As things stand, the main threat to Hibs’ hopes of winning the Championship is coming from an unlikely old foe.
Gary Locke played as big a part as anyone in consigning the Easter Road side to life in the second tier when he managed Hearts to three Edinburgh derby victories in the fateful 2013/14 Premiership season when both Capital sides were relegated.
Now, the 41-year-old has unheralded Raith Rovers sitting above Neil Lennon’s red-hot title favourites, albeit on goal difference, after winning their opening three matches – including last weekend’s Fife derby – by an aggregate score of 7-1. These are heady days for the Kirkcaldy side, and for Locke, who is making a fine early fist of trying to repair a reputation badly tarnished after chastening spells in charge of Hearts and Kilmarnock. Although the plaudits coming his way make a pleasant change from the brickbats he’d grown accustomed to at Rugby Park, Locke has experienced enough managerial turmoil in the last three years not to take the present wave of harmony for granted.
“We’re getting a bit of praise at the moment but we can lose three on the trot and then I’m a dud again,” said Locke. “I knew I’d inherited a decent squad and we feel we’ve recruited well on top of that. When we got into pre-season, I was delighted with the work we were doing but if anybody had said we were going to win the first three games, I’d have said it would be a big ask. We’re delighted with the way things have gone but I’m well aware that it can quickly turn in the next three games. We’ve still got a million miles to go.”
A strong start, which first looked possible after a penalty shootout victory away to Betfred Cup holders Ross County last month, has helped dispel scepticism among a Rovers support who weren’t particularly enamoured with the appointment of Locke as replacement to the popular Ray McKinnon, who oversaw a creditable fourth-place finish last season. In addition to results – six wins out of seven in all competitions – he is also delivering an entertaining, front-foot style. “The fans have been great with me,” said Locke. “I knew I had to win them over because Razor was a popular manager here and I was coming in on the back of a bit of negative press. The negativity doesn’t bother me. Wherever you go, you’ll always get people who are negative towards you and people who are positive. I’ve never really bothered too much about what people say about me, but at the same time, you want fans at your club to like you. If you win games you’ll win over people who are negative towards you. The reaction on Saturday, after we beat our biggest rivals, suggests they are getting behind us. Having spoken to a few supporters and directors, I think they are pleased with what they’re watching.”
Locke is hoping his experiences at Hearts, where he had to contend with an administration-induced shambles, and Kilmarnock, where behind-the-scenes disharmony and tight financial restraints made it a tough gig, will help him get his managerial career back on track long term. Despite the clear obstacles placed in his way, the 41-year-old concedes he could have done things differently, particularly at Rugby Park.
“I have more regrets about my time at Kilmarnock than at Hearts,” said Locke. “It would be difficult for anybody to judge me on the Hearts job because I didn’t get to do the job of a normal manager. We were working with so many restrictions there, it was incredible. We had a squad of young players who simply weren’t ready to play. By the end of the season, I think they had all improved and I walked away from that job with my head held high. I take great pride now from seeing how well they’re all doing now, including the ones who are no longer at Hearts.
“There’s no doubt about it, I got a couple of things wrong at Kilmarnock and should have done things a bit better, but it’s a difficult club to manage. There’s a lot of unrest with the fans and a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, which go back to the time when I played there. With the resources at Kilmarnock, I think staying in the league counts as a good season for them, but everybody’s expectations are different. It was a hard job and it didn’t go to plan, which is why I left. But if you don’t make mistakes, you’ll never learn. I need to make sure I don’t get the same things wrong again.”
Locke feels his cause at Rovers will be aided by the sense of positivity behind the scenes at Stark’s Park, something he hasn’t experienced in each of his two previous jobs. “There’s a real togetherness at the club from top to bottom,” he said. “Everybody just wants the club to do well and that’s a fantastic environment for a manager to work in. This is the first job I’ve had where I know I’m just going to be able to get on with it. I probably tried to change too much at Kilmarnock, in terms of the youth set-up and the sports science side of it because they were miles behind with all of that. But here, I can concentrate predominantly on the first team and I’m getting fantastic backing from the board.”
The latter part shouldn’t be underestimated given that Locke, hamstrung by a transfer embargo at Hearts, was denied the chance to sign James Keatings for Kilmarnock last summer after chairman Michael Johnston inserted a clause into the contract which scared the striker off and led to him joining Hibs instead. By contrast, the Rovers board backed him in his efforts to bring in Rudi Skacel, the 36-year-old Hearts legend, who might ordinarily have been viewed as a luxury by a club with such a tight budget. Locke believes Raith are already seeing the benefits, both on and off the park, from the influence of the Czech veteran, who has come off the bench for the last 20 minutes of each of the three league wins. “Rudi’s looking dangerous every time he comes on,” said the manager. “He was a wee bit behind the other lads in terms of pre-season but he’s looking really fit. On Saturday he came on for the last half hour and gave us the composure we were lacking before. He’s always a goal threat.
“I don’t see why he can’t play the way he did for Hearts a few years ago. So far, in every game he’s played, he’s either set up a goal or looked like scoring. Once he gets his first goal, there will be a lot more to follow because he’ll never lose his finishing ability. He’s one of the best finishers I’ve ever worked with and his left foot’s not changed at all from my time at Hearts with him.
“When he’s fully fit, I’ll have no worries about starting him but at the moment the boys that are playing are doing exceptionally well. It’s great for him because it means we don’t need to rush him in. We can work on getting him fitter during the week. For his age, he looks fantastic. He’s been brilliant with the young players – they all look up to him.”
Skacel isn’t the only familiar face aiding Locke’s managerial revival. He has brought in Dave Sykes, the sports scientist from his Hearts and Kilmarnock days, on a part-time basis and Kevin McHattie, the former Jambos and Killie left-back, whom he is adamant is still of Scottish Premiership quality. In addition, his right-hand man is Darren Jackson, the former Hibs and Hearts player, whom he has known as a city rival, a team-mate and a one-time fellow Bonnyrigg resident. The combination of camaraderie and work ethic the pair have fostered within the squad is clear from witnessing a training session at Rovers’ impressive base in Glenrothes. “I’ve been really fortunate to have Darren,” said Locke. “He’s a great link between myself and the players. They’ve really taken to him. I rate him highly as a coach, so I was delighted to get him in.”
Locke is not making any grand boasts about what Raith will do this season, but equally he is reluctant to concede the title to Hibs, whom they face for the first time at Stark’s Park in mid-October. In the meantime, he is eager to follow up Saturday’s rousing 2-0 victory over Dunfermline with another three points away to Dundee United on Saturday.
“We want to emulate the success we had last year [under McKinnon],” he said. “Hibs and Dundee United should be miles ahead of the likes of ourselves and Falkirk, but as a rival manager, I don’t want to say either of those teams will run away with it. We believe we’ve got a really good squad and if we stay injury-free, we believe we can match anybody in this league on our day. We’ve got a huge game at Tannadice on Saturday but if we keep playing the way we have been, we’ll fancy our chances. We’ll definitely be having a go, 100 per cent. The way we’re playing at the minute, there’s no point going there with five across midfield and one up front. One thing I’ve always tried to do as a manager – and it might not always work – is have a go. I’d rather get beat 4-3 than 1-0, which is why we’ve brought in a lot of attack-minded players who can entertain.”