Owen Coyle’s recommendation helped Hearts sign the American internationalist Perry Kitchen last year. He enjoys a cordial relationship with Craig Levein, who he describes as the ideal man to manage at Tynecastle. However, Coyle won’t be as charitable this weekend on his home debut as Ross County manager.
Hearts visit Dingwall for his second game in charge and Coyle is complimentary about everything relating to the Edinburgh club. Whilst managing Houston Dynamo, a call from Levein saw him pen a letter as part of Hearts’ UK work permit application for Kitchen, who they signed from the MLS club DC United in March 2016.
Ties with Levein remain strong but Coyle has arrived in the Highlands with a mandate to keep Ross County in the Ladbrokes Premiership. There is no room for any more nice gestures towards Hearts or anyone else.
The Ross and Cromarty region is known as scenic and remote, although a jolt of excitement coursed through the area when the County chairman Roy MacGregor announced 51-year-old Coyle as his new manager two weeks ago. He is the first man to take charge at the Global Energy Stadium who harbours experience of managing in England’s Premier League.
He is ready to call on that knowledge and, despite running to their aid previously, aims to dump Hearts on Saturday to give his new club their first home league win of the campaign.
“We have a wonderful club with a great infrastructure in terms of training facilities and everything for the players,” explains Coyle. “Are Ross County a community club? Yes. That doesn’t stop you being ambitious and striving to improve.
“I’m not one of these managers who come in and start mumping and moaning about everything that’s happened, or throw people under the bus. Far from it. There has been a fantastic amount of good work done at Ross County by a lot of good managers over the years.
“What myself and the staff have to do is build on that and look to become better and more consistent. Everybody would concede there’s a gap between Celtic and the rest but you’ve got big city clubs like Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen and Rangers vying for top places.
“Hearts have some top players in that squad and I’ve no doubts they will be at the business end fighting for those top places.”
A central reason for Coyle’s faith in Saturday’s visitors is Levein. Rumours were that Coyle himself applied to manage Hearts after Ian Cathro’s sacking during the summer. He believes Levein is the perfect appointment.
“When jobs come up, agents put your name in. You know the structure at Hearts,” he continues. “Myself and Sandy Stewart, my assistant, work everywhere together. Wherever I go, Sandy is with me. Hearts were always going to keep their same structure in place. That’s all I would say.
“Hearts have the right man in charge to take them forward. Craig loves that club and he’s a very good manager so there’s no issue. I think he was the perfect choice for Hearts. He has a terrific knowledge of the game. He’s worked at the very highest level in England and at international level. He’s also been successful in Scotland so it was the ideal choice.
“I spoke to Craig when I was in America about Perry Kitchen. I’d put a letter in to help with the work permit, giving my opinion on what Perry brought to the MLS as an international player. I actually tried to sign him. All the MLS teams wanted him because he’s a wonderful player and a really good guy, but he wanted to try playing in Europe.
“American kids want that experience of playing European football and Hearts are a big club with a fantastic support. I thought it would be a very good fit. I know Perry has moved on but I thought he would do well at Hearts. He’s wholehearted, he wears his heart on his sleeve and he’s got good ability.”
Kitchen was sold to the Danish club Randers in July after falling out of favour under Cathro. If he is trying to rejuvenate his career across the North Sea, he has something in common with Coyle. The former Republic of Ireland striker guided unfancied Burnley into the English Premier League in 2009 but since then posts at Bolton, Wigan, Houston and Blackburn haven’t yielded the success he craves.
With the backing of MacGregor, he hopes to rekindle that winning feeling in Dingwall. “I’ve known Roy from my time on loan here as a player,” he says. “I’m 51 now but, whether you’re 51 or 35, it’s important to have a relationship with your chairman. You need that to be successful and that was a huge part of why I came here.
“We played very well to win the first game 2-0 at Kilmarnock but Ross County need to start winning home games. We haven’t won at home in the league this season. The sooner we do that the better. We have a really difficult task against a very good Hearts side.
“Had we lost at Kilmarnock, we’d have been bottom of the league. Our target is to win games and lift ourselves up the table. We also need to have a plan in place for the big picture and look at the end game. We want to enhance what was done here previously.
“Why can’t Ross County be successful? We think we can. It doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t wave a magic wand or sprinkle fairy dust. It takes hard work, repetition on the training ground and good players. We have a chance to asses the squad, they’re working very hard, and then maybe look to do something in January.”
Such a high-profile arrival has created excitement among Ross County fans despite the popularity of Jim McIntyre, who engineered the club’s memorable League Cup win just last year.
“It’s always nice to feel wanted but it doesn’t matter who comes through the doors. You will be judged on what you do,” says Coyle. “We want to win but equally be pleasing on the eye. My teams have always been entertaining and we have to make sure that’s the case again.
“I’ve been in football a long time and things have happened to me where you think: ‘How did that come about?’ The reason this job came about was because this club hadn’t been winning. If people make changes, it doesn’t make it right or wrong. It’s just a decision.
“When that decision was made, the chairman called me and asked if I’d be interested. Then you need to weigh up the merits of what’s involved. Any manager who has been here will tell you the chairman has supported them all.
“Jimmy Mac and Billy Dodds are good pals of mine. We played together. The chairman has always supported his managers so I thought I would get that backing. Then you can put your stamp on things.”
He intends to start on Saturday in front of a partisan crowd. “I remember playing against Hearts in the Scottish Cup semi-final for Airdrie when we beat them on penalties. I’ve got to say, the level of support and the singing from the Hearts fans stuck in my mind. It’s a proper set of football supporters, so I think it will be a very good atmosphere here.”