THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT

On Saturday I watched Saint Mirren clinch the Championship Title.

12 months earlier I witnessed the Buddies perform the Great Escape when they avoided relegation to League One on the final day of the season.

There is one, and only one, reason for this amazing turnaround in the Paisley side’s fortunes and he goes by the name of Jack Ross.

Sure, chairman Gordon Scott and chief-exec Tony Fitzpatrick deserve praise for the way that they have helped galvanise the club since they took control and players like Stephen McGinn, Lewis Morgan and Gavin Reilly obviously also played their part but the manager has been the catalyst for the club’s revival.

When he arrived at the Paisley 2021Stadium the team were bottom of the pile and bereft of confidence and cohesion.

Previous gaffer Alex Rae might have turned it around with a bit of luck and another transfer window but wasn’t given the chance.

Instead the directors decided that they would look to Alloa Athletic manager Jack Ross and since he arrived he has hardly put a foot wrong.

His first couple of months were spent rebuilding the confidence of the players – and the fans. Who can forget his ‘debate’ with the punters following the Queen of the South defeat in early January last year?

That was the watershed; when the fans saw how much it meant to him too.

With an influx of players throughout that transfer window, including the signing of the inspirational skipper Stephen McGinn, things started to change on and off the pitch.

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Me with Stephen McGinn after the final whistle on Saturday

Four straight wins including a victory over Champions elect Hibs and, more importantly, against fellow strugglers Ayr United at Somerset Park changed the dynamic.

Suddenly the Paisley Faithful had something to believe in and were witnessing the turning of the tide.

Between that game in Ayrshire and the end of the campaign Ross guided the Saints to safety; taking 22 points from the 36 on offer. The job was done.

Or so we thought.

Come Season 2017-18 we wondered how the Buddies would fare with most pundits and punters suggesting a season of consolidation and perhaps a charge to the Premiership Play-Offs was a possibility given a good wind.

Instead, following some very decent recruitment including the addition of Craig Samson, Liam Smith, Ian McShane, Gavin Reilly and Harry Davies to name a few, the Buddies bounced into league action with a convincing 3-1 win over much-fancied Falkirk.

A 4-1 pumping at Cappielow the next week however put the Buddies’ gas at a peep.

That only sparked them into real action with six wins from the next seven league fixtures. They sat on top of the pile and, in truth, seldom looked like being anywhere else.

Blips at East End Park in the middle of September and a home defeat to Dumbarton in early December were the low points of an almost perfect campaign.

In fact, ironically for the Saints, their home form has been the backbone of their league success with 13 wins from 16 games and only one defeat at the Paisley 2021 Stadium.

That’s the House that Jack has built and although other clubs have been welcome, very few have left with anything.

Craig Samson has only picked the ball out of his net nine times in Paisley and actually broke the club’s home clean sheet record with eight on the bounce – incredibly he’s not conceded at the 2021 this year yet.

All-in-all it has been whirlwind 18 months for St Mirren and their fans.

You wouldn’t know it looking at their manager though.

He retained his cool, calm demeanour following the game when I was interviewing him and was quick to heap praise on his players for their efforts and achievements.

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Interview over – time to relax

You get the distinct impression that this won’t be the only time this young man gets the chance to celebrate as a gaffer in the madcap world of football management.

Last week I wrote about John Lambie being a man who had a huge influence on everyone he worked with in football. Jack Ross is not unlike him.

Minus the pigeons, cigars and expletives of course.

 

 

ONE JOHN LAMBIE

Some individuals are memorable in so many ways while others are worth forgetting.

John Lambie was someone that once you encountered him you were unlikely to ever forget him – even if you wanted to.

My former Partick Thistle Gaffer sadly passed away on Tuesday but his memory will live on in my mind for the rest of my life – he was one of those enduring characters.

From his industrial language and incredible energy to his cigar smoking and giant smile he caught your attention.

He spoke his mind no matter what the subject was and irrespective of who was listening.

He didn’t give a monkeys what other people thought of his opinions – they were his and that was all that mattered to a man who believed in honesty and hard work.

If you didn’t agree, so what? If you did concur with him, so what?

John Lambie didn’t want sycophants around him. He wanted workers.

I first encountered his colourful language while I was on a train between Bristol and London 24 hours after he had replaced Tommy Bryce as manager at the Jags in 1999.

I had been quoted in a newspaper saying how disappointed I had been – as a former teammate and as a player that he signed for Thistle – about Tommy’s sacking.

Lambie phoned me and simply said that I could put any emotions to the f***** side and that he was now the f***** manager and wondered if I had a f***** problem with that?

When I replied no he simply said, ‘good, we’ll get on just f***** fine then’.

And that was the start of a tremendous relationship.

Promoting my book where he featured plenty..

I liked to work for managers who didn’t operate with agendas and left you in no uncertain terms where you stood. John epitomised that style of management.

Along with his assistant Gerry Collins it was pretty damn hard to misread ANY situation.

Both men were cut from the same cloth – hard as nails but fair.

In truth, Lambie had his own ideas about how the game should be played and when he was on the training pitch I wasn’t alone in questioning some of his thoughts.

But, there is no doubt that he got it right far more often than he got it wrong when it comes to his time in charge at Firhill – his record speaks for itself.

He was more into heart and hunger than tactics and transitions and you can forget periodisation and other modern buzz words; for him it was all about picking players.

And, to be fair to him, he consistently got his selections right and results followed.

Did he know a player? Yes. Could he piece a team together? Yes. Did he get them to play for him? You better believe it.

If he thought someone wasn’t pulling their weight he would give him both barrels. If someone deserved praise they got it. And, guess what? Players responded to that.

Throughout his managerial career he had a real knack of picking up guys who had something to prove and provided them the platform to build or rebuild their career.

During my time at Firhill he plucked Martin Hardie from East Stirling and he went on to have a wonderful career in the game. Stephen Craigan arrived from Fir Park as a kid with plenty to prove yet he became a defensive rock for Lambie before returning to Motherwell and winning over 50 Caps for Northern Ireland.

Lastly, Danny Lennon, who had already hit the heights with Hibs and Raith Rovers, signed up and his spell at Firhill signalled the best of his career as John’s trusted lieutenant during a glorious spell for the club that included back-to-back titles.

Me? I was simply privileged and honoured to be his captain for a period of time and will never forget his honesty and his constant efforts to ‘bat for his players’.

We knew that he would do everything for us so we did everything for him. Simple.

He offered me a new contract and even guided me on what money to accept by shaking his head behind the chairman when the first and second offers were made to me.

When the third deal was proposed he winked and the handshakes were instigated and the contract was signed.

Even when it was apparent that I wasn’t going to be a permanent part of his plans moving forward he dealt with me brilliantly.

I just wanted to play football and was finding myself more and more on the bench as Alan Archibald’s career blossomed in Lambie’s favoured formation of 3-5-2 at that time.

When his old St Johnstone teammate John Connolly had a bid accepted by Thistle to sign me for Queen of the South I sat down with John and asked him his thoughts on it.

In typical style he said “it had to be my f***** decision and that he would be f***** delighted to keep me as part of his squad.”

But, when I then asked him if he would prefer to use my wages to help sign another full-time player he smiled and said “well, when you f***** put it like that.”

I was then the one who smiled, shook his hand and thanked him for everything.

Every time I bumped into him after that night we would shake hands, have a laugh and try to rip the piss out of each other.

I genuinely liked the man and admired him for what he was in a game that all too readily conformed to the pressures from people who didn’t know football.

John Lambie knew football. That’s a fact.

His death is a sad loss to the many people who played for him and called him a friend. To the Partick Thistle fans it is a JFK moment – every Jags’ fan will remember where they were when they heard of his passing. That’s how much he meant to the supporters.

They sang “One John Lambie, there’s only one John Lambie”

Truer words have never been sung or spoken.

RIP Gaffer.

Carpe Diem

Matthew Craig is an inspiration to everyone who knows him.

To those who don’t I’m just about to give them some context about a boy who has already faced far more adversity in his 17 years on this planet than most face in their lifetime.

On Christmas Eve in 2013 Matthew, aged only 12, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer.

Aye, Merry Christmas to you too.

What happened next was an incredible test of his character and spirit during a nerve-shredding cancer journey with his big brother Scott and his mum and dad Karen and Chris along with his extended family and group of close friends.

The popular kid, who had shown real promise as an athlete with Kirkintilloch Olympians, required the full works to eliminate the cancer and chemotherapy preceded a life saving operation to remove the tumour on his hip.

That resulted with Matthew requiring a new hip and learning to walk all over again.

Last Saturday morning this incredible kid cycled to the top of the iconic Crow Road in the Campsie Fells in memory of his grandfather Fred Craig who sadly passed away cycling on that very same hill almost a year to the day of Matthew’s challenge.

1000 vertical feet of climbing in just over 3 miles is quite an ask for most cyclists. For Matt it was a special effort as he had only started to ride a bike again last year.

But, along with his brother, dad and a 30-strong support group of cyclists he did it.

Every pedal stroke was for his grandfather AND Teenage Cancer Trust – the charity that his family and friends fundraise for after the support they received from TCT during his time in hospital and since he returned home.

So, why am I telling you all of this?

Let’s just say that this story should serve as a reminder to EVERY young footballer to make the most of the opportunities that they are presented with and to never take anything for granted.

Why? Because it can all change in the blink of an eye – just ask Matthew Craig about that.

If a young player REALLY wants to be the best they can be then it will take hard work, dedication and a learning cycle that will last until their last day in the game.

More players at all levels need to look in the mirror more often and ask if they can do more to improve. Most, if they are honest, will say of course they could.

Whether that is on the training pitch or away from it only they will know but there are so many facets to being a footballer nowadays that there is no place for shortcuts.

Is it any wonder that the best players on the planet are those who work hardest at it?

From Ronald and Messi on the World stage to Tierney and Robertson in Scottish terms the formula is the same – dedication, determination and application.

Too many youngsters want the plaudits without putting in the hard shift. Some are too quick to blame others for their shortcomings rather than really grabbing the opportunity that they are given and making the most of it.

Not that I am saying it is all a bed of roses being involved in football.

Will there be low points on that journey? Of course there will be.

Is it possible that they will ask if all the effort is worth it? Probably.

And, do you always get what you think you deserve out of it? Seldom.

But, and this where Matthew Craig comes back in, imagine asking the same things about your cancer journey rather than your football career?

There is perspective for you right there.

But, from day one Matthew Craig showed a maturity and resilience way older than his tender years. His attitude and application to his recovery has allowed him to return to athletics with the Forth Valley Flyers and he has shown real promise in seated throws.

Last Saturday was the perfect demonstration that Matthew Craig will be defined by what he can do and not characterised by what he can’t.

He continues to seize the day and continues to inspire everyone who knows him.

Well in Champ.

MANAGER OF THE YEAR

We have reached that time of the season when the players and football writers will be asked to choose their players and managers of the year.

While there is plenty of debate about who has performed best ON the pitch there can be no argument about who has delivered the most from the technical area – Steve Clarke.

Yes, even if Brendan Rodgers delivers a back to back treble I’d argue that the Killie gaffer has actually achieved more during the season than his Celtic counterpart.

Sure, football is about winning trophies and competing at the highest level and there is no doubt that a ‘Double Treble’ would be worth shouting about but, when a manager’s impact on a club is as significant as Clarke’s has been, there is no competition.

When he took control of the Rugby Park squad back on October 14th his team sat bottom of the pile without a win from their first eight fixtures, had amassed only three Premiership points and scored just five league goals.

Fast forward five months and Kilmarnock are now sitting in fifth spot and have only tasted defeat on four occasions from the 25 matches he’s presided over.

More importantly, Killie have won 13 of those games and beaten both Celtic and Rangers at Rugby Park. They also won at Ibrox last weekend and had previously picked up draws against Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow.

That’s progress of huge proportions.

From cannon fodder to top-six certainties you would have to say Steve Clarke has worked wonders in Ayrshire in a relatively short period of time.

Brendan Rodgers on the other hand has NOT taken Celtic forward this term.

Of course, an invincible season was always going to be difficult to surpass but there is no doubt that his team have gone back the way and most Celtic fans will recognise that.

How far back will vary from punter to punter but I’d suggest that Rodgers has a major job on his hands to even get his squad back to last year’s levels.

Sure, the Hoops will still win the league by a distance and will ultimately be the power brokers of Scottish football for the foreseeable future but that’s not the manager’s mantra.

No, he wants to develop players and teams by improving individuals. He wants to continually challenge the standards at his club. He has spoken about creating a legacy during his tenure.

And, he wants to provide all of that with an attractive brand of football.

Well, this season was clearly not on the Sat-Nav route to those destinations.

Less impressive performances, a drop in standards by individual players, unresolved defensive frailties, ropey recruitment and a few humblings in Europe are all confirmation of the step backward from that all conquering group of last term.

Let’s face it, it is not likely to be panic stations around Lennoxtown but Brendan Rodgers will know himself that some things have not gone to plan.

For that reason I think Steve Clarke is the pick of the managerial bunch.

In fact, if I was to pick anyone other than Clarke it would be Jack Ross.

The St Mirren gaffer grabbed the Paisley side by the throat and literally dragged it out of the car crash it found itself in last season.

He placed the squad in intensive care and has gradually resuscitated the entire fabric of the club to such an extent that he will take the Saints back into the top flight next term.

That too is progress and in any other year it might just have been enough to get the nod.

Sadly for Jack Ross and the rest of Scottish football’s gaffers Steve Clarke has eclipsed them all.

 

 

 

 

 

International Men of Mystery

A new dawn, a new period of positivity and a new focus.

That’s what Alex McLeish’s appointment as Scotland manager should have brought to the party  and, with a friendlies against Costa Rica and Hungary coming up, some of that new hope has been realised.

His newly assembled staff of Peter Grant, James McFadden and Stevie Woods brings a freshness to the dressing room – new voices, new ideas, new fortes etc etc etc.

Six new faces in his first squad also adds to that feeling of evolution from the disappointment and failure of Gordon Strachan’s reign.

But, given the timing of these low profile, low expectation friendlies he could have been even more adventurous with his first squad selection and included boys like John Souttar and Lewis Morgan.

After all, the result of two bounce games in the next fortnight will not be the defining moment of Big Eck’s second coming – that will arrive in the shape of whether or not he can help us qualify for Euro 2020.

He won’t get too many more free throws of the dice to trial players, formations and tactics between now and the real stuff starting in September. End of season games against Peru and Mexico will give him some more time but he should be aware of the players he will be asking to lead the charge by then.

With that in mind is he really going to learn anything about guys like Charlie Mulgrew, Grant Hanley, Russel Martin, Matt Ritchie and Matt Philips that we don’t already know?

Are boys like Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson going to benefit from being part of a squad when they are highly unlikely to start given their game time already this season?

Sure, Alex needs to pick a squad to cover call-offs so the inclusion of additional players is required. I’d have preferred those players to have come from the Under-21s.

If we are truly going to develop a group of players to compete on a regular basis over the next decade then we need to look at getting as many 20 to 24 year-olds into the squad now and drop the older players who have had their chance to deliver and failed.

That might sound harsh but if we are really going to progress we need to act now.

Even if we don’t qualify for 2020 we must learn from the campaign and be in better shape for the Qatar 2022 qualifiers. That is common sense.

Step by step we need to get closer to qualifying for major competitions and once we finally do manage that for the first time since 1998 we want to have created a formula that allows us to do it on a regular basis.

Friendlies like the ones coming up should be in the diary to blood the next crop of emerging talent to the national team and hopefully Alex McLeish will start boys like Scott McKenna, Ryan Christie, Dylan McGeouch, Scott McTominay and Oli McBurnie.

To simply have them along for the ride without significant minutes on the pitch would be a real waste of an opportunity.

The manager should have a real understanding of what those players can offer him and they shouldn’t be an unknown quantity ahead of the Euro 2020 campaign starting.

THE LOYALTY GAME

Gone are the days when loyalty to a badge, a board of directors, a set of fans, a manager or a cause was more important than the colour of your pounds, euros or dollars.

Sadly, as football as morphed from a sport to a business, so have the rules of engagement with employees. In most circumstances it is ALL about what is in their pay packet.

Now, we all know that football is a short career and footballers need to capitalise financially where they can. But, that thought process and dynamic is constantly eroding the connection between the fans and the players year on year.

It is no surprise that men such as Billy McNeilL, John Greig, Willie Miller and Maurice Malpas are held in such high esteem by the supporters of Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Dundee United respectively as well as the wider footballing public.

As ‘one club’ men they are entitled to be celebrated and revered by the fans because they not only delivered silverware to their clubs; they played for the jersey.

Could the same ever be said about Nicolas Anelka, Carlos Tevez, Zlatan Ibrahimovich or many of the modern players who have been engineered to look after themselves first?

Contrary to regular opinion though, there are still loads of guys out there who give their all for their club over a significant period of time.

Lewis Stevenson at Hibs, Scott Brown at Celtic, Keith Lasley at Motherwell and Andrew Considine at Aberdeen are great examples of individuals who have ALWAYS given their lot for the people who pay their wages.

In truth, amongst the backdrop of a game that is now regularly paying players £400,000 per week, there are thousands of guys who go about their business week in week out in a more committed manner for literally 0.1% of that figure.

From Kris Doolan and Chris Millar to Steven Hammell and Steven Anderson there are plenty of guys who put in a real shift for one club during their career and that is why they are loved by the punters – it is not the money that drives these guys, it is all about their professional pride and conscience.

If you look hard enough you will find plenty of others in Scottish football who have operated in the same way.

And, that brings me to Queen of the South’s Derek Lyle.

Now, I’ve known Del since he was a gallus kid at Partick Thistle under John Lambie.

The only difference now is that he’s no longer a kid – sure, he’s still just as gallus – and already half way through his 21st season in Scottish football. That takes some doing.

Throw in the fact that he suffered a really bad knee injury during his time and it is remarkable that he is still doing what he does best – scoring goals.

As one of only five players in Queen of the South’s history to score over 100 league goals he is quite correctly celebrated down Dumfries way.

He is currently third highest goalscorer in the club’s history and is only three goals behind the late, great Bobby Black who graced Palmerston back in the ’50s and ’60s.

As Queen of the South’s most decorated player, he has won two League titles and two Challenge Cups, it is safe to say that he will always be part of the Doonhamers’ family.

It is no surprise that his Testimonial Dinner last Saturday night in Dumfries was sold out and that the feeling within the room towards him was nothing short of incredible – I think he almost enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed him.

That proved to me that loyalty is still a two way street and very much alive in football.

You just need to know where to look for it.

The Beast from the East

Scottish football saw sense on Wednesday morning when the SPFL decided to postpone the three top flight matches scheduled for that night in the interest of safety.

It really is a shame the powers that be didn’t smell the coffee 24 hours earlier.

That would have saved Clyde travelling to Peterhead for their League Two fixture on a night that many people I know wouldn’t have even put their wheelie bins out.

Instead, the Bully Wee had to make a 334 mile round trip on an evening that had motorway gantries telling people not to travel ANYWHERE.

But, at least Clyde got to play their game.

Poor Queen of the South had already travelled the 145 miles to Tayside from Dumfries to find out that their game against Dundee United wouldn’t go ahead.

That’s not the type of thing you want to ‘discover’ on arriving into the city that built a ship famously known for it’s Antarctic expeditions. Ironically, the Doonhamers team bus would have experienced more demanding conditions going back down the M74 than Captain Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton encountered on some of their travels.

It makes you think when are we eventually going to see sense and play summer football?

Now, as a player I actually enjoyed playing through the winter and even experiencing chilblains on some of my extremities and my more private parts – yes, that’s right – didn’t change my mind.

But, as society has changed, so have my thoughts on this matter.

We are cheating the paying customer by being so stubborn about changing the calendar.

I actually can’t see one good reason why it shouldn’t happen and I’d be happy to hear anyone who can tell me one that couldn’t be overcome.

Sure, there would need to be some consultation about when that calendar should be but one thing is for sure, January and February are historically the coldest months of the year so let’s start with the assumption that those months would be the close season.

Freak weather and rain we can cope with but the cold is what causes the biggest issues for postponement and the travel consideration of the fans.

How we then work the season to accommodate European competition is one for the league to consider but I’d defy anyone to tell me that our league being in full flow by July and August wouldn’t help the clubs playing early qualifiers at that time.

I’ll put it another way, how many times have we heard about how difficult it is for the clubs playing preliminary rounds in Europe BEFORE the Scottish season has started?

With warmer weather and better pitches we might even attract more fans through the gates during the summer months when historically the game has shut down.

On the rare occasion that Scotland qualifies for a major tournament – remember those days – we could make a provision for the clubs who have most players involved.

In short, the time has come to grab the bull by the horns and make a decision.

If we were starting football from scratch and had a blank canvas, who in their right mind would suggest playing football through the winter?

It wouldn’t be me.