IN deepest Clackmannanshire, Paul Hartley’s hands are about to get dirty. “If you sweep the away dressing-room, I’ll do the home one,” he shouts down the corridor to a tracksuited helper. No argument echoes back. At Recreation Park, Hartley is the boss. End of story.
Whilst counterparts in the upper echelons of Scottish football enjoy video analysis sessions and sports science lectures with their squads, Alloa Athletic’s manager prepares for training in a rather more traditional manner. He cleans dressing-rooms and lays out kit.
It is 4.30pm, he has been at the ground since 9am and won’t leave till after 10pm. His part-time players will start arriving in the next hour for training. The aforementioned assistant is the only other person in the building to help him out. Yet Hartley is in his element.
There are no airs or graces about Hartley, which is one of his most endearing qualities. This is his grounding in football management and he is embracing every aspect of it after an illustrious career including Scottish Cup success with Hearts and Champions League football with Celtic. Six months into his first assignment, Alloa are already thriving, sitting one point off the top of the Third Division with a game in hand over leaders Stranraer.
The professionalism instilled by Hartley is a definite factor in their prosperity. He is only too willing to muck in to ensure his players are properly prepared. Whether it’s brushing dressing-room floors or clearing debris from the Recreation Park pitch, he provides chairman Mike Mulraney with excellent value for money. He is effectively a full-time manager on part-time wages. Full-time and full-blooded.
“I like that side of it, I really enjoy it,” he says after taking a seat in his modest office. “I help put the strips out, I help put the water bottles out and set the training pitch up. You have to do the dirty jobs because we aren’t blessed with lots of people working for us. I just get things ready for the guys coming in. We make sure they are well fed and have energy drinks laid out for them when they come to training.
“It’s no problem to me. I know I’ve played at a good level but this is me starting again from scratch aiming to build myself up. I remember scrubbing boots, sweeping terraces and cleaning car parks as a young player at Hamilton, so it’s just like starting over again.”
That’s precisely what it is. Hartley retired as a player at Aberdeen last summer and instantly stepped into management with Alloa. He still lives in East Kilbride but is rarely at home due to the all-encompassing nature of his work. Paddy Connolly, the former Dundee United and St Johnstone forward, assists him in a backroom team also containing goalkeeping coach Alan Combe and fitness coach Tom Ritchie, a colleague of Hartley’s at Tynecastle.
“Outwith the SPL, we have as good a backroom team as anybody. We’re trying to set standards and be more professional, do things properly in the way I’ve been taught throughout my career,” says the manager.
“On Saturday we had a bounce game here against Hibs Under-19s. By one o’clock I was in the car to go and watch Annan versus Clyde. Paddy went to Montrose against Stranraer. On New Year’s Eve we were down watching Stranraer play Annan. We aren’t a club with money that can pay scouts to watch games for us, so we try to do most of it ourselves.
“On training nights I’m here till really late. Sometimes I come through during the week or I’m out at games. I’m always on the phone or doing something. It’s not a part-time job for me, it’s more full-time. It can be quite a lonely job at times because you’re here yourself a lot.”
He has, by his own admission, made the correct choice retiring before his 35th birthday. “My legs swung it for me, my body wasn’t up to it any more. I made the decision last New Year. I wasn’t enjoying training at Aberdeen because I wasn’t up to it and I wasn’t sharp. My body didn’t feel good in games. I remember one in particular – the League Cup semi against Celtic at Hampden – where I just wasn’t feeling good. I made the decision then to stop playing in the summer. I went to Craig Brown and told him I’d be retiring at the end of the season. He was really good about it and said I could take a week off and take time off training and reconsider. Then I strained my medial knee ligament against St Mirren in March and I just said ‘no, that’s it’.
“The next step I wanted was management. I wanted to be a manager, I didn’t want to be a number two to anybody. I just wanted to go straight in. This job came out of the blue. I officially retired from Aberdeen the day before the last game of last season. Then the following day I got a phonecall asking if I was interested in speaking to Alloa about their vacancy. I met the chairman on the Monday. He had a lot of applicants but he hadn’t interviewed anybody. He offered me the job that night.
“If you’ve just retired from playing like I had, I don’t think you can wait for a specific job coming along. You just have to take something because there are so many managers out of work right now. There were 30-40 applicants wanting this job, including a lot of high-profile names who have worked in management before. The chairman gave me the opportunity and I’m thankful for that.”
That gratitude is probably a factor in his diligence but those who know Hartley recognise he has always valued hard graft and high standards. When he doesn’t get the same back from the Alloa players, paint can begin peeling off the dressing-room wall with his venom.
“You sometimes have to hold back with what you want to say to the players because you need to give them confidence and help them along the way,” he admits. “There’s a big difference in standard to what I’m used to from playing but that’s the learning process you need to go through. This is a good grounding and good experience for me.
“It has been a big culture shock for me. It’s part-time football, I only see my players on Tuesday and Thursday nights then for games on a Saturday. If you have a bad result you don’t see them for another three days, that can be difficult. But I find it really enjoyable. The players we have are great to work with.
“We didn’t have any players when I arrived. We had one signed player who had done his cruciate. We’ve managed to sign 22 players in six months and to challenge at the top of the league says a lot for those we’ve brought in. I love coming to training and working with these guys. It’s the next best thing to playing, being in that dressing-room on a Saturday and seeing them winning.
“But it can be lonely if you don’t get a good result because there pressure is on you. You’re the one who has to deal with the criticism and the praise. I never get too down and I never get too high. You need to show everybody who the manager is and who the boss is. You can’t let players trample over the top of you. I let the players enjoy it but they know there’s a fine line. When I raise my voice they know I’m not happy. I praise them when they deserve it, but when they don’t I like to have a go at them. It’s done to get a reaction. We expect the best from them even though they’re part-time.”
Ambitions of progressing up the managerial ladder do exist on Hartley’s career blueprint, but for the foreseeable future he will remain loyal to Alloa. “I do have ambitions but I want to do well here first. We’re trying to get the club to the Second Divison and then the First. That’s the aim. The chairman is very ambitious and he’s put a lot of money into the club. He’s shown faith in me so I want to try and pay him back. It won’t happen overnight.
“Down the line I do have ambitions to manage at a higher level, but I need to get a grounding here. I don’t want to jump into something too early. This is the job for me just now and it will be for the next few years.”
His contacts book has been useful so far with SPL clubs like St Johnstone and Hearts persuaded to loan him players to complement the experience of captain Darren Young and striker Robbie Winters. “It’s been easy to pick the phone up but it’s not been easy getting the players I want. I wanted a couple of guys on loan from Aberdeen but they went to Forfar, who can contribute more to their wages than we can. It’s also a lot closer to Aberdeen.
“I spoke to Steve Lomas, who I remember from his trial at Hearts a few years back. We met on his first day at St Johnstone and exchanged numbers and I managed to get Stevie May from them. John Murray at Hearts has helped by giving us Kevin McHattie. I’ve spoken to Peter Houston, Gerry McCabe, Jim McIntyre, Steven Pressley, Danny Lennon, Billy Brown, Stevie Frail, just every resource I have at my disposal. I’d be stupid not to tap into them.”
One loanee in particular has made a big impression in the Third Division. “McHattie’s been terrific,” says Hartley. “He’s a proper full-back that I really like. He’s aggressive, doesn’t shirk a challenge and he’s comfortable on the ball. I spoke to people at Dunfermline about him because he was there before Hearts. I think he’s enjoying it here and it’s good experience for him.
“Players reach an age where they have to go and play meaningful games. You can play under-19s games and it can be too easy sometimes. You might get a wee bit of a shock coming here but that’s a good thing and McHattie has handled it very well. He’s had a good upbringing and a good grounding at Hearts.
“We’d love to keep him for a longer period and we’ll be trying to do that. It’s down to Hearts so we’ll see how things pan out. We’ve given him a chance here but if he goes back and forces his way into the Hearts first team, then that’s what we’re here for.”
Interview finished, we saunter out of the manager’s office, down the corridor and out on to Alloa’s impressive 3G astroturf pitch. “It’s the second biggest surface in Scotland,” Hartley declares proudly. “It’s a fantastic surface and it’ll never change. We train here all the time and we never get injuries from it.”
If they did, you wouldn’t put it past Hartley to add physiotherapy to his multi-tasking remit. But for now he has enough on his plate. He says his goodbyes and heads back up the corridor towards that dressing-room. He knows Recreation Park, home of the Wasps, has a definite buzz about it these days. He would never admit it’s down to the infectious enthusiasm of their determined young manager.