Heart of Midlothian and the Jurassic World of Scottish Football

by Apr 3, 2015

When Ann Budge entered the boardroom for the first time last year and set the wheels in motion for the momentous season that followed, the events that unfolded were not without their casualties: Gary Locke chief among them. At the time, a section of the Hearts support found the news of Locke’s departure hard to swallow, given the loyalty he had shown during the club’s darkest period.

Not only had this lifelong Jambo fought admirably to overturn the 15-point deficit and keep his side in the top flight, he had done so in testing circumstances, with a threadbare squad full of inexperience and no means through which to strengthen. It seemed like a slap in the face, therefore, when Locke’s services were not retained by the new regime.

Unfortunately, the only place in which sentiment can operate in football is amongst a club’s supporters. A lot of fans forget that professional football is a business and to be successful in that business, difficult decisions are necessary to stay ahead of the competition and build long-term stability. Scant consolation perhaps for Locke at the time and for those supporters who felt “one of their own” had been betrayed.

Those of that mindset would have been pleased therefore to see Locke secure a longer term future with his current club Kilmarnock, who this morning confirmed the former Hearts boss had penned a three year deal with the Ayrshire outfit. Finally, after years at a club shrouded in financial uncertainty, Locke has found the job security his efforts have merited.

As Locke was waiting for assurance on his future at Killie, stories had emerged earlier this week linking him with a move to bring Kris Boyd back to Rugby Park. Reading these reports (which Locke neither confirmed nor denied admittedly) I was struck by two distinct feelings. The first was extreme déjà vu. For many of my fellow Hearts supporters, the above scenario and those particular transfer rumours will have looked rather familiar. This led me to my second feeling: relief.

Relief, largely because — regardless of my sympathy for Locke at the time — I believe Hearts dodged a bullet by letting him go. A little under a year ago, when Company Voluntary Arrangements were being agreed by our various creditors and the prospect of exiting administration was becoming more plausible, names such as Boyd’s were popping up in the rumour columns as potential targets for Locke when the transfer embargo was lifted. This was obviously based on the assumption that Locke would remain in his position long enough to pursue those targets.

So when I say relief, I essentially mean relief that Ann Budge put her faith in Craig Levein’s judgement and installed Robbie Neilson in Locke’s place. Given the amount of cynicism and doubt about the decision at the time, it speaks volumes that nobody questions it in hindsight.

There is no shortage of evidence to demonstrate how much the Hearts squad have embraced Robbie Neilson’s innovative approach this season. The results most definitely speak for themselves. However, Neilson’s methods were not the miraculously conceived product of his inner genius — double and triple training sessions are fairly commonplace in continental football after all — but the result of hard work and meticulous research. Yet in the general context of Scottish football, a lot of Neilson’s ideas seem almost alien. In short, Neilson does his homework in areas other managers don’t. This is symptomatic of the way football has evolved over the years. Every so often somebody comes along, shakes up the natural order and finds a fresh new way of doing things. Robbie Neilson is one such individual. Gary Locke is not.

Unfortunately, while the pioneers in the game will always look for innovative ways to stay ahead of the competition, football is still heavily populated by those of a prehistoric mindset. For every Guardiola or Wenger, there are a handful of Harry Redknapps, dinosaurs of the game who “have always done it this way”, sign the same players, implement the same tactics and belittle the minority of forward-thinkers who dare to contemplate change. Redknapp, for example, is said to have denigrated a junior statistician during his time at Southampton when the use of statistics in football was in its formative years. This story was referenced in a recent Guardian article about the appointment of Moneyball’s stats guru Billy Beane in an advisory role at AZ Alkmaar. Statistics have evidently revolutionised the game over a number of years while troglodytes like Redknapp have been left behind.

As much as I admire Gary Locke for his integrity and commitment during a tough spell in charge of Hearts, I fear he may have fallen into this unfortunate category at an alarmingly early stage of his managerial career. If there is truth in the Boyd rumours, the decision to bring back a striker who struggled to make an impact in this season’s Championship smacks of a “stick with what you know” approach that so many managers continue to follow strictly*. With more inexperienced managers like Locke and Ally McCoist, I believe their respective apprenticeships under Jim Jefferies and Walter Smith shaped their philosophies in this way. Both are undoubtedly well-liked coaches, but being mates with the squad is not compensation for tactical naivety, archaic training methods or lack of versatility.

When Craig Levein was initially quizzed about his reasons for replacing Locke with the even more inexperienced Neilson, his answer revealed the long-term rationale the club is looking to adopt:

“Gary coming in here as a coach within this system didn’t play to his strengths. Gary’s not going to write a coach-education programme for me, or monitor that. That’s not what he does. And that’s the job here — there’s coaching the first team and the tactical side of it, but also, so much bigger than that, it has to be about this original idea of building something from the top to the bottom.”

Since then, this forward-thinking approach has not only been reflected in the club’s coaching and signing policies, but in a number of other important developments, not least becoming the first Scottish football club to adopt the Living Wage and the first in the UK to have a national charity on its shirts. Meanwhile, the majority of other clubs will continue to resist radical change, selecting their managers from the merry-go-round of standard uninspiring stop-gaps.

As much as I wish Gary Locke every success in his work at Kilmarnock, the betting man in me predicts he will fall victim to the short-termism that currently plagues a lot of football clubs. Unfortunately for Gary Locke, as Craig Levein implied above, he is too ordinary and uninspiring a manager to sell himself as a long-term option.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on April 3, 2015.