Overlooking the indoor astrodome where Hearts hone some of Scotland’s best young talent, Liam Fox looks a contented man.
It is his job to coach prodigious teenagers like Harry Cochrane, Anthony McDonald, Andy Irving and Euan Henderson every day. The aim is to transform them into first-team mainstays and, in time, sellable assets. Fox is therefore a vital cog in the Riccarton production line.
Three years ago he cut short his playing career at Raith Rovers aged 31 to join Hearts as an academy coach. He forged relationships with youth players and helped prepare them for first-team football. After spending ten months dipping his toe into management waters at Cowdenbeath, Fox is now back to finish the job.
He is one third of manager Craig Levein’s staff alongside assistant coach Austin MacPhee and first-team coach Jon Daly. A midfielder to trade, Fox came through Hearts’ youth programme himself before joining Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 2004. That insight is now proving invaluable as he focuses on nurturing an exciting new generation.
“My role changed when I came back from Cowdenbeath,” he says in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I started working with the first team alongside Ian [Cathro] and Austin. When Craig took over I kept this role and it’s great. You’re on the training pitch every day with some really good players and you’ve also got the young kids coming through. I’ve been fortunate to be in the system with these lads for a few years now and I’m really enjoying my job.
“I think it helps them. Myself, Jon and Kirky [Under-20 coach Andy Kirk] have been involved with them for a number of years at different levels. There is a relationship already in place and they benefit from that. It’s good to have that continuity. We know what buttons to press with them, we know what we can and can’t say to them.
“The thing is, we need to remember they’re still young boys. It’s about pushing them and continuing to improve them. We don’t want them to be satisfied with a couple of first-team games. We want them to get in the team and stay there. They have to live their lives correctly and train right every day. They’ve got some great older pros to look at like Christophe Berra, Don Cowie, etc. It’s about creating an environment for them.
“The older ones know their bodies, know what they need and know what they can and can’t do on the training pitch. The younger ones need a lot of work. They need to practice constantly so, by default, you find yourself doing more work with the younger ones. Part of my job is making them better. We identify areas they need to work on and sometimes they come to us and say: ‘I want to get better at this or that.’
“If they want to stay out on the training pitch, we’re basically here every hour of every day anyway so we can facilitate that. I include the likes of John Souttar and Connor Randall in that. Everybody wants to get better and that’s the kind of culture we need to keep promoting.
“You only get one crack at this so we need to do everything to help the youngsters make the best of it. Don’t walk out of the door saying: ‘I wish I’d done this differently.’ If that’s the case, then we haven’t done our jobs properly. The boys have to take responsibility as well, though.”
Fox insists he evolved as a person and coach despite a harrowing time in charge at Cowdenbeath. At the time of leaving Riccarton in May 2016, he was viewed as a potential future Hearts head coach. The experiment in Fife didn’t go as planned and Fox resigned in March 2017 with Cowdenbeath bottom of League Two and facing a third successive relegation. Ironically, it was former Hearts manager Gary Locke who stepped in to prevent them dropping into the Lowland League with a play-off victory against East Kilbride.
Fox has no regrets. “It was the best thing I did,” he says. “I wanted to test myself and come out of my comfort zone. I had to build a relationship with my chairman, recruit players and then make decisions at three o’clock on a Saturday. So that brings pressure. The experience was massive. I walked out of that place far better for it.
“I had to deal with a lot of things off the pitch which highlighted the difference in people’s mentalities and the different level we were at. I know there’s a stigma attached when you go somewhere and it doesn’t work out, but I left Cowdenbeath as a better person, a more understanding person and a far better coach.
“I can put my head on the pillow at night knowing I tried everything I possibly could. Absolutely everything. There is that perception which comes with it but you have to believe in yourself. If I don’t believe I can get to the highest level, nobody else will.
“It also helped clarify things for me if I get that opportunity again. It’s not something I’m rushing to do because I really enjoy working here. I like putting training sessions on and interacting with the players. I think that’s where I’m best. I’m also very fortunate that Hearts was the club I supported as a boy. I played here as a kid and I never thought I would get back to this place, so to come here to work every day is massive for me.”
The plan was always for him to return to Hearts, for he was effectively loaned out as a coach. A verbal agreement meant he knew he had a job regardless what happened at Central Park.
“I was always coming back. That made it easier leaving Cowdenbeath,” he recalls. “I had to deal with the disappointment personally and rebuild my confidence a wee bit as well. The benefits far outweigh the negatives for me, though. The biggest thing was that what’s really important at Hearts is not really important at Cowdenbeath because of the different statures. Things are so different.
“The experience clarified how I want to be as a coach, the demands I put on players and the standards I look for.”
The aspiration to manage is still there, although it has been tempered somewhat.
“It’s something I fight with inside myself. I’m still young and I think I’ve improved since I started. Do I want to do it again? Possibly. At the moment I’m happy being on the training pitch making players better. Some aspects of management I didn’t really enjoy but ask any manager and they’ll say the same. Sometimes I fight with myself and say: ‘Don’t you just want to go and be the very best coach you can be?’ It’s not something I need to answer right now. To make these decisions you need an opportunity to arise. Until then, I’ve got a fantastic job with a club very close to my heart and I work with great people.”
Levein has spoken openly of the long-term coaching pathway at Hearts. His plan is to promote coaches from within the club when a manager leaves – something which persuaded Fox to retire from playing.
“That was one of the reasons I stopped playing. I was thinking of what I wanted to do next and the chance to work at Hearts made the decision to retire much easier. Stevie Crawford, Robbie Neilson and Jack Ross were here and they’re people I would call my mates. Add in the fact that you have the opportunity to move up the ladder, plus I’ve learned from Ian Cathro when he was here and I’m learning every day from Craig Levein now.
“I don’t want to be any of them. I want to be me and be really good at what I’m doing in my own way.”