As he prepares to mark the first anniversary of his official appointment as Hearts manager this weekend, it is safe to say Gary Locke has already dealt with more adversity than most bosses have to deal with in an entire career.
He could have sat all the coaching courses in the world and it wouldn’t have braced the driven 38-year-old for the turbulence and brain-frazzling situations he’s had to contend with since being handed the reins on Saturday, March 16 last year.
It is perhaps typical of the magnitude of the task Locke has had to perform in his first managerial job that he was confirmed as boss on the eve of Hearts’ biggest match of last season: the League Cup final against St Mirren.
Things haven’t got any easier since that St Patrick’s Day defeat, with the club’s plunge into administration last summer, wrecking any hopes he had of finding his feet as a “proper manager.”
Instead, he’s had to put up with being judged by the masses, while introducing virtually an entire youth team into Scotland’s elite league. A points deduction, a signing embargo, a host of demoralising defeats, ongoing uncertainty surrounding his trusty assistant, Billy Brown, and, more recently, speculation about his own future are just some of the distracting factors he’s had to cope with.
Yet, after a gruelling year at the helm, he is still here, with his dignity and sanity intact, and is now starting to see an upturn in his young team’s performances. While many less-resilient men would surely have walked by now, Locke has never thought about quitting on the club he has loved since childhood.
“I’ve never thought about walking away,” he told the Evening News as he reflected on a year of virtual fire-fighting. “Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty low Saturday nights, when you think ‘can anything else go wrong?’, but I’m a positive person and I try to learn from those times. I’ll never go home and just accept a defeat, but it’s important that you keep things in perspective.
“I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy. There’s no two ways about it – it’s been difficult. When I took the job there’s no way I could have foreseen everything that was going to happen. It’s been difficult mentally, a real baptism of fire, but hopefully it’s made me a better manager. I certainly look forward to the day when I can be a proper manager and do the things most other managers get to do.”
He hoped that would have happened last summer. After a promising finish to last season, when Locke sparked an upturn of sorts in the league after replacing John McGlynn, the manager set about lining up a host of potential new signings he felt would have helped a young Hearts squad compete at the top end of the Scottish Premiership. Then administration took hold and killed his plans stone dead. “I was thrown right in at the deep end with the cup final and that game was a very big disappointment,” said Locke, “after that it was about trying to consolidate towards the end of the season and then, or so I thought, it would be about rebuilding the squad and bringing in a few experienced players in the summer.
“Any manager will tell you that the summer transfer window is massive in terms of shaping your squad. Before I went my summer holiday, I was told to go and get players in, and I had a few players lined up and ready to sign. I was thinking ‘If we get this player and that player in, we’ll have a really good chance of doing well’. All those plans turned out to be a waste of time. It was a nightmare, really frustrating.”
As well as speculation about his future, with Ann Budge assessing the situation as she prepares to take control of the club if and when it exits administration, Locke has had to contend with the scrutiny that comes with being the figurehead of one of the biggest clubs in the country. While he is endlessly grateful for the sustained backing the club has received from the Hearts fans throughout this demanding season, the manager is philosophical regarding the criticism he has taken from some.
“Every manager gets judged – quite rightly – on results, but most managers have been able to build their own team, bring their own players in and move players on,” he said. “You’ve just got to put up with being judged, though. Every fan in the world has an opinion about what should and shouldn’t happen so you’re never going to please everyone. It’s the same with players – they split opinions in the crowd as well.
“It’s not nice at times, especially when you feel you’re trying to do the job with two hands tied behind your back, but I don’t bother about it too much. I’ve been in the game long enough to know that not everyone will like you. It’s part and parcel of the modern world that everyone can have their say on social media and phone-ins and stuff like that, but you’ve just got to deal with it.”
The all-consuming nature of managing Hearts through the most difficult period in the club’s history has ensured a mentally-testing time for Locke. He is indebted to his strong support network for helping through the tough times, with his wife Lynsey and three young daughters, as well as friends, colleagues and even rival managers helping keep his spirits up.
“I’ve had great support from my wife and kids and the rest of my family,” he explained. “My social life’s non-existent now – you very rarely get time to do anything. But certainly on a Wednesday, if the players are off, I try and make a point of switching off and spending time with Lynsey and my daughters, although the two oldest ones are at school. Even then, it’s difficult because the phone’s still going all day and it’s a hands-on job where you need to be thinking about things all the time. It’s really difficult to switch off. Billy [Brown] has been an enormous help. I speak to Jim Jefferies and Paulo Sergio all the time and a lot of other boys in the game have been great to me. I’ve had a lot of touching phonecalls from managers I’ve been competing with as well, which has been nice. When things are tough, you certainly find out who your friends are. I’ve also got a really good group of friends that I’ve had since my school days and they’re always there to speak to as well.”
Of all the low points to have visited the club over the past year, Locke has no doubt about the nadir. “Getting told the club might not survive, as a Hearts supporter first and foremost ... my heart sank that day,” Locke recalls of that dark day last June when he returned from his summer holiday to see club employees being made redundant. “It was a bleak time to be the manager seeing people I’d known for a long time lose their jobs. It’s hard when everyone’s looking to you and the spotlight’s on you – I certainly wasn’t expecting all that to happen. I came home that night and felt emotionally shattered. I sat with Lynsey and I was close to tears myself. On the football side, I felt sick after the League Cup semi-final [against Inverness last month]. It took me about a week to get over that. It was heartbreaking how we tossed it away.”
It hasn’t all been doom and gloom for Locke, however. Sporadic and unexpected victories, allied to the general improvement of the club’s young players under his guidance, have provided some much-needed solace. “The highlights would be the win against Hibs at the start of the season and, even though it ended in disappointment, getting to the semi-final with such a young team, which was some achievement.
“Seeing the young players getting better has also been great. You take a lot of satisfaction from having a hand in making them better players and better people.”
Locke makes no secret of the fact he would, in an ideal world, rather have been working with a more experienced squad, but he has been buoyed by the remarkable spirit he has been able to generate among an enthusiastic group of players who are all pulling in the same direction. The absence of any ‘bad eggs’ has helped ensure that squad harmony has remained despite the many setbacks Hearts have suffered this season.
“We try to be as positive as we can and make them enjoy coming into training,” said Locke. “We want them to come in with a smile on their face and enjoy playing for Hearts. Since I came back to Hearts as a coach, something that frustrated me was seeing players that I didn’t feel were giving it everything.
“But certainly that couldn’t be labelled at any of the current squad because some made sacrifices to stay and others are giving everything for the cause. They’re the types of people you want to surround yourself with. One of my big frustrations about it, though, is that we’ve not really been able to manage the young players properly.
“You can’t just put them in and expect them to play 40 games in a row, but some of them I’ve not been able to take out the firing line due to circumstances.”
Despite the managerial hardship he’s had to withstand, Locke is intent on still being in charge of Hearts at this time next year. “I’d love to stay on, but we’ll just need to see what happens,” he said. “I’ve spoken to Ann [Budge] and she’s very much waiting for everything to get sorted off the pitch. As I’ve said all along, the most important thing is Heart of Midlothian, not me. If everything gets sorted out in Lithuania, we’re going to get Ann in, which will be great because she’ll run the club properly.
“The most important thing is that we get back to a bit normality with an owner that knows what she’s doing because the last six or seven years have been a bit of a roller-coaster. All I want is for the club to have a bit of stability and for us to be able to talk about Hearts as a football club rather than all the other rubbish that’s been associated with it for the past few years.”