When you finally catch-up with Billy Reid, after a spell roaming the corridors at New Douglas Park, it’s gladdening to note that the 49-year-old manager is not dementedly bashing his head against a brick wall.
Reid, after all, is more than half-way through a week of trying to convince otherwise those who presume he bitterly regrets not taking the vacant managerial post with Swansea, when the chance arose three years ago.
The Welsh club turned to Brendan Rodgers, then out of work after a disappointing spell with Reading, instead. The rest is eye-brow-raising history, including last weekend’s League Cup triumph at Wembley, where Swansea lifted their first ever major trophy. Rodgers had already moved on to Liverpool. Now the current occupier of the manager’s chair, Michael Laudrup, is being linked with the top job at Real Madrid. Roberto Martinez, meanwhile, is an established Premier League manager at Wigan Athletic, having cut his teeth at the Liberty stadium. Not only is Swansea the place to be, it’s the place to have been at.
And Reid? He is sitting in a rather bleak widow-less room, insisting that he is happy with his life-choices. Cardboard boxes that were once full of Quavers crisps are stacked up behind him. Players, the majority earning little more than a couple of hundred quid a week, will shortly gather for training. Reid is perkier than any man has a right to be at shortly after 9am, on a morning that has barely broken due to the thick mist that has descended outside. He certainly doesn’t seem like a man brought low by anguish.
It’s impossible not to grow fond of someone who refers to Swansea as being “a bit out of the road” when reflecting on why he decided against moving to Wales. To be fair, they were only a Championship side at the time. Reid had attracted the attention of the club after his sterling work in getting Hamilton Accies promoted to the Premier League, and then keeping them there. The New Douglas Park side managed to win a remarkable seven times in their last nine games of the 2009-10 campaign.
“We had finished seventh that season, which was some achievement for this club,” says Reid. “I think from January onwards we actually split the Old Firm in terms of points. Our team at that time was strong; we were vibrant. The brand of football we played was exciting and it was definitely the style that Swansea like to play.”
Huw Jenkins, the Swansea chairman, asked Ronnie MacDonald, the then chairman at Hamilton, for permission to speak to Reid. In the end, they never even got so far as talking.
“At that stage, I thought let’s just see where we are at the moment,” Reid recalls. Where he was, he realised, was at a club he loved, while he was also getting used to the idea of becoming a grandfather for the first time. “The location of Swansea is quite out of the road, to be honest. I was happy where I was. That meant more to me than taking a step that is not quite right for me. That is not to say I don’t want to go and try my luck elsewhere. I certainly do. And if the opportunity came along that I considered was right then I would certainly do that.”
Understandably, Reid is determined to emphasise that he remains for-hire, if the right club is interested.
No-one should mistake his previous reluctance to move elsewhere for lack of ambition, although he does seem satisfied with his lot. It’s remarkable that he has stayed as long as he has with Hamilton, considering that it is not just Swansea who have made enquiries about his availability. “I was approached by one or two other clubs asking if I was interested; I just knocked them back,” he says. “I was happy in the environment I was working in.”
There has been, he accepts, a moment when he felt an involuntary twitch of the leg; when he had to fight the urge to kick himself. “It was when Swansea played Chelsea, the European champions,” he says. “I was sat watching the game and I am thinking: ‘they are champions of Europe. Can you imagine beating the champions of Europe?’” Nevertheless, he didn’t think twice about missing last weekend’s final at Wembley, when Swansea swept Bradford City aside. “I was actually at our Under-19 game against Queen’s Park,” he says. “That was more important to me than a cup final.”
He has clearly moved on. In any case, Reid has his own opportunity to make history this weekend, with Hamilton preparing to host First Division counterparts Falkirk in the quarter-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup. The home side are aiming to reach the last four of the competition for the first time since 1935, when they made it as far as the final. Hamilton are the only club to have been in two or more finals – they also made it there in 1911 – and yet have not won the trophy.
You sense that they are due a break. This is the third occasion under Reid that they have made it to the last eight; in 2006 they were taken to a replay by Dundee, and then lost by the odd goal in five at Dens. Three years later they were beaten by a more resounding scoreline of 5-1 by Rangers.
The Accies at Hampden? It’s a realistic prospect, providing their young side don’t freeze today against a probably even more tender-aged Falkirk. “The way cup competitions are going this season, who knows?” says Reid, with reference to the unlikeliest final of all, Swansea v Bradford City. “Rangers are out of the equation and St Mirren could beat Celtic again. This club has not been at Hampden in almost 80 years.”
All those participating in this weekend’s ties will be eyeing the outcome of the Hamilton v Falkirk tie with a degree of relish. The victors will be the wished-for draw in the semi-final, but then two can play at this game. Reid believes it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Hamilton to progress to the final.
“I would take it further” he says, when asked to contemplate the opportunity that is presented this afternoon. “Why can’t we think about the final?”
Reid’s experiences of cup finals to date have been of the Challenge Cup variety; Hamilton lifted it twice when he was a player, although he was suspended for the second win, while the same club have fallen at the final hurdle twice under him as manager. Reid’s entire career has a what-could-have-been type feel to it. As with Jim McLean, part of his effectiveness as a manager can be attributed to a fierce work ethic, one that developed as he held down a job away from football.
Sometimes he regrets remaining a part-time player but his trade as a lithographer meant that it made financial sense to turn down the opportunities to turn full-time that came his way. Reid has form when it comes to declining what many would perceive to be attractive offers. Dundee were among those who tried to sign him, and others too, but he remained where he was, eventually racking up 18 years of service with McCorquodale & Co, while turning out for Queen of the South, Clyde, Hamilton and, briefly, for Stirling Albion. Although he came close with Hamilton, he never quite made it into the Premier League.
He is, perhaps, loyal to a fault. “I started to get a bit stagnant,” he says of his time as a printer. “18 years in the same place,” he says. “I was used to 12-16 hour shifts, you clock in at 8am and you don’t see daylight. When I see what we have here now, with the structure of this club and the sports science and the match analysis, I would have loved a chance at this.”
He has little time for those who don’t share his zest for life and football. Win, lose or draw this afternoon, the players will be expected in as normal tomorrow morning. Yes, Sunday; 9.30am on the dot. In Reid’s eyes, recovery is as vital as preparation. “I was told about one player, I won’t mention his name, who we tried to sign here. I could not understand why he did not sign, because we were doing well. He was a goalscorer. Then I heard the reason. When he was told we came in on a Sunday, he said: ‘nah, that is not for me’.”
If he has a regret at all, it’s that he never gave full-time football a chance, although he understands why he remained unwilling to give up what he had. A sciatic problem in his back hastened the decision to hang up his boots but he might have played on through it. However, Stirling had paid “a bit of money” for him, and when he didn’t feel like he could give them enough back, he quit. He was only 31.
He returned to senior football with Clyde after a spell as a community coach, taking over as manager when Alan Kernaghan left. He moved on to Hamilton in the summer of 2005, which means he is currently Scotland’s longest serving manager with a single club. He isn’t quite in the Sir Alex Ferguson or even David Moyes bracket yet, but eight years at one club is still commendable, and it’s a couple of years longer than his nearest rival, Gardner Speirs at Queen’s Park.
However, as much as he stresses how good Hamilton have been for him, you sense that he is getting restless, and the issue with Swansea can only have sharpened his sense of ambition. He knows that the longer Hamilton remain outwith the top league, the more his profile will diminish again. Now managerial posts in Scotland are becoming vacant and then are filled again without Reid being mentioned as being in the running, which wasn’t the case a couple of years ago. One position remains unoccupied and that is at Hearts. Reid appears to have all the credentials required, particularly given his record of developing young players at Hamilton, and then promoting them quickly to the first-team. Will he be quoted for the Tynecastle post? You wonder.
Reid says he doesn’t care whether people believe him when he says he is not interested in personal glory of the kind he might be accused of side-stepping when passing on the chance to go to Swansea. For Reid, satisfaction comes when switching on Match of the Day and seeing others he helped make the most of their careers, such as the two Jameses who he had at Hamilton, McArthur and McCarthy. Both are now key players for Wigan. He keeps up more with McArthur, although he is tremendously fond of them both.
“McCarthy is more quiet, keeps himself to himself,” he says. “Keeps his family around him. McArthur is more out-going, I spoke to him last night. I speak to him once a week. He always phones.
“He has been a bit hard done by. I will not mention names, but there were guys who were being capped before him, and I am thinking, ‘this is absolutely crazy’. Guys from Dundee United and places like that were playing for Scotland, and James McArthur was not. I am like: ‘wait a minute here’. But he played against Brazil, that was one of his first caps. He came in here a couple of days later and put the shirt down on the desk. ‘Here is my top from the Brazil game, I want you to have it’.
“It is a special top; there are not many Scotland players who have played against Brazil.”
Having set players like McArthur on their way, now the onus is on Reid to kick-on. As he says himself, he is now in his “prime”. On the cusp of 50, and with nearly a decade of managerial experience to call upon, he sounds as though he might be preparing to say farewell to the club he has served so well as player and manager, despite a recently-agreed new contract. “If someone comes in to attract Billy Reid then it will cost them three years’ wages,” he says. “That might put clubs off. But then again I don’t think that would be the case. I think if someone came in the club would not stand in my way.”
“People will think; ‘well, if he is not going to leave for Swansea, he is not going to come to us’. I think that has gone against me a bit.
“I will leave this club, the time is right for Billy Reid to have another opportunity. I am ready for a challenge.”
But first, there is an appointment with Hampden Park – and with history – to keep. “This is our time,” says Reid.