McGlynn goes up against former protégé in Hearts boss

John McGlynn looks on as Craig Findlay, left, and Robbie Neilson, right, play head tennis
John McGlynn looks on as Craig Findlay, left, and Robbie Neilson, right, play head tennis
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Head along to Almondvale on a Sunday afternoon and you will see Livingston’s youth teams in action on the Astroturf behind the stadium.

You will also see John McGlynn looking on, be it under-13s, under-14s or any other age group. By his side often is the long-suffering Mrs McGlynn, who probably adopted the “if you can’t beat him, join him” attitude many years ago.

Football is McGlynn’s life. He immerses himself in every aspect of the game as one of those managers who likes to see every pass, hear every shout and analyse every substitution. It is a trait which has served him well since he abandoned life as a plumber to become a full-time youth coach at Hearts in 1998. There, he would encounter a young Robbie Neilson, a kid who quickly learned the McGlynn mantra of thorough preparation and detail.

Neilson has drawn praise for his meticulous planning since being appointed head coach of Hearts in May. His forward thinking helped negotiate 12 new signings and a tough start to the season, with an unexpected goalkeeping crisis thrown in as an extra test in his first manager’s job. He embraced all of the above and, as a result, Hearts sit top of the Championship having won all but one of their six league games so far.

Just four months into his managerial career, Neilson is already regarded as a coach who is always prepared for any eventuality. Much of that attention to detail was learned from the man he aims to beat on Sunday. McGlynn returns to Tynecastle with Livingston this weekend for the first time since being sacked as Hearts manager in February 2013. The irony of Neilson earning rave reviews for an approach McGlynn has favoured for years will not be lost on the 52-year-old.

Both men are steeped in their jobs. Neilson learned much of his trade from McGlynn during their time together in Gorgie between 1998 and 2006. He also developed his own ideas to become a modern, thoughtful young coach who spends long hours at Riccarton watching first-team and youth players in action. An example of his dedication lies in the fact he was in Aberdeen on Tuesday night with his assistant, Stevie Crawford. They watched Livingston’s 4-0 League Cup defeat as part of the preparations for Sunday’s match. That’s despite being due at Celtic Park on League Cup business themselves just 24 hours later.

McGlynn is no different. He was youth coach, then reserve coach and eventually first-team coach at Hearts before accepting the manager’s job at Raith Rovers in 2006. He returned to manage Hearts in June 2012 but lasted only eight months. He takes the same diligence into his job and often goes far beyond the call of duty. When he signed a new contract at Livingston in January this year, a statement by the Almondvale hierarchy probably embarrassed McGlynn slightly. Nonetheless, it more than conveyed his commitment to the West Lothian club.

“The committee behind the club is fully appreciative of John’s wide-ranging work ethic, including cleaning and maintaining the stadium, fixing the plumbing and inventing his own ice baths – while refusing to take a single day off. John McGlynn is a true figurehead Livi fans should rally behind as leader and ambassador for our club and the game of football.” It was signed off by Livingston’s director of football, Robert Wilson.

Neilson certainly echoes those sentiments of a man who is an inspiration to many in football. “John’s very, very thorough in what he does,” said Neilson. “He gives you all the information you need. One of the things you learn from him is that you need to prepare for everything. You must be ready for all eventualities in football. There will always be things that spring up which you don’t expect. You try and be as prepared as you can and John is very much like that.

“He’s a great guy and I get on really well with him. He came to Hearts as youth coach and was then reserve coach and came back again as the manager. He knows the game and he works his players hard on the training ground and prepares really well. He commits his whole life to football, which is what you need to do if you want to be a top manager.

“I’m really pleased he’s doing well at Livi. He’s got a good team there. They pass the ball well and they’re very well organised. Stevie and I watched them on Tuesday night up at Aberdeen and I thought they did really well. They lost 4-0 in the end, but they were in the game and had chances at 1-0, similar to us at Celtic Park.”

Perhaps dragging your wife to watch youth games would be considered a little obsessive, but the McGlynns clearly have an understanding when it comes to football. “That’s just John. He lives and breathes football,” continued Neilson. “He is there all the time and he’s just consumed by it. Everything relating to the football side at Livingston, John will have total control of it and be engrossed by it. That’s the way you need to be. It’s the same here at Hearts. We go and watch the young boys playing and we come into the academy at night. It’s important you know everyone at the club and you want your club to have that feel about it. John will do that at Livingston.”

McGlynn’s reputation is forged on his success in Scotland’s second tier. He led Raith to within a whisker of promotion to the top flight in 2011 and is now building a strong team on a minute budget at Livingston. His time at Hearts ended abruptly – some felt unfairly – when the club’s Lithuanian board decided to relieve him of his duties just three weeks before the 2013 League Cup final. Neilson is convinced he will get another chance at the top level.

“I think he will get another opportunity eventually,” he said. “You’ll see that he’ll do a great job with Livingston and somebody else will give him a chance. I hope he doesn’t have a great day on Sunday, but I hope the rest of his season is good.”

McGlynn and Celtic’s Ronny Deila are the only managers to get the better of Neilson thus far, both in cup competitions. Celtic beat Hearts 3-0 to reach the League Cup quarter-finals on Wednesday night, with McGlynn and his assistant Mark Burchill in attendance. Livingston issued a 4-1 defeat to a young Hearts side in the Petrofac Training Cup last month. They have since reached the semi-finals of that tournament as McGlynn seeks his first trophy with the club.

Regarding Sunday’s clash, Neilson will pay little attention to that cup tie between the two clubs. He fielded a team dominated by teenagers that night while Livingston played their strongest side. “I won’t look into that game at all,” he said. “It will be a totally different team we put out on Sunday. We will watch that game again because that will roughly be the team that Livingston play. We watched them again on Tuesday night and we have some other DVDs of their matches.”

Sitting, watching, analysing and discussing football. It’s typical of Neilson’s comprehensive approach to management. McGlynn could tell you a thing or two about it.