Laptops, pitch invasions and the bus with a kitchen: Andy Kirk left Hearts to rebuild Brechin for Spartans play-off

Two days of destiny await as the Highland and Lowland League winners meet for SPFL promotion.
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Two years in management is a relatively long time these days. Not as long as some of Brechin City’s away journeys seem when you’re stuck on a bus jiggling about on a winding Highland road. For Andy Kirk, it is all simply the means to an end.

The former Hearts coach left Riccarton in summer 2021 to help rebuild Brechin following relegation from the Scottish Professional Football League. Scenes like last week’s dramatic Highland League title triumph justify the time and sacrifice. However, destiny ultimately hinges on tomorrow and next Saturday when Brechin meet Lowland League champions Spartans in a two-legged pyramid play-off for promotion to League Two.

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Kirk is almost 44 and knows the true value of professionalism in these pressurised situations. Brechin have operated with the utmost standards since he arrived at Glebe Park. It underpinned his first conversations with chairman Kevin Mackie and is evident in everything they do.

No more so than the team coach navigating those scenic but time-consuming routes up north. Park’s of Hamilton supply Brechin with a bus containing its own kitchen and matchday food is provided. There is even a cook on hand. “Players get fed on the way up to the game and on the way back down. Everything is very professional,” says Kirk. “The club have gone above and beyond to help us do things as professionally as we can. It creates the right environment and it has paid off.

“We meet at Broxden at Perth, then pick up at Dundee, Brechin services, then Aberdeen and up to wherever we’re playing. Boys can bond, play cards or whatever on the journey. Sometimes it’s hard with the distances but I can do video on the bus using my laptop or watch games back. Sometimes we just chat to plan ahead.”

Tomorrow’s play-off first leg at Edinburgh’s Ainslie Park has been two years in the planning. Brechin fans singing and dancing on the pitch at Buckie Thistle’s Victoria Park last weekend knew the job was only half done. City carry momentum into these Spartans meetings: Kirk has overseen just one league defeat and an overall 74 per cent win ratio across the campaign.

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Buckie were eight points ahead at one stage as Brechin faced games in hand. “We had to try and win them all because the top teams in the Highland League very rarely slip up. We played Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday for weeks,” says Kirk. “Then we had to win the last game away at Buckie to get the title. It was some experience, to be fair. Scoring on 86 and 90 minutes to win 2-0 made it a great day for the players and the fans.

Andy Kirk is preparing Brechin City for the Highland/Lowland League play-off against Spartans.Andy Kirk is preparing Brechin City for the Highland/Lowland League play-off against Spartans.
Andy Kirk is preparing Brechin City for the Highland/Lowland League play-off against Spartans.

“Every one of those players made themselves available for every midweek game. Not one of them couldn’t make it due to work or anything. Everyone was committed to winning the league. The travelling is a factor but even the fans turned up for the midweek matches. You can reflect on it now and appreciate everything. It was a hard way to do it, but I think that’s what made it more enjoyable when we got there.

“Seeing the players celebrate, getting the reward, seeing the way it happened with the supporters coming onto the pitch – you don’t get that often as a player or a coach. These are things to really remember. I’ve had lots of experiences of different levels but this is totally different. You are the manager now, fighting for points every week at a club wanting to be successful. That brings added pressure but it’s a good experience.”

Even on the coldest winter’s day away up at rural Wick Academy, Kirk is entitled to feel vindicated over the decision to leave Hearts. He arrived from Rangers as a youth coach in 2016 with ambitions to become a manager. Working with the under-20s, reserves and first-team, he latterly coached the women’s side. Steering the ship – or bus – himself is a rewarding feeling.

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“When I started at Hearts I knew I wanted to be a manager. That was always my ambition and the club knew that. Hearts was fantastic for me. I went from youth academy to the under-20s to reserves then first team and the women’s team. I worked with different players and tried different systems. We had 12 or 13 players who came through the system and played for the first team during that time.

“Stepping up to the first team with Daniel [Stendel] was another chance for me to learn at the top level. I still wanted to be a manager but things changed, Daniel left and Robbie [Neilson] came back. I found myself without a role in the first team structure and ended up taking the women’s team. The players there were really enthusiastic, very committed, passionate and wanted to learn. It was a good experience, but in the back of my head I was looking to get into management on the men’s side.

“The Brechin job was a complete rebuild. I had three players when I took over, there was a new chairman and board and we needed new training facilities. The whole project really interested me. It’s been a hugely positive step and winning the league this year has been special.”

Tynecastle connections remain strong, nevertheless. Kirk’s son, Makenzie, is a Hearts B team striker – which conveniently helped Dad scout tomorrow’s opponents. “I’ve managed to watch Spartans a couple of times this season. My son is obviously playing with Hearts in the Lowland League, so I’ve been able to see a little bit here and there. Enough to know Spartans are a very strong team. These two games will be extremely competitive but an exciting challenge.

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“Our first conversations when I took over at Brechin were about getting back into the SPFL. The bigger picture is there. Picking up a title is fantastic for players and fans, but the job isn’t done yet.”