This time last year few would have bet on Darren Dods seeing out his first season as a manager. Even the newly-appointed boss of Brechin City admits that at one point he feared the sack was inevitable as he endured an unrelenting battle against relegation from League One.
The odds were most definitely stacked heavily against the former Hibs defender as he quickly began to run out of games with just two wins to his name from the beginning of October to the end of February, a run of 18 games which culminated in successive 4-1 defeats by Albion Rovers and Peterhead,
But, incredibly, the Glebe Park outfit’s fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better, a 4-0 win at home against one of their relegation rivals Forfar Athletic in which Dods himself scored, just one of eight of the final ten fixtures won to steer the club not only clear of the drop but even the lottery of a play-off.
Today player-manager Dods has made the most of that great escape, Brechin separated from the top of the table only on goal difference from Jack Ross’ Alloa Athletic and a point ahead of Livingston, affording the 41-year-old, even at this early stage of the season, the opportunity of talking of keeping his side “in that top three, top four conversation”.
“It’s quite a change from this time last year,” admitted Dods, “We didn’t win until we were seven games in and by then we were also out of the Challenge and League Cups. It got to the stage where we were ten points behind Cowdenbeath and Forfar, who had a game in hand. We were getting cut adrift.
“We were always chasing the teams above us, we were in a poor position. I’d been leaving myself out of the team, but I decided if I was going to be sacked I’d be sacked playing. We won that game and the next three, but the problem was that as we picked up points so, too, were the teams above us.
“It wasn’t a case of winning to get off the bottom – it was to get a bit closer to second bottom. I did worry that my time might be up, that as we were heading towards relegation the club might try to freshen things up by bringing in a new manager. That would have been really disappointing, to have made the mistakes I know I made and not to have the chance to put it right.”
Eight goals in as many games from Robert Thomson did Brechin’s hopes of survival no harm at all, the striker taking his tally for the season to 15, helping lift his club to seventh and attracting the attention of Championship outfit Dumbarton, who signed him over the summer.
Dods, though, did his own recruiting, quickly making moves to bring in the experienced Alan Trouten and Dougie Hill, while their boss, now with 50 games as a manager behind him, believes he’s continuing to learn how to cope with the role.
He said: “Things weren’t looking good for long spells last season so I’m just trying to get a good season under my belt and try to progress each year. Obviously I want to try and progress Brechin and see how far we can go. You’re never sure what will happen, a few bad results and people are saying you are under pressure.
“That’s just the way it goes, but obviously gaining experience is important. Some managers have been doing it for 800 games, I’ve been doing it for 50. Let’s just see what happens. Obviously we didn’t want to be isolated at the bottom of the league like we were last season, but we probably thought we’d have a few wins on the board and be mid-table just now, so it’s been better than we expected.
“Being through what happened last season is always at the back of your mind. You don’t want to go back to that, we want to keep things going, to be competitive. But we know we are up against the likes of Alloa and Livingston who were relegated from the Championship – Livingston and Airdrie both being full-time teams in our league.”
Revealing this will probably be his last season as a registered player, Dods – who clocked up more than 400 games as a full-time professional with Hibs, St Johnstone, Inverness Caley, Dundee United and Inverness Caley – admitted two seasons of part-time football with Forfar helped prepare him for his current job where he has former Hibs team-mate Lee Bailey as his right hand man, the Easter Road connection strengthened further with the likes of goalkeeper Graeme Smith, defender Darren McCormack and striker Ross Caldwell in his squad.
The former Scotland B cap said: “When I came towards the end of my career I thought, ‘I’ll do my coaching badges and see what happens after that’, so I always had that option there.
“I was never sure how it was going to pan out, if it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. But fortunately I managed to get the job at Brechin.
“I think if I’d just come straight from full-time football, I would’ve found management in the lower leagues tougher, but my two years at Forfar gave me a really good insight into how part-time football works.
“Obviously a lot of players have to combine jobs and often arrive after work, and things come up like you wouldn’t believe, weddings, family holiday, so it was a good insight. Also working under Dick Campbell at Forfar helped as well.
“He worked at part-time clubs for years and I saw the way he dealt with it and the problems it can throw up. Last year, being player-manager and playing week in, week out whilst managing was pretty tough, but we managed to soldier through and managed to stay up.”
Now Dods views matches from the touchline, having yet to step from the bench although, he revealed, he’s keeping himself in shape should an emergency arise. He said: “I played 23 games last season, more than I expected. But now I have four or five centre-halves and I haven’t had to bring myself on yet.
“However, I still join in the training, I’ve played in a few friendlies so I’ve kept myself ticking over in case I am called on. But this, I imagine, will be my last season registered to play.”