What starting out as a young manager in the lower leagues is like

What starting out as a young manager in the lower leagues is like


I never expected to walk into a job in the top division, or even in the Scottish Championship. For that to happen you have to be in the right place at the right time, so I was always prepared to start at a lower rung. That’s where I felt I could get my start in management and Stirling Albion gave me the chance.


It felt like a great opportunity, particularly at that point in my career. Up until the age of 30, it had never really crossed my mind that I would move into management, but then I did my coaching badges as a bit of a contingency, just in case I needed them in future. It was only when I went on to do my B licence that I started to think it might be a path for me to go down.


Working with the Under 20s at St Johnstone was probably the best thing I could have done to give me a taste of management. By that time I knew I was retiring and Alex Cleland gave me a chance to take full control of the team at times. After that, I felt like I had the attributes, that I could do the job no problem.



Making a choice to start out lower


St Johnstone had made it clear that I probably would have got a role at the club after retiring. But I felt that if I wanted to be a manager in my own right I needed to start straight away when I was just coming out of the game, when my stock was probably as high as it was going to get. Sometimes if you stay in coaching you can be pigeon-holed as merely a coach. For instance, Cleland has tried for a couple of management jobs and been knocked back, and he had a far superior career to myself.


He’s found it hard to get a job in management purely because he’s been in coaching for so long that people, unfortunately, see him as a coach and only a coach. If it doesn’t work out for me I could fall back into coaching, but it’s very difficult to go the other way. The timing was right for me.


My contacts in the game might have helped me in the interview stage, and that’s something ex-professionals coming from the top level might have to their advantage when starting out in management at a lower level. For me, I was able to attract some decent young players from clubs I’d played for and from managers I’d played under. And Stirling is in a great location for attracting players. They don’t have the problem clubs like Elgin and Peterhead have in signing players from the central belt.


I think more top-flight ex-pros should be looking to drop down the leagues as a route into management. I think it’s a great way of doing it. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve made quite a few mistakes, and at this level, you get away with it a bit more than you do at the top. Your decisions are scrutinised a lot more in the top flight and that gives you some protection as a young manager.



Look at the example of Richie Foran who was given his first job in the Scottish Premiership and unfortunately only lasted a season. Down the leagues you’ve got a bit more freedom to try things and find your own identity as a coach. It’s a great learning curve that can serve you well later in your career. Paul Hartley is a good example of someone who took what he learned in the lower leagues and used it to move up.


The wrong environment


It’s almost impossible to get a job as a rookie in the top flight and even in the odd case when rookies are hired, it can be the wrong environment for them. Clubs who tend to make changes are struggling near the bottom of the table. Most of the time they believe they need to find someone who is tried and trusted, someone who has done it before. Look at Ross County bringing in Owen Coyle and Kilmarnock appointing Steve Clarke. It’s not the right environment for young guys going into their first management job.


The number of names that go in for jobs these days is incredible, even at the lower level. For every job you’re talking about between 50 and 100 applicants, so I count myself lucky that I have been given this chance. There are, of course, challenges that come with being a manager at League Two compared with being in the top flight.


The most obvious difference is that your players are out working every day. We had one guy who was in the police who couldn’t make it to training every second week, other guys are up at 5am doing a shift. I have huge respect for these players because when you’re a full-time footballer you don’t realise just how lucky you are. It’s difficult to work on things like set plays and shape, which is something you have the time to do at a full-time club, but at this level, you have to be flexible and find a way to work around things.



The learning curve


I’ve been Stirling Albion manager for just over a year now and I have learned a huge amount in that time. Last season was about steadying the ship and surviving, with this season about finishing in the play-offs. We’re sitting third at the moment, so we’re on course. It’s been a decent enough start to management for me.


Eventually, I want to move into full-time management, but I’m in no rush to get there at the moment. I want to get there on merit. I’ve spoken to a few managers who have worked in part-time and full-time football and every one of them says part-time is the tougher jobs. If I did go into a full-time job, I feel like I would have an advantage having started at a lower level. A lot of stuff at this level is just landed on the manager’s plate. You’re thrown into the deep end. You don’t have the resources that you do at the higher level, so I would be well prepared should I make that jump up.


Right now, I’ve just qualified as a a mortgage and protection broker while doing my Pro license, so I’m not taking anything for granted. My aim at the minute is to continue to progress and hopefully take Stirling Albion up a division or two. This was an opportunity that I needed to take and others like me could find similar opportunities in the lower leagues.

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