The top of Scotland’s Championship is breeding ambitious and progressive young coaches who are thriving in their first season in management.
Everyone loves a hands-on “tracksuit” coach, be it a Bill Shankly-type icon or an unknown thirtysomething seeking to make a first impression. In Robbie Neilson, James Fowler, Alan Stubbs and others, Scotland’s second tier is developing coaches based on that very model.
Hearts are top of the league, nine points clear and unbeaten, with 34-year-old Neilson in charge. Queen of the South sit third after appointing Fowler, also 34, to replace Jim McIntyre in September. Hibs, after a slow start, are gathering momentum in fourth under the tutelage of 43-year-old Stubbs. All three are in senior management for the first time. Others like Dumbarton’s Ian Murray are also forging solid reputations.
While top-flight clubs will invariably seek a manager with experience, many in the Championship have given first-time opportunities to coaches with the right ambition and philosophy. Often they promote from within, as Hearts and Queen of the South did with Neilson and Fowler. Those two meet at Tynecastle this weekend in a face off between two young coaches who want to develop and progress themselves, their players and their clubs.
The approach is working. Hearts, Queen of the South and Hibs are all inside the top four play-off slots thanks to their new breed of manager. “It’s maybe changed days with clubs looking for something a bit different and maybe a wee bit younger,” said Fowler. “You think back to Paul Hartley’s work at Alloa, Derek McInnes has emerged, Jackie McNamara, and Ian Murray at Dumbarton as well. Clubs are going down that route, sometimes with people who have worked with them before.
“Robbie was at Hearts and they promoted him, a bit like myself. I was here helping Jim McIntyre before getting this role. It’s great to see younger people who are maybe coming to the end of their careers and wanting to coach. They do courses and take teams in their own time to get some experience and get ready for when an opportunity comes along.
“The older managers used to look for money and things to bring players in. I think, when you’re a younger manager and you get an opportunity, you’re happy to work with what you’ve got and maybe do more on the training pitch as well. We’re going down that route now. Rather than managers, it’s more younger coaches coming through and trying to improve. If you’ve got an interest in youths or have that as your background, clubs see that as the way forward because they want their own players in the first team.”
Fowler is still getting comfortable in the manager’s chair at Palmerston Park. He left Kilmarnock in June to join Queen of the South as player/coach. Three months later he was appointed player/manager following McIntyre’s departure to Ross County. The transition has been seamless with Queens tucked nicely in third place and going about their business quietly and efficiently. Just the way Fowler wants it.
He takes his team to Tynecastle on the back of a seven-game unbeaten run, but don’t let anyone go shouting about it. “Robbie and I are similar ages so I’ve known him from our younger days. He’s done really well getting Hearts to the top of the league without losing. He’s had a great start and it’s good to see. Queen of the South were looking for a bit of continuity. I was here as part of the staff and I spoke to them and gave them my ideas. They were happy with what they heard and wanted me to take the team forward.
“It’s early doors but we’ve been on a good run and we’re looking to bring one or two of the younger players through. We want to show there is a path there for progression because I think there’s nothing worse, as a young boy, and you don’t see an opportunity to move forward no matter how you’re doing.
“We’re seven games unbeaten now with five wins and two draws. Not too much has been mentioned about it and we’re quite happy with that. Come the end of the season, hopefully we’re getting plaudits but nothing has been achieved yet. It’s only December. We have a points target and we’re on schedule for that. We want to keep hitting targets for ourselves and look after our own club. Hopefully that sees us still in that top four at the end of the season, which would be massive for us. As Hamilton showed last year, anything can happen once you’re in the play-offs.”
Are there similarities between himself, Neilson and Stubbs and the way they are making the most of their opportunities? “I’ve got my own ideas but I’ve taken things from everybody,” said Fowler. “It’s been great so far, the club have backed me in anything I’ve wanted to do. Results play a massive part in that. When you’re getting results, everybody is happy and things are hunky dory. You can maybe get a bit of leeway here and there.”
Performances matter too. Queen of the South lost 3-0 when Hearts visited Palmerston at the start of October but were the better team by some distance in the first half. It was Fowler’s first match in charge. “We were quite comfortable and then Osman Sow scored a wonder goal. There was a bit of debate about whether it was over the line and we lost concentration, then we lost a quick second goal before half-time. That killed the game a wee bit but a few of the boys have played at Tynecastle before and I’ve been there many times. It’s a great place to play football.”
It will be another chapter in Fowler’s learning curve, which is already showing a steep incline. He served a solid grounding in coaching over the previous five years before being fast-tracked down in Dumfries. “As I got older playing at Killie, I started going on B Licence courses and things. That was around 2009,” he recalled.
“I was speaking to Donald Park [SFA head of coach education] and they were really wanting players to be hands-on with teams and get experience. I asked Alan Robertson [Kilmarnock Under-20s coach] if I could help him in afternoons or on days off. I would go in and help when I could and he let me organise things and give team-talks. He was a really big help in getting me ready for the next step.
“That worked out well for me coming here because I got thrown in at the deep end at Queen of the South. I was working with the under-20s and then suddenly I had to go straight and deal with first-team players and speak to them. Having that experience made it a bit easier.
“Jim left six weeks into the season and it has been a whirlwind but it’s gone okay. The team were doing well so nothing major needed changed. It was a big jump up but we have a good bunch of boys and that’s made it an easy transition for me. They organise themselves, even down to going to the gym after training and things. They don’t need to be asked.”