PAUL HARTLEY’S impact at Alloa cannot be understated.
Two years ago he took charge following the Clackmannanshire club’s relegation to the Third Division. Now they stand on the cusp of the First. Hartley has dragged them single-handedly up from the doldrums despite arriving with no managerial experience. Tomorrow night Alloa face Dunfermline in the first leg of a play-off for a First Division place and it’s all down to their manager’s meticulous planning.
Recreation Park runs with German-like precision these days. Players’ urine is tested weekly for hydration levels, body fat is monitored once a month, technical areas have changed, even the dressing rooms have been painted black and gold. It’s all Hartley’s doing. A successful career at the top level with Hearts, Celtic and Scotland is now being utilised to bring professionalism to part-time Alloa. The dividends are clear and there may be more to come if Hartley can outsmart the Dunfermline manager Jim Jefferies live on BBC Alba this week.
“The biggest thing about him is his attention to detail,” said Mike Mulraney, the Alloa chairman who seems ready to burst with pride. “We’ve only ever had part-time managers here, but Paul effectively works as a full-time manager. Nothing is left to chance. Whether it’s the colour of the dressing-rooms or how soon players are fed after games, he looks into everything.
“Our dressing room was just magnolia like the rest of the ground. Paul believed it needed to be different to reflect the club, so he got it painted black and gold. It was one of the first things he did. Then he changed what music is played and when it’s played. His attention to detail is incredible. I could tell you 100 different things Paul has changed at our club over the last two years. That’s just a reflection of him. He’s done a great job in his first managerial role.”
Not that the former Scotland midfielder ever truly believed he could propel Alloa upwards so quickly. The target he agreed with Mulraney for this season was simply to keep their club in the Second Division. Adding players with SPL experience like Calum Elliot, Stephen Simmons and Kevin Moon has seen results exceed expectations. “If you’d said to me two years ago that you’d win the league in your first season and, by the end of your second, be in a play-off final for a place in the First Division, I’m not sure I’d have believed it,” said Hartley.
“I’ve tried to make it as professional as I could to get the best out of the players. We want to make them feel good so we’ve introduced a lot of things which other clubs don’t do at this level. Maybe even some full-time clubs don’t do them. The chairman has made them possible also. The dressing room was so dull when I took over so we thought it needed a bit of colour when you walked in. I brought my fitness coach from Hearts [Tom Ritchie], we prepare food for the players, pre-match meals, hydration tests and body fats every month.”
The burning issue, of course, is whether Hartley himself steadied the step-ladder and pulled out the Dulux to transform the dressing room. “No, but I’ve done quite a few other things. At the lower level, everybody needs to pitch in. I help unload kit off the bus at away games and things like that. We all understand the financial situation in football so we all need to pull together. You can see the rewards we’re getting on the park right now.
“We have a great team spirit. I tried to install that as soon as I came in and I like to give the players freedom to express themselves. It’s not just down to me. There’s a good group of players here, staff, directors and the chairman. It’s gone very well so far, but, in football, as soon as you get a few bad results, you’re the worst manager ever.”
The only way Hartley is likely to leave Alloa is for a bigger club. Mulraney wouldn’t have it any other way. “I would be hugely disappointed if Paul doesn’t leave our club to go on to better things,” he admitted. “He’s an ambitious manager who has done a great job for Alloa Athletic. I’m convinced he will leave us to take another job one day and that’s what you want as a chairman.
“He was the only candidate I interviewed for the job two years ago. From our very first chat, we agreed we wanted to work with each other. He convinced me he had all the attributes. He didn’t have management experience, but he had all the credentials you could ever want from a footballing point of view. One chat convinced me he was the man to take Alloa back to where we wanted to be.”
That said, even the chairman must be surprised at the rate of success. “Surprise would be the wrong word. He’s certainly done better than the targets we agreed on for both years. This season, our primary objective was just to stay in the Second Division because we’d just been promoted. We did have a secondary goal to try and get a top-four spot, which is what he’s done.
“He’s outperformed, that’s for sure. Pretty quickly after I started working with Paul, nothing surprised me about what he would try to achieve. People say that if you’re in the Third Division with no players and then two years later you’re competing to get into the First, then you should be surprised. If you know Paul, you wouldn’t be. He has ambition but it’s realistic. We set goals as a club and, while they’re stretching things a bit, they are achievable.
“I believe he’s the manager and he’s got the call on all footballing matters. He is also wise enough to realise that, in non-footballing matters, he’s got to learn. I learn from him and he learns from us. He gets all of it, the accounts and the budget and everything. He understands that if you’re spending money on paint, you’re not spending it on players. He also understands that sort of thing improves the strategy and infrastructure before we’re paying weekly wages. He approves it all. He’s on board with us.”
Boardroom number-crunching is fine, but Hartley is primarily a football man. And a passionate one at that. Alloa’s play-off semi-final win over Brechin City last weekend involved a touchline altercation which ended with him and opposite number Ray McKinnon sitting in the stand. Afterwards, the Brechin coach Darren Taylor accused Hartley of swinging a punch at McKinnon.
“Things boiled over a bit,” admitted Hartley. “It was a melee with about 20 people involved. Somebody grabbed my face and I swung my arm out, but it wasn’t at Ray McKinnon. I don’t want to dwell on it because I’m focusing on Wednesday night.
“There is pressure in these games. I think this is the first time in Alloa’s history that they’ve been live on television, so it’s a huge occasion and there will be a good crowd.
“We know we’re massive underdogs for the game. We will approach it in the right way and I’ll tell the players to play the game and not the occasion. I know the problems Jim has had going into administration and losing a lot of players. Dunfermline still have a good group of players and we need to make sure we’re ready. One thing we will do is have a right good go in these games. We aren’t there to sit back, no matter what.”
Most managers in this position would deny they are looking any further ahead than the two-legged play-off, the second of which is on Sunday. Hartley is different. He is already planning for potentially taking Alloa back into the First Division.
“I’ve looked into it already,” he said. “We’ve set out two budgets, one for the Second Division and one for the First. We’re targeting players who could improve us for the First Division because we know we’d be punching above our weight. We’re a part-time club and we’ll never go full-time, I understand that restriction. Getting better players in isn’t easy, though.”
The chairman’s support is something Hartley can count on. Come to that, the whole region will endorse him if he returns Alloa to the First Division for the first time in ten years. “I’m the chairman but I’m simply a steward of this club for the town of Alloa,” said Mulraney. “This play-off final is for the players, the fans and the people in this town. It would be massive for Alloa as a football club and a town to get back into the First Division. We deserve to be competing at that level, that’s where we’ve always tried to reach.”
With Paul Hartley in charge, aiming high is now a way of life at Recreation Park.