By Chris Dunlavy
DARREN Ferguson once said there was nobody in football he’d rather have standing over a set-piece than Grant McCann.
“Technically, he was excellent,” said the 44-year-old, who spent four years managing McCann at Peterborough. “But what set him apart was his temperament. In the big games, at the big moments, he came up with the goods.”
Never was that better illustrated than Peterborough’s play-off campaign of 2011, when the Northern Irishman’s dead ball virtuosity propelled the Posh into the Championship.
A penalty in the first leg against MK Dons. A direct free-kick in the second. One to tee up Tommy Rowe in the final at Old Trafford, then a 25-yarder to shatter Huddersfield hearts.
Those heroics remain McCann’s finest moments in a Peterborough shirt and a primary reason why the club’s decision to appoint the 36-year-old as manager has been met with near universal acclaim.
Yet there are many others. His leadership and commitment over 128 appearances. His cultured coaching, first under Ferguson and then Graham Westley, which is widely perceived to have cultivated an attractive, passing style.
“Grant was a great technical player before he retired, someone who liked to get the ball down and play,” said Posh winger Jon Taylor following McCann’s two-game spell in caretaker charge in September.
“And, when he took over, I think that was the only way he knew how to coach. It got us playing better football, changed the dynamic of the team. Even after two games, all the lads began to feel more confident about expressing themselves.”
Those principles – not to mention his own technical prowess – were formed two decades ago when McCann was a homesick teenager at West Ham’s famous academy.
Just 16 when he ditched a youth career at Lisburn Distillery (where he was a team-mate of David Healy) to chance his arm across the water, McCann was allowed just one phone call home per week and pined for his home in Belfast’s Sandy Row.
“For the first year, I just sat in my room and cried all the time,” he said in 2008. “We had to get the bus to training every day. I remember getting the No.62 from Barking to the training ground at Chadwell Heath and the landlady used to drive past us every morning. She was going that way, but she’d still make us get the bus.
“When I started I was cleaning toilets, cleaning boots and we didn’t leave the training ground until 6.30pm after being there from 8.30am. When I look back it was a bit like slave labour, but it helped me learn and made me appreciate what I got when I became a first-team player.”
Not quite enough, though, for Hammers boss Harry Redknapp, who, in 2000, dispatched the young midfielder to Cheltenham to toughen him up.
“Harry told me he had this young lad who was coasting and needed a kick up the backside,” said Steve Cotterill, who led the Robins from 1997-2002, taking them from the Conference to League One. “But fair play to Grant. He embraced it here and he was a cracking player. A lovely technician with a magnificent left foot.”
McCann eventually made his Upton Park bow in 2001, though he would never emulate peers like Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, making just four appearances before returning to Cheltenham for a club record £50,000 in 2003.
The midfielder was a spectacular success at Whaddon Road, scoring 45 goals in 220 matches and winning the 2006 League Two play-offs. That was followed by promotions to the Championship with Scunthorpe and Peterborough.
“Grant has been one of the best signings in the nine years I’ve owned the football club,” said Posh owner Darragh MacAnthony.
“Since day one, he has been a model pro on and off the pitch and you couldn’t put a price on the experience he has brought to our dressing room, not to mention his contribution to some of our best moments promotion-wise. He’s been a fantastic player.”
And, while McCann never tasted the top flight again, his other great ambition, to represent Northern Ireland, was realised with four goals and 40 caps earned over a decade.
So, too, was his dream of representing boyhood club Linfield. His goal on debut in January 2015 turned out to be the last match of his career.
“Grant is a Linfield fan from a Linfield family in Sandy Row,” said manager and former Northern Ireland team-mate Warren Feeney.
“There were two League One clubs in for him, but he wanted to come here. Critics said it was a jolly, but he was ultra-professional and really helped the young lads.”
Coaching, though, was always the aim and, when McCann was asked to assist Peterborough’s new manager, Dave Robertson shortly afterwards, he returned to England. Now, following the departures of both Robertson and Westley, the UEFA Pro Licence coach is the main man.
“The lads love and respect Grant,” said Peterborough’s Northern Irish defender Michael Smith.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him. The sessions he puts on and the confidence he gives you – everyone has had a smile back on their face again.”
*This article was originally published in The FLP on 22 May 2016.