Tossing and turning on the pillows of the Park Hotel became Gary Locke’s nightly habit for a few weeks. Sleeping in the shadows of Rugby Park has its advantages when you’re managing Kilmarnock. It also allows a bit much time to worry when you’re embroiled in a relegation battle.
Locke has now preserved Kilmarnock’s Premiership status and admits to an overwhelming sense of relief. Having gone down with Hearts 12 months ago, albeit in mitigating circumstances, the last thing he could afford on his CV as a young and ambitious manager was two successive relegations.
He did worry for a few weeks, particularly when a losing run stretched to seven games and dragged Kilmarnock perilously close to the relegation play-off place. Victory at Firhill earlier this month guaranteed survival and allowed Locke to breathe, and sleep, more easily.
He still lives at home on the outskirts of Edinburgh with his family, but stays a couple of nights each week at the Park Hotel, adjacent to Rugby Park. Logistically, it makes sense. He became caretaker manager at Kilmarnock in February when Allan Johnston, who appointed Locke as his assistant last summer, resigned. Locke got the job permanently only last month and had to deal with the instant pressure of avoiding the relegation play-off.
With that box ticked, he can now relax. He finally feels ready to make his mark as a manager after two of the most tumultuous years any young coach could encounter. He hasn’t forgotten that only last May he was digesting the double dunt of relegation and losing his job as Hearts manager. “At least I can go on my holidays this year with more peace of mind,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I know what’s happening at Kilmarnock so I don’t need to worry about what might happen over the summer. It’s up to me now.
“I was delighted to keep Kilmarnock in the league, but I didn’t see it as anything to celebrate. The players were well aware of that. It was great to stay up and a relief for everybody, but we have to aim a bit higher than just avoiding going down. I want to achieve success in my managerial career that I didn’t achieve as a player. I got injured at the wrong time and now I’m striving to be as good a manager or coach as I can.”
That would have become significantly harder with two relegations behind him before his 40th birthday. “That was in my mind. Hearts was completely different because there were a lot of circumstances contributing to Hearts’ relegation. I felt the boys finished the season well. Going in at Kilmarnock, the hardest thing is you get judged on players you’ve inherited. It wasn’t like it was my team and that’s why the summer is really important. We don’t have thousands of pounds to make wholesale changes but I’ve certainly got to make as many changes as I can.
“Realistically, we need to get away from the bottom of the table next season. The club has aspirations to get into the top six, but you look at the teams going to be in the league. If Rangers come up, you look at the size of the budgets at the clubs we’ll be competing against and it’s going to be really difficult. We’re all ambitious at Rugby Park. The new board of directors have ambition and I’m ambitious myself, but it will be hard. I’m hoping to get four or five players in who will make a difference to the team.”
For all the sleepless nights, this year was like a walk in the park compared with 12 months ago. “You’re spot on,” said Locke, who was very much a towering figure of strength during Hearts’ administration process. “We didn’t have all the stuff that was hanging over Hearts last year. We weren’t sure if we were going to survive with the club in administration and deducted 15 points. I wouldn’t want to have that problem at any club ever again.
“It wasn’t great at the time but it was a great learning curve. Looking back, I hope it’s made me a better manager. It was really through the mill last year. This year, I knew I had a few influential players coming back into the squad to help at Kilmarnock towards the end of the season. At Hearts, we had our squad and that was it. You couldn’t rely on experience coming in.
“We went seven games unbeaten (while Locke was caretaker) and everybody was talking about it being Kilmarnock’s best run since 1990 or something. I don’t like making excuses, but we lost Mark Connolly and Jamie Hamill (pictured bottom right) through injury, who are two of our most experienced players. Then we hit a run of games where we just couldn’t buy a win. We got dragged right into the relegation mix and it was worrying times.
“Fortunately, we put in a really good performance at Partick Thistle with Connolly and Hamill back and that got us the result we needed for safety. Now, hopefully I can put my own stamp in the team and make a few changes through there. It’s been disappointing that they’ve teetered around the relegation places. I’ve got to try my best to make sure that doesn’t happen next season.”
He will draw on the same fortitude he used last summer in the wake of his exit from Tynecastle. Being told by the club he supported, played for, coached and managed that he was no longer wanted was hard to accept. Locke was entitled to feel he got a raw deal having soldiered so bravely through a year-long administration process, coping with a 15-point penalty, a signing embargo and a team of academy kids. Yet he was determined to recover quickly.
“It was hard because it wasn’t just a case of losing my job. That’s the team I’ve supported all my life,” he explained. “It was hard to take. At the end of the day, I know the game I’m in. When you’re in football management, it can be cruel and it can be really enjoyable. I’m well aware it’s a cut-throat business. You get disappointed about a few things but I certainly didn’t feel sorry for myself.
“I thought: ‘Right, that door’s closed.’ I was disappointed, but another door opened and I was fortunate that Allan saw enough in me to take me to Kilmarnock as assistant. I was just delighted to get another opportunity so quickly. You see a lot of managers who have lost their jobs and find it difficult to get back in. I got back in so quick.”
Johnston’s sudden announcement that he was leaving Rugby Park in February could have left Locke in a moral dilemma over whether to go for his friend’s job. His former team-mate at Tynecastle ensured it would be a straightforward process, and Locke eventually signed a three-year contract after several weeks as interim manager.
“One thing about me, I like to think I’m pretty honest and pretty loyal. I spoke to Allan in great detail and I said: ‘If you walk and you want me to walk then I’ll come with you.’ He was the reason I was at Kilmarnock,” said Locke. “The mark of Allan is he said: ‘No, I’m leaving but I want you to try to take the job.’ I’d had a taste of being manager with Hearts and, even through all the difficulties, I did enjoy it. This was an opportunity to be my own man again and Allan said I should go for it. That was good enough for me.
“Kilmarnock is a well-run club. They have their own hotel so I stay there a couple of nights a week, which allows me to get a lot of work done. I take in a lot of games so I’m travelling all the time, like most managers. I enjoy the fact I live in Edinburgh as well because it means you can switch off. You don’t bump in to many Kilmarnock fans through here so it’s a great way to get away from it.”
Gary Locke has had plenty to escape from over the last two years. Now he aspires towards a brighter future away from the doom and gloom of relegation battles. He might even manage more sleep in that hotel room as well.