Neil McCann interview: Lust for life

'I THINK you are getting that I am still in love with the game," says Neil McCann, catching his breath after giving it full throttle on yet one more of umpteen football topics.

The whiz round the 34-year-old's five-club career which yielded eight winners' medals, 25 Scotland caps, begins and ends with his rebirth at Falkirk, but the points inbetween include bus surfing at Hearts, a religious experience at Rangers, full squad barneys at Dundee and, inevitably, injuries that have cost him up to three years' playing time. Oh, and the Coca-Cola

mountain bike, his curious man-of-the-match reward for his performance in the November 1996 League Cup final.

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His efforts for Hearts as they lost a classic contest 4-3 to Rangers echo into the present. After he appeared for Dundee as they were beaten by Aberdeen in the previous final and helped Rangers win the trophy against Ayr United Hampden in 2002, Falkirk's Co-operative Insurance Cup semi-final against his former Ibrox employees on Tuesday puts him an upset away from being in line to become the first man to play in four League Cup finals for four different clubs. "It would be a remarkable achievement, but what a big bloody hurdle we have to overcome," McCann says.

He never overcame any hurdles on the Coca-Cola liveried cycle he was presented with 13 years ago, one of two he bagged in the 1996-97 competition and stored away. Until, that is, he last year parted with it as a prize for auction to raise money for Hearts' youth development scheme. "It felt right to be able to give something back to the club," he says.

He was prevented from giving much to the club on the field during he second spell, his body rebelling against him from the moment he left Southampton for a Tynecastle return in January 2006. A mere 25 minutes into his first game back he sustained serious ligament damage. And at the start of the following season he suffered a double leg-break that left him with "sour" memories.

Even if Falkirk's results are distinctly underwhelming ahead of the attempt to put the club into a cup final for the first time since 1997, these are being replaced by the sweet feelings. "Jesus Christ, it's brilliant to come in here every day, brilliant the platform John Hughes gives his players to make the best of themselves," he says.

Signing in May, McCann knew he could make a better impression at Falkirk. By continuing to push his "body to the limits" he was convinced it wasn't going to keep letting him down just because he is at an age when folk thought he might stop testing it and step up his coaching. "It never entered my head to retire," he says. "I'm a naturally fit guy who has had some bad luck that hasn't affected the intensity I have to play. I came here not to wind down or any of that b******s but to wind up my game again. The move was to prolong my career because I was sold on the way the club do things." In that respect, he was similar to fellow seasoned campaigners and former Scotland team-mates Jackie McNamara and Steven Pressley. "I played with them in the under-21s, so we have stood the test of time," he says.

McCann's inspiration for hoping that 34 years old need only be the autumn phase of his career comes from further afield. "As a winger in my 20s I always watched Ryan Giggs, always analysed his game for pointers. And I'm doing it again now as both of us have moved into central midfield. He might not be as quick but he seems quicker in thought; so clever in how he is using his game knowledge. I haven't lost any sharpness, so I hope I can be like that. I feel absolutely magic."

Yet there are times McCann can't stop himself being the same little feisty competitor he was at 21. "I love it in midfield because if I lose the ball I can get into the thick of things to recover it. I want to win every training challenge, never mind every game, and if I'm dispossessed I'll give it the spinning top routine for five seconds to get the ball back."

It is an attitude that has earned McCann glowing praise from Hughes. Regard between the pair is mutual. "I am 17 years in the game and he puts on drills I have never seen," he says. "He and Chipper (Brian Rice] are fantastic coaches. I'm am going through my A licence at the moment and the people running it say his pro licence was absolutely top drawer. I want to win things because that is what you play the game for, but I want to get to this final for him as much as me."

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McCann believes Hughes is a smart mix of old school and progressive. The latter might have been considered a dirty word when the Glaswegian was a youngster at Dundee and being goaded to take part in squad scraps by Simon Stainrod and his assistant Jim Duffy. Most players would decline the Englishman's invitation to 'come ahead' as a tension relieving exercise. Not McCann. "Aye, you would take a few smacks and a few hits in these wee fights but I was always up for that sort of challenge," he says.

McCann faced a different challenge when, in late 1998, joined Dick Advocaat's Rangers in a 2m move from Hearts. His background, both in terms of football allegiances and the faith he was brought up in, made him a more natural fit for the Glasgow club on the other side of the city. In the modern age, he was unlike any player the Ibrox club had then recruited, aside from Mo Johnston. The following May he scored twice as Rangers clinched the championship at Celtic Park for the only time in their history, the defining moment of his time at Ibrox that he feels was fated.

"It is amazing to be a piece of something so momentous, which I don't think will ever happen again," he says. "They try to make sure of that after it was just so mental then, with (Stephane] Mahe being sent off, (referee Hugh] Dallas coined and that guy chucking himself from the stand. The atmosphere was ferocious, my mum and wife were terrified in the corner of the stand, and it is hardly a shock they go for the early kick-offs at weekends now.

"Ian Ferguson probably helped me more than anyone settle at Rangers. He knew what went with me being a Catholic and Celtic supporter and on the bus on the way up to the stadium that afternoon I said to him: 'You know Fergie, I'm going to score today'. 'Ye better, ya wee so-and-so,' he smiled back."

For all seven trophies were snared during his time at Rangers, the smile on McCann's face is never broader than when he recalls the bus journey from Celtic Park to Tynecastle following Hearts' May 1998 Scottish Cup win over the Ibrox club.

"I will never forget that as long as I live," he says. "I remember we reached Hermiston Gait roundabout and there were all these cars stopped in the middle of it, with fire engines and police motorbikes all decked out in maroon and white weaving in and out. In the distance you could see old men and women in their pyjamas in their gardens, it was surreal.

"As our bus sped through for fear of never getting going again as we stopped, I said to big Hammy (Jim Hamilton] and Paul Richie, f*** this, I'm going up top. I kicked the skylight open and climbed up there and hung on to roof. That is what you play football for."

And why McCann's love for football will endure.