Alan Archibald: a five-year review of the Partick Thistle manager

Alan Archibald: a five-year review of the Partick Thistle manager

By James Cairney

Halfway through the 2012/13 season, Partick Thistle were in trouble. An excellent start to the season in the old First Division saw them top the league by January, on track for promotion that would end their ten-year absence from Scottish football’s top flight. But then, Thistle manager Jackie McNamara was lured to Tannadice, leaving the Jags halfway through a title challenge without a coach.

 

The news eventually filtered out of the club: Alan Archibald was going to take over until the end of the season. Fans were mostly pleased; after all, Archibald was a Thistle man through and through. During his playing career he made over 350 appearances for the Jags across two spells, captained the club and played for them in three different divisions over a total of fourteen seasons.

 

It was a gamble from the Thistle board. But it’s proven to be one of the best decisions made at the club in recent years. Even when McNamara was appointed it was a risk – he had no previous management experience when he took the job – but it paid dividends and Thistle soon found themselves in the middle of a surprise push for promotion.

 

It must have been very tempting for the club to hire an older, more proven manager following McNamara’s move to Dundee United. After all, they were already halfway to the promised land of the Premiership. All they needed was for someone to get them over the line, but they put their faith in yet another coach taking their first step into full-time management.

 

By April 2013, the club’s decision was completely vindicated. A 1-0 win over Morton all but confirmed promotion to the top flight for the first time since the 2003/04 season. Archibald also guided the Jags to a Challenge Cup final, where they eventually lost on penalties. That might not sound that impressive but to Thistle fans, it mattered. Cup finals at any level are a rarity for the Maryhill club, even if some aren’t exactly the most prestigious.

 

 

Unsurprisingly, winning Partick Thistle’s first title since the 2001/02 First Division meant that Archibald secured his job on a permanent basis. He had enjoyed a good initial spell in the Firhill dugout but some critics claimed he was simply coasting off of the success of McNamara’s foundation. The playing style was similar, with the same players, after all. But Archibald would prove his worth in the Premiership.

 

For as long as Thistle were in the top flight, Archibald had one simple brief: survive. Even last season when the club secured a top-six finish, the initial goal was simply to stay up. By this standard, Archibald has been an unqualified success for the Jags. After Thistle were promoted in 2013, few would have given them a chance of (at least) five straight seasons in the Premiership. But Archibald has delivered time and time again.

 

That’s not to say it’s been plain sailing, however. Partick Thistle have had to endure some pretty miserable runs since their return to the top flight. In their first season back Thistle struggled for home form, winning only two matches at Firhill all season. Then they had to wait over a year to see back-to-back league wins. Even this season, Thistle began their league campaign without a win in their opening ten fixtures.

 

But even through difficult periods, the Thistle board have stuck by Archibald, demonstrating a patience rarely seen at this level of Scottish football. There’s a sensibility emanating from the boardroom at Firhill – whether it’s with the focus on the club’s new youth academy, the stadium sponsorship deal or simply understanding the peaks and troughs of a season, the Thistle board generally go for the sensible option and are realistic about the state of the club. Partick Thistle have had a few crises while Archibald’s been in charge, but he’s always been given time to turn things around. And he has, time and again.

 

 

Archibald has earned a lot of goodwill from the supporters for the style of football Thistle have employed during his time there. This season hasn’t been great admittedly, but Archibald has generally tried to play free-flowing football where short passes are preferred over hopefully punting the ball up to the forwards. The Thistle boss likes his full-backs to attack and his centre-backs to begin moves for his side.

 

This approach does come with the inevitable collateral damage of individual defensive mistakes being punished immediately and with little mercy shown – a common and fair complaint amongst the Firhill faithful over Archibald’s tenure has been a perceived softness at the back.

 

These errors have worryingly become more frequent during this campaign, but Archibald has earned the right to set up his team as he sees fit. Five successive seasons in the Premiership is no mean feat for a club the size of Thistle, who have spent the majority of their history in the second tier. Especially when the club’s financial position is taken into account.

 

Archibald has never had a transfer budget, forced into signing free transfers and loan deals as many coaches in Scotland are. But Archibald’s work in the transfer market deserves praise. With the exception of Liam Lindsay, Thistle haven’t really developed players before moving them on and gaining a profit before reinvesting any profit back into the squad. Instead, Thistle’s top priority each season is usually tying players down to longer deals. Each summer there’s usually a wide variety of players entering and leaving Firhill and Archibald has so far done an excellent job of retaining players who could have easily moved elsewhere for free. For a club with no transfer budget to speak of and no regular income from player sales, the Glasgow club are forced to think carefully about any new acquisition.

 

There’s been a clear approach from the club to bring in young players and improve them through good coaching over a number of years, rather than signing ready-made players in the prime of their careers. Again, this could be down to the financial constraints at the club but Archibald seems to place a lot of faith in young players.

 

 

Liam Lindsay has probably been the biggest success story in this regard. A graduate from Thistle’s youth academy, Lindsay nailed down a place in the starting eleven last season and finished up in the Premiership’s team of the season. A move to Barnsley followed last summer, where the centre-back has only gone from strength to strength. Jack Hendry, now of Celtic, was given his professional debut at Firhill and is another case of a young player developed by Archibald moving on to bigger and better things.

 

Since Archibald took the reins in 2013, Partick Thistle have failed to make much of an impression in cup competitions. Premiership survival has rightly been the priority each season, but Jags fans are right to be a little concerned with Archibald’s record in knockout fixtures, especially with the relegation playoff looming. The Jags have rarely progressed beyond the last sixteen of either the League Cup or the Scottish Cup during Archibald’s time in charge. Critics will say they don’t have much hope of winning either trophy so it shouldn’t really matter, but since Rangers imploded smaller sides have had some success in the national cup competitions. Ross County, Kilmarnock and St Johnstone have all picked up silverware in recent seasons – if these clubs can, then there’s no reason Thistle can’t perform a little better here. A cup run shouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility, although it is an admittedly minor gripe.

 

Archibald’s focus has always been the league and until this season, Thistle’s poor record in the cups has been entirely justified. Partick Thistle aren’t a side who are likely to pick up a surprise win at the likes of Parkhead or Ibrox, such as Kilmarnock. Instead, Archibald has created a side who usually turn up against their direct competitors, rarely picking up points against the league’s bigger clubs. Obviously, the odd win over Rangers or Celtic would be nice for the Jags, but Archibald is generally pragmatic. He understands that it’s sometimes better to focus on winnable games than expending time and energy on a match where there is little guarantee of reward.

 

All in all then, Archibald has done a fantastic job at Firhill. There have been a few tricky situations and there are of course still problems, but the Thistle boss deserves a lot of credit for the longevity of their Premiership stay. During his time at the club Archibald has delivered the club’s highest league finish since 1981, their longest run of consecutive top-flight seasons in over thirty years and a positive balance sheet for the first time in decades. The Premiership’s longest-serving manager has had year-on-year improvements in final league positions, excluding this season, and hasn’t been afraid to blood young players. This season could yet finish with relegation for Archibald, but don’t let that fool you. He’s done an excellent job at Firhill – even if the Jags get relegated. Besides, anyone who can spend that much time around Kingsley without running away in terror is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

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