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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gaffer..

Billy McNeill. Gordon McQueen. Jimmy Bone (twice). David Provan. Michael Oliver. Billy McLaren (twice). Tommy Gemmell. Tom Spence. Rowan Alexander/Mark Shanks. Tommy Bryce. John Lambie. John Connolly. John McVeigh.

14 men with one thing in common – they all managed me during my playing career.

And, the point is, that is probably ALL they had in common.

Football management is not prescribed and there is no magic formula out there that guarantees results for the man in the dugout. There is literally no Sat-Nav to success.

Sure, coaching courses and seminars can provide guidance to budding gaffers but it is ultimately down to the individual to come up with his own route to eminence.

What works for one guy might not work for another and vice-versa. Management is about what works for YOU. End of.

Were all of my managers the same? No. Did they all have the same technical and tactical aptitude? No. And, did they all have the same man-management styles? Definitely not.

Some were more concerned with coaching and camaraderie while others majored on fitness and formations.

The bottom line is that success will always be relative and governed by a number of factors including; the quality of players recruited and the identification of a formation to suit them, the group’s understanding of the shape and strategy, the physical ability for the players to perform, the desire of the squad to execute that strategy, and the belief of those players in the guy who is asking them all to do all of the above.

Get those factors right and you won’t be too far away.

It is not a science – and that applies to any team in any workplace.

On the same night last week that the news of Alex McLeish’s appointment as Scotland manager was breaking I was having dinner with a good friend who has been hugely successful in business.

We had chatted about his experiences of building a business, managing employees and putting together a board of directors.

He emphasised about NOT needing to have everyone in your team on board with your vision and views but, to have any chance of success, you MUST have the majority.

Football dressing rooms are no different.

It is impossible for every player in a squad to be happy with the manager because some of them don’t get picked. But, those who are selected can influence them.

They can ultimately change the behaviour of any doubters or dissenters very quickly and, if that happens, everyone at the club can benefit.

Look at what Brendan Rodgers has achieved at Celtic in his 20 months in charge?

You NEVER hear publicly about players being unhappy about being left out of the team. That doesn’t mean that they are not unhappy – they just know that they need to work harder to get back into the side and hold onto the jersey when they get that opportunity.

The one thing that has never changed about managers is that they dictate what standards are acceptable at their football club. That’s their bag.

From the way the players behave at the club and out with it’s confines to the way they apply themselves in training and in games the gaffer alone calls the shots.

He is THE most important person at the football club and everything else derives from how well he does his job.

Attendances, sponsorship deals, media coverage, marketing opportunities and other revenue streams are all affected by how the manager performs.

Quite simply if you get it right on the pitch you should reap the rewards off of it.