PART-TIME youth coach. Full-time youth coach. Player development manager. Helping manager and assistant manager at first-team level. Darren Murray has performed every role he realistically could at Hearts.
The process of clearing out his desk at Riccarton is hard but necessary, for he is heading to England with the intention of one day becoming a manager in his own right.
Leaving is a huge wrench for a lifelong Hearts supporter like Murray. He has played an integral part in developing some of Hearts’ biggest assets in recent years. He helped identify and sign a young Christophe Berra, who made the club over £2million in a transfer to Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2009. He oversaw Ryan McGowan’s progress from raw Australian teenager to international defender before he joined Shandong Luneng Taishan in China for around £400,000. There have been many others.
Murray’s new post as under-18 coach with Coventry City begins early next month after he works a month’s notice at Hearts like another standard employee. The move opens a new chapter in his coaching career at the age of 43. He is eager to impress in England’s wide open landscape after feeling stifled recently in the goldfish bowl that is Scottish football. He is determined to repay the faith of the Coventry manager Steven Pressley. Ultimately, he wants to progress and become his own man.
“That was the first question Steve Waggott, Coventry’s development director, asked me,” explained Murray, speaking exclusively to the Evening News for a farewell interview. “Where did I see myself in a few years’ time? I was very honest with him. I told him I’m very ambitious and I want my players and staff around me to be very ambitious. I said I want to be a manager. In Scotland, it was becoming very difficult for somebody like myself. I didn’t play football professionally for any real length of time.
“I had a brief spell playing at Falkirk but I’m hoping I can inspire other young coaches who have not played at the highest level that they can achieve things in football with a will, a determination and a philosophy. Young up-and-coming coaches who have a desire and a hunger to better themselves, and who show initiative in the way they coach, can get overlooked. I was always going to find it difficult to get a job in Scotland. Steven Pressley phoned me out of the blue and offered me this position and I was delighted to accept. I think England is quite a good place just now. Their academy set-up is very good. If I can go down there and do a good job for the manager with the same philosophy, hopefully we can form a good bond there.
“The manager is doing a fantastic job. I watched Coventry against Sheffield United the other week and his tactics were spot on. His philosophy was clear and he’s very meticulous. Steven loves getting small details into the game and that’s something I’ve worked on for years with players. Get the small things right and big things happen. This is a new chapter in my life and my family’s life. I’ll be without them until they move down next summer so that will be a new experience for me. I’m really excited about the challenge ahead. At Hearts, the challenge wasn’t there for me any more. I know I could do the job at Hearts. I’d done all the jobs apart from the first team. I’ve coached the under-19s, under-20s and reserves and there was nothing really left for me to do there. There was no other option when Steven approached me.
“I went down and spoke with Steven, with Steve Waggott, Neil MacFarlane and all the staff. They were so welcoming. I’ve looked at their philosophy and, having known Steven Pressley’s philosophy for a long time, it’s very similar to mine. That’s one of the big attractions.”
Yet Murray is leaving behind an awful lot. He has been a permanent fixture within the Hearts youth system since 1999 and has built up memories which will last forever. “Being involved in the Scottish Cup final when we beat our biggest rivals 5-1 was something very special. We had a number of academy graduates on the pitch that day, which made it even better,” he said.
“My own derby record in youth matches against Hibs is something I take a lot of satisfaction from. I’ve only been beaten once in seven years with the under-19s and under-20s, which is great for me as a Hearts supporter. Watching the young players playing in the first team is also one of the biggest buzzes you can get. I feel I’ve developed over a number of years and turned into a thinking coach and a modern-day coach. I like to look at different trends in the game. I’ve looked at Barcelona. Now it’s more the German model so you’re watching how they develop players. I try to develop players in a different style and I’ve developed my own training programme based around how we play. I’ve never had much help with that, it’s just my own thoughts. I’d like to think that’s what makes me different.”
Of course, not all his recollections are pleasant ones. “My biggest disappointment was the day Hearts went into administration. I saw girls I’d known for years who had been there such a long time lose their jobs. It was devastating, a really terrible day. It was my first experience of administration and it seemed that the ones on the lowest pay got sacked. Whether that’s the right thing or not isn’t for me to say, but it was a horrible afternoon at Tynecastle and something I’ll never forget.”
Murray hesitates when asked who is the finest player he has ever coached within the Riccarton youth academy. This season has seen more graduates than ever reach first-team level following Hearts’ financial collapse. It brings him so much personal contentment, a feeling that all the toil and graft has been worth it. But did anyone rise above the others? “Jason Holt was exceptional the last season I had him at under-19 level,” said Murray after much deliberation. “I think Sam Nicholson could become the best player because he is fantastic. But there are so many, like the King brothers and Jamie Walker, Scott Robinson, Ryan McGowan and Jordan McGhee. Without all the players believing in the philosophy I had and carrying out that philosophy on the pitch, I wouldn’t have got this opportunity at Coventry. I owe them all a massive thanks.
“I’m also due thanks to Gordon Paterson the kit man, John Yule the under-20s kit man, Stevie Hutchison our video analysis guy, Ronnie McGregor the physio, and John Hillard my sports scientist. Without all the youth coaches down the age groups, the young players don’t come through to me. They deserve a mention as well. Chris Smith, the under-17s coach, has been brilliant and I want to mention Bill Smith as well, one of the club historians.
“I want to wish Gary Locke, Billy Brown, John Murray and all the backroom staff all the best in their quest to keep Hearts in the Scottish Premiership. I’m leaving on good terms with all of them. I’m desperate to see Hearts stay in this league but I think the supporters would agree that having a Heart of Midlothian Football Club next year is the most important thing.
“It would be massive for Foundation of Hearts to get control and put Hearts supporters in charge who want to take the club forward. The supporters have been nothing short of magnificent and it’s been a privilege to be here at a time when they have kept the club alive.”