While Hearts draw praise for a perfect start to the season, two former Tynecastle employees are working similar wonders just across the River Forth.
Allan Johnston and Sandy Clark have revitalised Dunfermline, who lead League One after scoring 13 goals in their opening two matches. Factor in the 5-1 League Cup mauling of Cowdenbeath plus a 4-1 Petrofac Cup win over Arbroath, and the effect of the Johnston/Clark axis becomes clear.
Thumping Cowdenbeath 7-1 at East End Park at the weekend merely confirmed Dunfermline’s status as a club on the rise once more. The financial woes brought by the 2013 descent into administration are gradually lifting. On the training pitch, Johnston and Clark are rebuilding confidence levels – quicker than even they expected.
“The scoring margins have amazed me, I’ve got to say,” admitted Clark. “The lads have applied themselves and worked really hard on the training ground – on fitness, tactical stuff and sports science. They looked good going into the first game, but it’s astonished me the amount of goals we’ve scored. I can’t see that continuing if I’m being honest.
“If we win 1-0, that’s good enough, but we’ll enjoy it while it’s going well. The supporters are loving it and getting behind the team. It’s very early days, though, so nobody is getting carried away. I’ve said to the players to enjoy it while they can because it won’t always be as good as this. We’ve had a good start, but we’ve only played two of 36 league games. It’s certainly a good place to work at this moment in time.”
Also as manager and assistant, Johnston and Clark won the old Second Division title in charge of Queen of the South in 2013. Clark was assistant to Darren Young last year when Albion Rovers triumphed in League Two. Dunfermline is intended as more of a longer-term project, with the ultimate aim to return the club to Scotland’s top flight.
“Dunfermline have been underachieving for a period of time due to the financial situation. The club has now bottomed out and it’s time to move on. Dunfermline wouldn’t be out of place in the top league in Scotland, would they? This is my third time working here and both times before they were in the top flight. That is the long-term plan, to get back there, but there are a lot of obstacles in the road before we get there.
“We’ve certainly signed good players and brought a bit of quality into the team, allied to the good players who were left from last year. We look like we’ve got a decent mixture and the guys have blended incredibly quick. That’s why we’ve had a good start.
“There’s a lot of pressure on us to win the league. It’s okay trying to look further ahead but it can only be one step at a time. All we’re planning on is doing the best we can to win the league this year. We’ve signed good players – Joe Cardle has been at Dunfermline before, Michael Paton we knew from Queen of the South – so we’ve done our homework. It’s early days, but the new arrivals have settled in very quickly.”
The potential is undeniable. The East End Park crowd for Saturday’s Fife derby with Cowdenbeath – which Dunfermline won 7-1 to top the 5-1 League Cup win over their rivals – was in excess of 4,000 people. Some clubs in Scotland’s top league cannot command such numbers, but Dunfermline are attracting fans in the third tier.
“With the size of the club and the fact we’re the only full-time club in this league, there are similarities to when Allan and I went to Queen of the South a few years ago,” recalled Clark. “It’s all about players and we worked really hard to target the right players we thought could be of benefit to us. We’re really pleased with the squad, but we’re still a bit short on numbers because we only have 15 outfield players. We could do with adding a couple before the transfer window closes.”
Johnston is proving true to his “Magic” nickname as far as Dunfermline fans are concerned. Clark outlined the progress made by a man he originally coached as a teenage winger at Tynecastle.
“Allan is a football man,” added Clark. “As a player, he was really creative and had good awareness of the game. He’s got that knowledge of the tactical side and he recognises qualities in players. When he played at Hearts, I was his manager and we worked on getting the team spirit together because that’s vitally important. The more I see Allan working, the more I see improvement and experience coming through. He’s more confident because of that and he’s developing into a decent manager.”