After a short but chastening spell in charge of St Mirren four years ago halted his hitherto impressive progress, Ian Murray feels like he is well on his way to getting his managerial career back on track following 11 fulfilling months with Airdrieonians.
The former Hibs captain was one of the country’s burgeoning young managers as he set about establishing part-time Dumbarton in the Championship in his early 30s, and now, aged 38, he is revelling in the task of trying to elevate the Diamonds, who have become entrenched in League One over the past six years, to a similar level.
Backed by a forward-thinking owner in Paul Hetherington, assisted by former Motherwell and Ross County player Marc Fitzpatrick and aided by the support of director of football Stuart Millar, Murray is grateful to have such a strong support network around him as he rebuilds his reputation following that 21-game spell at St Mirren in 2015 which temporarily knocked him off course.
“It was important to get the right club and more importantly the right people behind me, and I certainly feel I’ve got that with the guys at Airdrie,” Murray told the Evening News.
“I’m very fortunate. I’ve got a director of football who is a tremendous help to me. The owner is young in football terms. He only bought the club two years ago but his vision and plans are excellent. We hit it off straight away and were talking from the same page. The relationship we’ve got is so good. It really has been fantastic so far.”
His sense of contentment in Lanarkshire is in stark contrast to what he encountered in his previous managerial job, where a poor start to the 2015/16 campaign with St Mirren, who had just been relegated to the Championship, set him back progress-wise but served to strengthen his resolve.
“You can look at it in so many different ways,” he says, reflecting on his managerial career so far. “But I’m still only 38 and this is my third manager’s job in Scotland. I’m still a young manager, regardless of experience. St Mirren was a difficult one.
“At the time the club was in a really strange position. It was up for sale and there wasn’t any cash floating about. It was almost just a case of servicing the club until they got rid of it.
“I don’t regret going there because at that moment in time I thought it was the right choice. You learn from it. I had a couple of chances to get back into management quite soon after it but St Mirren probably knocked me a little bit so I felt like I needed a wee break.
“I don’t think I was dented confidence-wise because you always believe in yourself and what you’re doing, but it was the first time in my managerial career when I felt, just a couple of weeks in, that I’d perhaps been sold a dummy.
“That’s how you learn though. There won’t be many managers out there who can’t look back and say ‘I was probably thrown under the bus a little bit there’.”
In between St Mirren and Airdrie, Murray spent almost two years as assistant to his former Hibs colleague Kevin Nicol at Norwegian side Asker. “When I got a chance to go and join Kevin it was perfect timing for me,” he said. “I got my hunger and fire back and then this opportunity came up out of the blue. It’s one I’m loving at the moment.”
Murray took over at Airdrie last October and led a previously-struggling team to fifth place. After leading a change in structure in which the club have gone from part-time to having a hybrid model featuring around 20 full-time and 15 part-time players, including reserves and youngsters, Murray is confident Airdrie can compete with Raith Rovers and Falkirk for promotion this term.
“Airdrie have only been in the play-offs once in the last six seasons, which is quite incredible,” said Murray.
“Last year, we were always there or thereabouts, but I was quite honest with the owner – I told him that even if we’d got into the play-offs, I didn’t fancy our chances because we didn’t have any consistency. We’d have loved to have made the play-offs but I don’t think we were quite ready for it. I think we’re better equipped this year. There’s no guarantees but we’ve definitely got a better squad with loads of pace, which is something we really lacked last year. We’ve only lost one in the last seven. We’re certainly going in the right direction.
“Raith, Falkirk and ourselves are probably the three biggest clubs in the league all dying to get out of it but we can’t all do it. Then you’ve got the likes of Forfar, East Fife and Dumbarton who are all good part-time sides so it’s a very difficult, competitive league. We feel we’ve got a good squad and we’re more than capable of challenging.”
It is 26 years since Airdrie, who have since been liquidated and restarted, last graced Scotland’s top flight.
“For any smaller club, you need to look at the likes of Ross County and Inverness who started part-time in the Highland League and worked their way up,” said Murray.
“You need aspire to do that but it will be difficult and would take a lot of time. When I was growing up, I was used to Airdrie being in the Premier Division, getting to semi-finals and finals, beating Hibs and Hearts and giving Celtic and Rangers a game. We’d love to get back to that level but it will take a lot of work.”