After seven gruelling months of ship-steadying in his first senior managerial role, James McDonaugh is ready to embark on a summer rebuild at Edinburgh City which he hopes will allow them to move away from the League Two relegation zone and closer to the promotion shake-up next term.
Having spent three years as assistant to Peter Houston at Falkirk, the 40-year-old former Hibs youth coach could hardly have asked for a more testing baptism as his own man when, in early October last year, he was invited to take the reins of a City side who had lost ten of their previous 12 matches in all competitions and were staring at the prospect of finishing bottom of the league.
After getting his head around the magnitude of the task and adapting to the demands of managing a part-time team, McDonaugh gradually set about improving the situation and, after some shrewd transfer business, the Ainslie Park side started to pull away from Cowdenbeath at the foot of the table. Although they ended up second bottom, the spectre of being relegated back to the Lowland League had subsided significantly with a couple of months of the campaign to spare.
“It’s been a great learning experience,” said McDonaugh, reflecting on his time in charge of City so far.
“I wasn’t sure when the right time would be to become a manager but after the disappointment of leaving Falkirk, it was nice to feel wanted after being approached by Edinburgh City having not even applied for the job. It was obviously a very difficult first season but it was quite rewarding that we managed to stay in the league with a few games to go. I inherited somebody else’s team and made a number of changes, and we went on quite a good run in 2018.
“I feel we improved the squad overall and without the changes we made during the season we would have struggled to stay in the league.”
City only gained promotion from the Lowland League two years ago and McDonaugh explained that they are a club still adapting to their new environment. Having spent several years in Hibs’ academy prior to his three years in the Championship with Falkirk, the manager admits many aspects of the past season have been eye-opening.
“I’ve got total respect for what the club has done before I came in,” he said. “But with the structure at the club, they were looking to move things on a bit when I came in because they weren’t really used to being in professional football. There are a lot of great volunteers at the club and they probably thought I was a hard taskmaster at times, but that’s no slight on them – I just want to try and raise standards. Everybody at the club has been really good at taking on board ideas I had to try and improve things.
“The most difficult thing was dealing with everything that goes with taking a part-time team. For instance, the players have their own job that comes first, and the football comes second. That’s something I’ve not been used to for a while and it was difficult at first. At the start, I was thinking they’ll need to come up to my levels, but over time I started to manage it and work out the best way to deal with it and get the best out of them. Over the piece, I can’t fault the commitment of the majority of them.
“Every now and then, there were situations that come with part-time football that were hard to get your head round. I could give you a massive list of things that needed improved, from where the players were picked up before games, to the bus they travel in, to a couple of pre-match meals we had before Elgin and Peterhead, to pumping the balls up and getting magnets on the tactics board.
“There are a million little things that you would always take for granted at the top end of the game, and I’m sure your top managers like Neil Lennon and Craig Levein would find it hard to believe some of the things I’m going on about, but the club are wanting to improve as many things as possible.”
That involves upgrading the squad. McDonaugh is grateful to those who helped him stay off the bottom of League Two last season, but City will now go with a new-look team next term as they target improved fortunes following back-to-back campaigns in which they have finished within eight points of bottom-placed Cowdenbeath.
“I’d like to thank the players from last season, they gave us everything they could in terms of keeping the club in the league,” said McDonaugh. “I had a conversation with the board at the end of the season and if all they wanted to do was survive in the league, I’d have been happy to keep those players on because we know they can do it. But the board want to take a wee chance and see if we can push on. I’m not saying we’re going to win the league, but we’d like to move up a couple of places. To do that, I’ve had to move a few guys on and look to freshen things up a bit.
“I feel like I need to roll the dice a bit. I’ll keep maybe half a dozen players in and then see what we can get beyond that. It’s a bit stressful having to rebuild a squad at this stage. You worry about where you’ll end up if you can’t get the ones you want. But at the same time it’s exciting. We’ve just got to build bit by bit. The first phase for me was to keep the team in the league, the second phase would be to improve next season and if we can do that, then look to try and kick on.”
McDonaugh has been able to draw on the advice of former Hearts, Bradford City and Kilmarnock manager Jim Jefferies, who is director of football at City. “We’ve seen before that having a director of football doesn’t always work, but Jim just lets me get on with the football side of things,” said McDonaugh.
“He’s there for an opinion if I need one. When you’re working with a man of his experience, you’d be silly not to tap into it and he’s been very helpful on a number of issues.”