CHAMPIONS League nights with Hearts should have been the pinnacle of Calum Elliot’s career. With hindsight, European football against clubs like AEK Athens came too soon to be properly appreciated by a 19-year-old suffering from chronic shyness.
Ten years on, Elliot is now enjoying what he considers to be his biggest footballing highlight – managing Edinburgh United. He is very much at the coal face, sweeping out dressing-rooms, helping committee members and generally doing everything to battle against relegation from the McBookie.com East Premier League.
The humble surroundings of the Junior game are giving Elliot, now 29, a grounding in management. He has aspirations to grow his club, establish a proper youth development policy and eventually progress into full-time coaching. What he doesn’t want is to run before he can walk.
Slugging it out at Paties Road with the Bathgate Thistles and Lochee Uniteds of this world is exactly where Elliot wants to be.
“I won’t expect too much too soon. That’s probably what happened when I played,” he admits in an exclusive interview. “I went in and played at a good level too soon. I wasn’t ready for it mentally and I don’t want to do that again. I want to get a good grounding in management because I’m still young.
“I was still an immature boy at Hearts. I didn’t enjoy it when people came up to me and tried to speak to me. I was very shy. I was uncomfortable with the things that came along with fame, to an extent. I just couldn’t deal with it and I preferred it when I didn’t have to deal with it.
“Going away abroad [he played in Lithuania for 14 months with Zalgiris Vilnius], I didn’t need to deal with it. I had a lifestyle where people didn’t know who you were and that was the best thing which could’ve happened to me.
“In hindsight, it was too soon. I was lucky enough to play with some good players and work with good managers. I can’t complain. I had some good times with Hearts. I’d like to think I’d have done better given more time to mature. I tried my best and later on, due to injuries, it probably wasn’t enough, but you learn from your mistakes.”
He admits he will make more of them as a young manager learning his trade. Crucially, he feels better equipped to learn from them.
“There are only four people on the committee at Edinburgh United. I try to help them. This is the best experience I’ve had in football without a shadow of a doubt. I’ve learned so much from it. It’s given me the push to realise I want to do this long-term and hopefully I get a chance to do it full-time. For now, I want to spend as much time as possible with my family.”
Daughter Jessica was born four weeks ago and Elliot is very much the devoted father. He spends his weekdays with her and, in his own words, intends to “cherish every moment”. Edinburgh United train Tuesday and Thursday nights, so there is plenty family time in between.
“One thing I always wanted to be was a dad and to have my own family. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” says the former striker. “The lack of sleep isn’t easy but I wouldn’t change it. It hasn’t changed my long-term plans because I always wanted to have a baby at this age. I’ve got more of a life now. It’s different from when I was training every day and that’s probably the life I wanted.”
Most footballers who transcend into management will tell you it doesn’t come close to matching their playing days. Elliot is one of the exceptions and makes no secret of the fact he is a far more contented individual these days.
“I probably enjoy coaching more. I’m hoping to eventually go to as high a level as possible. It won’t happen overnight but I think it will happen given time, experience and learning from mistakes I’ll undoubtedly make.”
Relegation remains possible with Edinburgh United third bottom of the league. They appointed Elliot last autumn after he announced early retirement from playing due to persistent knee problems.
His positive outlook means he is more than prepared to go down. The chance to set firm foundations for United’s future sparks genuine passion within the manager. His voice goes up a notch when discussing the visions in his mind.
“If we were to go down we could rebuild next season and start a young team up. That will benefit the club in the long term, to have its own youth system in place and bring through their own players. I don’t think Junior clubs give enough young boys a chance.
“Eight or nine of our under-17s have played in our first team this season and come on a lot because of it. They’ve made mistakes but they will be better players for it.
“I think that, in an around Edinburgh, there has to be a pathway for these boys. There’s no point in me bringing players in who are looking for a wee bit of money to pay off their holiday or something. I’d rather bring in young boys who are ambitious and want to push themselves on.
“I want to enjoy being part of something here and I want to lay foundations for when I eventually move on. You want a system in place where players can be brought through from within the club but that takes time to establish and it’s a lot of hard work. If it comes off, it’s something that can bring years of benefit going forward into the future.
“I’d like to build something for this club so that, when I leave, they can say: ‘He’s actually done quite a good job’. I’m ambitious but I need experience and this is the best grounding to have.
“I’ve been lucky to experience good set-ups at Hearts and abroad. Now I have to do everything.
“It’s not just a case of turning up to training twice a week. I have to go to meetings and things, which I probably wouldn’t have been comfortable with before but I’ve grown into it. I won’t set unrealistic targets for myself.”