there that I thought they were better than so they should go and take that chance and play at the higher level. Almost all the players we have brought up with us have shown that capability and I think they are enjoying the fact we are getting the chance to express ourselves at times."

Still just 38 and showing managerial clout beyond his years, he says being younger helps him relate to his players. He was linked with West Bromwich Albion in the summer and, although admitting he was flattered, he never considered leaving McDiarmid Park and a club he claims offers him the stable foundation he can build from. He has a single-minded vision for success and it's a course you suspect has been well mapped out in his mind. He knows that winning the league is not a realistic option this year, but he has other targets. He has drawn up a mini league that he wants his charges to win but, ultimately, he will settle for 11th place and SPL preservation. Oh, and a cup final.

"We got to three semi-finals as a First Division team and now we are back in another (the Co-operative Insurance Cup semi against Rangers in February] as an SPL club and if we are going to move things on and show progress then we have to make it to a final. We don't want to always be turning up at semi-finals and being the hard luck story so if we can get in a cup final and stay in the league then I would count that as success."

Week in, week out they are honing the mentality for that Hampden encounter, with the tightness of the league ensuring each fixture assumes a cup tie vibe. On any given day, he says, his team can beat any SPL opposition, including Rangers. "Every time we have played Rangers in my time here, it's been very close. We have run them close in the league, taken it to penalties in the cup. But we have still to beat Rangers so the incentive is there." Incentives are something McInnes doesn't seem short of. He knows what he wants and, ultimately, you wouldn't bet against him getting it.