Gary locke summed up an awkward situation well as he received the Scottish Premiership Manager of the Month award for April.
“I don’t think there’s been a scenario where somebody’s got Manager of the Month and not had a job.”
Hearts dispensed with Locke on Monday following the arrival of new owner Ann Budge and director of football Craig Levein. To his credit, Locke still arrived in Edinburgh city centre to claim an award that is rightfully his. He, along with assistant Billy Brown and goalkeeping coach Alan Combe, earned it the hard way before being cast aside by the new regime.
Locke is confident he leaves Tynecastle with his head held high. But for a 15 point deduction for entering administration, Hearts’ young side would have finished in the Premiership’s relegation play-off place, with Hibs bottom of the table. That was considered by many to be a reasonable achievement given the financial turmoil at the club since last summer, but it did not bring the management team new contracts.
The last 12 months would have tested even the most experienced football coaches, let alone one in his first job such as Locke. It is perhaps only natural he feels like a seasoned veteran as he begins searching for only his second managerial post.
“Hopefully I won’t get called a rookie any more,” he laughed. “After everything that has happened this season, I think I’ve faced everything that most experienced managers could face in their career. It was important I learned and it has certainly made me a stronger person and hopefully a better manager. It has not been easy, it has been a tough season. There’s been a lot of times when it did get really low, but the way we finished the season were real high points for myself and Billy and Alan.
“I would love to get right back into football. I’m well aware it will not be easy, there are a lot of fantastic people out there who I have worked with that have struggled to get back in. I just hope I have done enough at Hearts for people to think: ‘He has done a good job’.
“I certainly hope I never have to go through so many things like I have this season. If you speak to any manager, it wouldn’t be easy if you couldn’t sign a player. I hope to get back involved in the game and hopefully I’ve done enough to impress people.”
If the number of calls on his mobile phone since Monday are evidence of the respect he commands, then he most definitely has. Locke is unable to speak publicly about his exit from Hearts but said enough about his own contribution last season to convey his feelings.
“I believe I can walk away from Hearts with my head held high, as can Billy and Alan,” he continued. “If you look at the goalkeepers, Alan has been a big part of that improvement. The team improved, there is no doubt about that. It is disappointing to leave but we can leave with our heads held high, knowing we did a good job.
“I’m really proud of the fact I’ve got this award. All the thanks have to go to the backroom team – Billy, Alan, Dave Sykes [sports scientist] and the players. The boys’ performances for the last two months of the season were fantastic.
“We can take a lot of pride in where we finished. If it hadn’t been for the 15 point deduction, we would have finished above Hibs. Getting this award shows a lot of people out there felt the same, felt the team did well.”
Locke did not mention Robbie Neilson by name after Levein promoted Neilson from under-20 coach into Locke’s job. However, there is no ill-will borne towards the club he has supported all his life.
“I’ll always be a Hearts fan,” said Locke. “You can’t just pick and choose which team you support. That’s the team I supported when I was born. My whole family support them and I wish them the best.”
Asked if he would go to watch Hearts should he still be unemployed come the start of next season, Locke replied: “I’d rather not comment on that. I hope I’ll get back into work. I don’t tend to look too far ahead. If I don’t get back into football then I’ll have to go and look for a job. It’s as simple as that. You can’t just live on fresh air. I’ll wait and see what happens over the summer and if I can get back into football then I’ll be involved somewhere else on a Saturday.”
Managerial work would be his preference, but Locke did not dismiss the possibility of taking an assistant’s job or a general coaching post.
“I’ve loved my time in management and I’m really grateful to Hearts for giving me the opportunity. I’m not stupid, either. I know there aren’t a lot of jobs out there in Scotland or in England. I’m hoping to get back involved as quickly as possible because football is all I’ve really known and all I’ve ever done.
“If it’s as a manager, great. If it’s a different role then it’s certainly something I’d consider.
“Manager of the month is a great way to finish and I’m really honoured to get the award. Hopefully other people will sit up and take notice that I did a decent job.
“I’ve been really humbled with the amount of calls I’ve had from a lot of people who I maybe wouldn’t expect a call from. A lot of folk within the game have been very supportive and I’d like to thank them for that. I’ve been taken aback by that because everybody has phoned and said what a good job I did. Hearing that from so many people you respect in the game, I take a lot of pride.”
His swift departure on Monday morning denied Locke a chance to address his players collectively to say farewell.
“I’ve obviously been in touch with the players, but it was disappointing not being able to see them personally. That goes for the fans as well because they were fantastic from day one. They backed the team all season and I’d like to say thank you to them.”
After a tumultuous year, he now gets an unexpected opportunity for some well-earned respite. He is entitled to appreciate a break away from it all with his family.
“Hopefully I’ll get rid of a few wrinkles and get a holiday with the wife and kids,” he said.
He won’t be out of the country for too long, and he isn’t expected to be out of football for a lengthy period of time either.