There is infinite sadness hearing a genuine football man like Gary Locke admit he is disillusioned with management.
After bruising experiences in charge of Hearts, Kilmarnock and Raith Rovers, he is now at Cowdenbeath until the end of the season. It may transpire as his last managerial post.
Locke will decide his future plans this summer after attempting to rescue Cowdenbeath’s football league status. He gratefully accepted an offer to replace Liam Fox at the part-time Fife club currently propping up the rest of the Scottish Professional Football League at the foot of League Two. It keeps him involved in the game until the season ends after his sacking at Raith last month, whilst offering the new challenge of part-time management.
It may also force him into non-football work to earn a full-time crust. Whether it is labouring, a driving job or anything else, the self-effacing Locke isn’t too precious to go and earn a living. At 41, he is doing some serious thinking about what lies ahead in his working life. Bursting a gut for little thanks at Tynecastle, Rugby Park and Stark’s Park in the last three years have forced him to consider whether management is truly worth the hassle.
“With some of the things that have happened to me as a manager, you sometimes think: ‘Is it worth it?’ he told the Evening News in an exclusive interview. “It’s some of the stuff you’ve got to deal with, especially in the modern game. Look at what happened to [Claudio] Ranieri down at Leicester. You see things happening to guys like that and you think you’ve no chance.
“It doesn’t matter how well you do, as soon as you lose a couple of games, you’re out. Sometimes you ask yourself if it’s really worth the hassle you get. Nowadays, everybody’s telling you what to do all the time as a manager. It’s different as a first-team coach or an assistant because you sort of fly under the radar. As soon as you take the top job anywhere, you’re under scrutiny constantly.”
Make no mistake, Locke is up for the assignment set him by the Cowdenbeath chairman Donald Findlay QC. Motivation has never, and will never, be a problem for the former Hearts captain. Long-term, an assistant coach’s role would have its advantages over the cut-throat managerial merry-go-round.
“I love being on the training pitch, that’s never changed throughout my whole career. I’ve seen lots of managers go back to being assistants and first-team coaches. Sometimes it’s better because you’re not getting as much criticism when things aren’t going so well.
“That’s something I thought I was going to have to do when I left Raith. There’s a lot of things I love about being a manager but there’s a lot I just simply can’t be bothered with. At the same time, I’ll never lose my enthusiasm and drive to do well.
“When this opportunity came up, I thought Cowdenbeath can only really get better because they were adrift at the bottom of the league. If I can keep them in the league, it would be a great achievement.
“Hopefully you’re on a hiding to nothing because they can’t go any lower. Right now, everybody says they’re going down. It’s up to me to try and turn their fortunes round.”
Knowing his boundless enthusiasm for the game, it is therefore slightly depressing hearing Locke contemplate mundane day jobs to pay bills and feed his three children. The reality of dropping into the lowest region of professional football in Scotland is unavoidable for a man who, three years ago right now, was managing Hearts in the Premiership.
“I’m delighted I’m involved in football between now and the end of the season,” he continued. “I’ve spoken to a few people who’ve managed at part-time level and they say it’s completely different. You’ve got to think about guys who maybe can’t make training because they’re maybe working late. I felt it was a really good challenge at a time when I was out of the game anyway. Hopefully I can do what the chairman wants me to do, then I’ll re-evaluate everything in the summer and see where I go.
“Money doesn’t fall out of the sky so I’ll look to work. If there’s anybody out there who wants to give me a job, I’m available,” he laughed. “If it’s in football, then great. That’s everything I’ve known but, if I need to do something else, I will. I’m not the type of person to say I’ve done this or that or maybe some people know who I am. I’m not too good to go and work on a building site or drive a van or whatever.
“You’ve got to make ends meet. I’ve got three kids to take care of as well. If I need to get a couple of jobs then that’s what I’ve got to do.”
What about old pal Ian Black’s decorating business? “I’ll maybe need to phone him and see if they’re looking for anybody.”
Joking aside, Locke’s situation mirrors that of many modern managers who find themselves victims of impatient chairmen after a few bad results.
He was unceremoniously replaced at Hearts after guiding the club through administration, a 15-point deduction and then relegation in his first managerial post. He resigned from Kilmarnock with the club second bottom of the Premiership and was then relieved of his duties with assistant darren Jackson at Raith just a few weeks ago. That one still hurts.
“Myself and Darren were surprised by what happened to us at Raith,” admitted Locke. “Obviously we’d been on a wee bad run but every manager has that during a season. If Raith can finish fifth this season, you would probably accept that. Morton have had an unbelievable campaign, you’ve got Dundee United, Hibs, and then Falkirk are always up there. It was going to be a big as to finish in the top four, although that was the target.
“If Dundee United or Hibs go up, then next season you’d be thinking you’d have an easier chance of the top four if you recruit well. That’s football sometimes. You have a few bad results and it costs you.
“I was thinking I might need to re-evaluate things and see where I go from here. Luckily, I got a phonecall from Donald Findlay, who I’ve known for a long time and got a lot of respect for. I was only too happy to try and help him out.
“It’s just until the end of the season, which suited me and suited Cowdenbeath. When you’re out of the game you definitely miss it. This is something different for me because it’s part-time. It’s a different challenge but the biggest challenge we face is trying to stay in the league.”
They got off to an impressive start last weekend with a 3-1 win away at Berwick Rangers in Locke’s first game in charge. That ended a run of seven straight defeats, although the new manager is reluctant to take credit.
“Cowdenbeath hadn’t won for a while and were seven points adrift so it was great that they managed to get a win on Saturday. I spoke to the boys before the game, at half-time and at full-time. I just said one or two things, letting them know the meaning of the position they’re in. You can’t keep getting beaten and still stay in the league. I didn’t want to change too much because they had obviously worked on things during the week with the other coaches.
“I felt for Foxy leaving because I know him and he’s a fantastic coach. I’d heard Cowdenbeath had dominated a lot of games this season and not taken their chances. On Saturday, they took those chances. Now you want some consistency between now and May.”
Cowdenbeath’s own descent down the divisions has been alarming with no-one able to halt the demise. Successive relegations took them from the Championship to League Two in just over a year.
“You don’t know what’s happened. Maybe they couldn’t afford players they had before but they have gone down the leagues rapidly,” said Locke. “One of the reasons I took the job was I’ve worked with quite a few of the boys. There’s Fraser Mullen and Dale Carrick who were both at Hearts, Jamie Sneddon the keeper was also at Hearts when I was there. I know big Kris Renton well because he’s played with Bonnyrigg Rose and Musselburgh. Gary Glen is another one.
“There are younger guys on loan from Hearts. Lewis Moore did well on Saturday when he came on and Robbie Buchanan scored. Liam Henderson is another ex-Hearts boy who is on loan from Falkirk.
“I was looking at the squad thinking it was decent. Billy Brown watched a lot of League Two when he was scouting for me at Raith. I was surprised because some of these boys can go off the rails at that level but, looking at them on Saturday, they’re still good players.
“If they continue playing like the did at the weekend, they’ll give themselves half a chance of staying in the division. That’s what everybody wants.”
Thereafter, it will be down to Locke to determine his next move. Odds are he will stay in football in some capacity, but will he take a break from management and return to coaching or continue as a figurehead?
The only thing certain is that someone of his experience and coaching ability should not be lost to the game altogether.