Hibs will encounter a man and a team on a mission this weekend.
James Fowler, operating without a proper assistant in his first management job, has kept Queen of the South buoyant in the top four of an ultra-strong Championship for most of the season so far. Now that his efforts have been rewarded with the increased job security of a two-year contract, the rookie boss isn’t of a mind to let things slip in the campaign’s business end.
“We’ve been in the top four for most of the season so we’d be disappointed if we didn’t finish in the play-offs,” Fowler told the Evening News ahead of his team’s trip to Easter Road on Saturday.
The only problem for Queens is that they appear to have faltered slightly at a time when Falkirk, their main rivals for fourth, are coming on strong. The Bairns sit two points ahead of Queens, who have a game in hand. The Dumfries side will have all their mettle tested over the next week and a bit as their visit to second-place Hibs is followed by back-to-back home games against Rangers and Falkirk.
“It’s a crucial period for us,” said Fowler. “We’ve got a tough run of games coming up, starting with Hibs away. The final quarter was always going to be tough and, with losing to Raith and Hearts in our last two games, we’ve given ourselves a bit of an uphill task. We’re still confident we can get into the play-offs, though.
“I think the battle for fourth will go to the end of the season. Raith have come back into it as well and they play Falkirk this weekend so they probably need to win that one if they’re to have any opportunity. Hopefully that could be a result that goes in our favour and if we can pick up anything against Hibs, that would give us confidence for our game against Rangers next week.”
Hibs have lost their last two games, allowing Rangers to move level with them in the battle for second, but Fowler is braced for a formidable test this weekend.
“They’ve been on a good run apart from their last couple of results,” said the Queens manager. “I don’t think anyone saw the Rangers result coming the way the teams were playing at the time. And we found out ourselves how hard it can be going to Raith Rovers. Even then, by all accounts Hibs played well and probably could have beaten Raith so they’ll still be confident. From the reports we’ve had, they’re still looking strong and they’ll be looking to bounce back against us.
The introduction of the play-offs last season has breathed new life into Scotland’s tier. The neck-and-neck battle between Hibs and Rangers for second place, and the scrap between Queens and Falkirk for fourth are now the focus of attention.
“The play-offs have been great for this league,” said Fowler. “If we didn’t have them it would have been a nightmare scenario for the league and for the teams because Hearts would already have run away with it. It gives the likes of ourselves an opportunity to get in there. Hamilton showed last season that anything can happen in the play-offs because the pressure’s usually on the bigger teams.”
If Fowler, 34, can emulate former Hamilton player-manager Alex Neil and lead a surprise package like Queens up through the perils of the play-offs, his stock level will soar. Initially installed as caretaker manager when Jim McIntyre left for Ross County last September, the former Kilmarnock player was then handed the reigns until the end of this season. This week, however, he was rewarded for his promising start to management with a contract extension until 2016.
“I was delighted to get the contract sorted,” he admitted. “There’s always a bit of uncertainty in football, so this puts my mind at rest and allows me to start planning for next season. The board have been open about it and we’d been speaking about it for a while. They were obviously pleased with how I’d done so it was just a case of getting things tied up. There was never going to be any complications on my side. It was just a matter of finding the time to get it sorted.”
Remarkably, Fowler has worked his first seven months in management without the aid of a recognised assistant. Now that his own future has been sorted, he intends to recruit a right-hand man in the coming months. “Jim Thomson [a former Queens player] had been helping me earlier in the season but he had work commitments,” explained Fowler. “Paul Burns, who has been injured, and Kenny Arthur, the goalkeeping coach, have been helping me out.
“I’ve been looking throughout the season but it’s a difficult time to get someone in because most people are in jobs. I’ll be hoping to get that sorted out over the summer.
“I don’t know what it’s like to have an assistant but I’m sure it’ll make my like easier. It will be good to have someone there to bounce ideas off and to take some of the workload off me.
“The job’s been great but it kind of takes over your life. I don’t really see my wife and kids so much and I’m constantly travelling about. I live in Larbert but I can be down in Dumfries for 20s games, out and about watching other 20s games, planning training – it’s constant but it’s great.
“It’s probably come sooner than I’d imagined, I was kind of thrown in at the deep end. It’s been really challenging but I feel I’ve done well for my first job, considering I’ve not really had a backroom team.”
Fowler is down as a player-manager, but due to his workload, the playing side of things has been put on the back-burner. He hasn’t kicked a ball for the first team since October. “I’m still registered,” he said. “Once the assistant role gets filled, I’ll look to keep myself ticking over just in case I’m needed in an emergency.”