MAN-MANAGEMENT, top coaching and total professionalism were all pivotal to Alloa’s success under Paul Hartley.
According to their midfielder Stephen Simmons, those attributes would make Hartley a prize asset for any club in Scotland’s Premiership.
The 37-year-old left Recreation Park last month and is now expected to replace John Brown at Dundee. The Dens Park board need a manager to steer them safely through the remainder of the campaign and secure the Championship’s only automatic promotion slot after parting company with Brown.
It is indeed a tall order. Falkirk, Dundee and Hamilton are separated by just one solitary point at the top of the league table. If anyone is equipped for the task, it would seem to be Hartley.
He launched Alloa into two successive promotions from the bottom tier of Scottish football to the Championship in his first two seasons in management. The success was largely down to his attention to detail and being able to prise the best from his squad.
Simmons, who played in the same Hearts team as Hartley, believes it is only a matter of time until his former manager reaches the top flight.
“If you look at the success he’s had and his experiences as a top player and now a manager, he’ll definitely manage in the top flight sooner rather than later,” explained the 31-year-old, who Hartley brought to Alloa 18 months ago.
“I thought he would’ve got the Inverness job when it was available, but it wasn’t to be. Maybe in years to come you could see him at Hearts as manager. You never know. He’s going to get linked with all these jobs at all the clubs he’s been at. If Neil Lennon leaves Celtic, he might get that job.
“He is that good a manager, he could take charge of any club in the Premiership and they would be lucky to have him. That’s how highly I rate him. He could do it for any club in the top flight.”
Hartley is interested in the chance to potentially reach the Premiership with Dundee and has no issue staying in the same division he was in with Alloa. He is an ambitious young coach eager to reach the top and, as Simmmons explained, has the single-mindedness to get there.
“He’s always going to be linked with another job. He’s a free agent now. Dundee are a big club with a big fan base and should probably be in the Premiership. Paul knows what he wants and he’s his own man. When he knows what he wants, he goes for it. I told him that on the phone the day after he left Alloa. If that’s what he wants, I’m sure he won’t hesitate in taking the Dundee job if he’s offered it.”
Should Hartley’s arrival on Tayside materialise, Dundee’s squad can expect meticulous planning and preparation, right down to which cereal bars they can eat and which fluids to take in. Hartley is a stickler for fitness and nutrition, which made him stand out in amongst part-time footballers at Alloa.
He also knows when to let his guard down and encourage players to relax. Handing over money from his own pocket to fund nights out for Alloa’s players was one – perhaps slightly unconventional – way of motivating his squad.
“Paul was great to the boys. He even put his hand in his pocket to help the boys go on a night out,” said Simmons. “Any time we had a night out organised, he’d produce some kitty money for us to go and enjoy ourselves. With a manager doing that for you, you’re going to work hard for him and make sure you don’t let him down. It was great to work for him and I really enjoyed my time with him.
“For a part-time club, he had everything organised. Getting your food, your pre-match meals, he did everything for us. Just the small things like bringing in juices for us and cereal bars. Anything we wanted, it was there for us. The professionalism he brought to the club was fantastic. It made the players want to work for him and want to win for him.
“When Andy Kirk first came here to train, that was one of the first things he noticed. He said, ‘I can’t believe how much you get up here for a part-time club.’ We’re not asking for much but it’s just the small things that Paul did for everybody that made a difference. He had a good bunch of boys as well, all working hard for him and for each other. You need that to be successful and we had it for two seasons.”
Hartley appointed a fitness coach to work on physically conditioning Alloa’s players and is expected to do likewise at his next club. His experiences at top clubs like Celtic, Aberdeen and Hearts, and in the Champions League, taught him the value of looking after players.
“He knows what it takes to get the best out of you,” continued Simmons. “He brought wee Tam Ritchie in, who he knew from his time at Hearts, as our fitness coach. Paul had done a lot of fitness work under Tam and Craig Levein, which improved his game as well. I think he must have thought, ‘if it improved my game then it will improve these boys, especially being a part-time team.’
“We do a lot of running and fitness work and I think it’s paid off. Even on Saturday there, we scored in the 93rd minute against Dundee to get a 1-1 draw. That says a lot for our fitness.
“It wasn’t just the fitness side of things, it was everything. Paul brought so much experience. He would talk people through games, talk through what he wanted in training, what position he wanted you to play.
“He did a lot of work going to watch other teams to learn their systems and then decide how we should play against them. He knew how to speak to players having been a player himself.”
Inevitably, any manager or coach succeeding to the extent Hartley did in the lower leagues will be noticed by bigger clubs. Hartley was interviewed by Inverness after Terry Butcher’s departure for Hibs but was narrowly beaten to the position by John Hughes.
This time, it appears he is the man Dundee want, which is a tad ironic given that the former Dens Park manager Barry Smith has only just replaced Hartley in charge of Alloa.
“We knew this was coming,” said Simmons. “A few people have said it was a surprise that Paul left, but it was coming. He was going to leave one way or another. If he didn’t leave on his own terms, he was going to get a job at another club.
“He was linked with the Inverness job and nearly got it so the boys were prepared for this happening. He will be missed because he was a massive part of our success. His record speaks for itself, he’s had nothing but success so far in his managerial career. We knew every job that came up he would be linked with it. There’s nothing wrong with ambition. If you get promoted from the old Third Division into the First Division in your first two seasons as a manager, people are going to notice you.”
Hartley has been linked with a multitude of vacancies over the last two seasons, but Dundee may just have timed their managerial change right to recruit one of Scotland’s hottest coaching prospects.