NO-ONE can accuse Allan Johnston of not taking his first job in management seriously. With his rampant Queen of the South team top of the Second Division and buoyed by cup victories over the likes of Hibs and Rangers already this season, they are red-hot favourites to breeze past Edinburgh City when the teams meet at Meadowbank in the Scottish Cup third-round on Saturday.
But that hasn’t stopped Johnston, the former Hearts and Scotland player, from leaving nothing to chance. Having already made the journey through to Edinburgh to watch his non-league opponents thrash Preston Athletic 5-0 during last month’s international weekend, Johnston could have been forgiven for using his free Saturday last weekend to spend some time with the family or go and watch one of his many former clubs in action.
Instead, he and trusty assistant, Sandy Clark, jumped in the car and headed for the Borders town of Innerleithen for another look at Edinburgh City as the East of Scotland League side beat Vale of Leithen 2-1. Johnston, 38, may be riding the crest of a wave at present, but there’s no chance of him risking a reputation-damaging defeat at the hands of a non-league side.
“We’ll definitely not be underestimating them,” he said. “They’re a good team, as they showed by beating Montrose in the last round. You can see the results they are getting and they’ve got a few quality players. We’ll have to be at our best to get a result. It’s their cup final. You only have to look at what’s happened to some bigger clubs against us in the cups this season to see what can happen if you’re not prepared. A cup run does wonders for a football club so we’re desperate to get past Edinburgh City.”
Saturday’s trip to Meadowbank will spark fond memories for Johnston from the oil-slick-hairdo days when he was coming through the ranks at Hearts some 20 years ago. “We played a few reserve games at Meadowbank and we also used to do a bit of sprint training round the track there in the summer,” he recalls. “It’ll be good to take my team back there.”
Since those days of learning his trade under Clark at Tynecastle, he has gone on to amass a wealth of experience through a fruitful playing career. It is these days as a tricky winger with the likes of Hearts, Rennes, Sunderland, Rangers and Middlesbrough, and, more recently, as a cultured central midfielder with Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Queens, which have shaped him for management. Johnston finally got the chance he’d been waiting for when he was asked to take the reins at Palmerston in the summer. Since then, he hasn’t looked back, and, with his team seven points clear at the summit, he is well on his way to emulating another former Hearts player, Colin Cameron, who won the Second Division in his first season in charge of Cowdenbeath last term.
“There’s limited opportunities to get a job in management, so I was delighted to get a chance,” he said. “I’d done my coaching badges and all that, so I’d been thinking about it for a while, but the big thing is whether or not you get the opportunity. Luckily, Queens gave me the chance.
“I’ve really enjoyed it so far. If you can’t enjoy it when the team’s getting results and playing well, then you’re in the wrong game. There’s a real buzz about the place just now, but that’s all down to results. We’ve had a lot of good young players coming through and they’ve stepped up well, and the guys we’ve brought in have been brilliant as well.
“The boys have done everything we’ve asked of them; the start couldn’t have gone any better but we’ve got a long way to go before we can start talking about winning the league. We’re not going to get complacent because every other team is desperate to get a result against us. There’s a long way to go yet. It’s all about maintaining the standards we’ve set so far.”
In hitting the ground running, Johnston – known as ‘Magic’ and famed for his matchwinning hat-trick at Ibrox in 1996 – a dmits he’s been aided by bits and pieces he’s picked up from the various managers he’s worked under, including Jim Jefferies, Peter Reid, Dick Advocaat and Steve McClaren. “I just try and take what I think are the better parts from each of them, but you’ve got to come up with your own style as well,” he says. “You can’t just copy everyone else. I’ve been lucky enough to work under lots of good managers.”
The one who has had arguably the biggest influence on his career, however, is Clark, the man who set him on his way at Hearts and who is now proving a valuable sounding board as his right-hand man.
“It’s great that I’ve got someone with Sandy’s experience beside me. He’s been brilliant. He was my youth-team manager at Hearts and gave me my first-team debut. He’s been there and done it, so he’s someone I can learn off. I couldn’t have asked for a better No. 2. It was a long time ago that he was my manager, so there’s nothing strange about me being the manager and him being No. 2.”
A season in France with Rennes when he was just 23 also ensures he can bring a continental perspective to Palmerston. “France was brilliant, it was totally different to Scottish football,” he said. “To see the standards there was an eye-opener. It was just the start of the Bosman era, so it was a great opportunity. It was a great learning experience.”