MAURICE Malpas is a glutton for punishment. He knows that football can be a painful business, that his obsession with it is not entirely healthy, but he can’t help himself. Not after all these years, as a player and coach with Dundee United, a manager with Motherwell and Swindon Town, and an assistant at Inverness and Hibs.
When he and the man to whom he was sidekick, Terry Butcher, were sacked by the Edinburgh club in June, Malpas was out of work for only the second time in his career. At first there was hurt, then relief, but when summer was gone, and with it the weather for golf and gardening, a curious sensation summed up his love-hate relationship with the game.
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He had been to see St Johnstone and Aberdeen play in Europe, which was diverting enough, but without a player to scout or a team to analyse, run-of the-mill league games seemed a bit, how shall he put it, “sh***”. “I was actually struggling to watch some of them,” he says. “In one or two, I left long before half-time. Without wanting to criticise Scottish football, I just wasn’t enjoying it. After half an hour, I was saying to myself, ‘what am I sitting here for?’”
It was a good question. His conclusion was that he needed a purpose, a justification for his otherwise inexplicable behaviour. When Raith Rovers came along just before Christmas to ask if he would become their director of football, there was only one answer. “It was a great way of getting back in the game,” he says. “It was another string to my bow, something different. What tickled me was that I didn’t have a clue what I was being asked to do.”
The main thing was that he was back. After meeting Grant Murray, the Raith manager, and talking through their prospective relationship, Malpas satisfied himself that it was an opportunity to be seized, a chance to feed once again the compulsion that, for most football coaches, borders on the perverse.
“We’re all perverts,” says Malpas. “If you’re in the game a long time, you become a football pervert. We go to games umpteen times a week, train every day, then we go home to watch it on television. On Sunday, your so-called family day, you can watch it from 12 in the morning till 10 at night. No sensible person would clock up that many hours at a football club then go home and do the same.
“A lot of folk say they would like to be in football, but I’m not so sure they would. It isn’t glamorous when you’re driving umpteen thousand miles a year, bombing up and down the road to England. People would like the glory on a Saturday when you get praise, but they wouldn’t like the criticism when you get beat. That’s how football is. If you don’t want to suffer it, you shouldn’t be in it.”
He can deal with it, but his wife, who attends all his matches, feels every knock. When he was assistant manager of Dundee United, news of his dismissal was broadcast on the radio before he had time to tell his two young children. Teased about it at school, they came home in tears.
Hibs was hard. After he and Butcher were appointed in November 2013, a helpless spiral of descent culminated in them winning just one of their last 18 league matches. After losing the play-off to Hamilton, they were relegated and Malpas followed Butcher out the door.
“We never went to them begging for a job. They head-hunted us. I was under the impression that we would get the chance to bring our own players in, build our own squad, our own team, like we did at Inverness, but it never happened. Six months. The ink wasn’t dry on the contract.
“I just felt we never got a chance. I know it’s a results-driven business, and the results weren’t good enough, but they weren’t our players. We proved at Motherwell that we could build a team. And we definitely proved it at Inverness. We were second in the league when we left them.”
While Butcher took the brunt of the blame, Malpas did not emerge unscathed. For a start, there was his fallout with Kevin Thomson, which both parties say was exaggerated. “I had Thom with [Scotland] under-21s. I got on well with him. But he used to call me crabbit face at training. I would jump down people’s throats if they weren’t disciplined or they were mucking up my session. I had an argument with him. It was on the internet before we did have a fight… if we did have a fight… which we never.”
By the time they cleared their desks, Malpas and Butcher were saddled with a reputation for old-fashioned, back-to-front football and values that were out of step with the modern game. “I get a bit annoyed with all that,” says Malpas. “I’m 52. I’m not old, but maybe my face has been about too much. I still do my homework. I’m still interested in how other people coach, how people set things up. People say I’m old-school, but I don’t know how I can change it unless I start wearing yellow boots or something.
“Football hasn’t changed. It’s the periphery that has changed. Dieticians, sports scientists… they think they’ve got massive influence. They are important. They have a place. But we were always taught ‘your best judge is your eye’. If a player isn’t fit enough, it sticks out a mile. I don’t need a fitness coach at my back, telling me about heart rates and all that crap.”
Alan Young, the Raith chairman, says Malpas has the knowledge and experience to improve all aspects of work at Stark’s Park. The club’s director of football is paid to offer opinions on everything from scouting and training to tactics and transfers. How many of them are taken on board is up to Murray.
In a way, Malpas has come full circle. Based in Monifieth, he has spent most of his life in Dundee, but he was born and bred in Fife. From Townhill, a village just outside Dunfermline, he was a regular at East End Park with his dad. On New Year’s Day, they would go to Cowdenbeath for the local derby, where he remembers the half-bottle being passed round.
As a teenager, Malpas played for Leven Royals. After joining Dundee United, he remained part-time. With a degree in electrical engineering under his belt, he had lined up a day job in Glasgow, which he might have taken had he not been capped by Scotland.
The young defender was a quiet lad with a thick skin, which served him well in the climate of fear fostered by Jim McLean at Tannadice. There was a league title, a Scottish Cup triumph, runs to the semi-final and final of the European and UEFA Cups respectively, but it is another game from his 830 with the Tayside club that he picks out now.
In August 1987, he was at Stark’s Park for a League Cup third-round tie against Raith, who had Hamish McAlpine, the former United goalkeeper, between the posts. Malpas didn’t score many goals, as McAlpine – a close friend to this day – kept reminding him, but boy did he make up for it that night with the second in a 2-1 victory.
“If I remember rightly, I beat half the team, cut inside and lashed it in the top corner. Hamish was shocked. Normally mine were lashed into the stand, and the divot hit the goalie. I can remember one or two of the players shouting ‘don’t shoot’, but I plucked up the courage and did it.”
Malpas will be at Ibrox this afternoon for Raith’s Scottish Cup fifth-round tie against Rangers, who have beaten them 6-0 and 4-1 already this season. Since their director of football arrived, the Kirkcaldy club are unbeaten in five, but he is taking no responsibility for that. “If I do, I’ll get slaughtered when we lose.”
His first ambition is to help Raith into the play-offs and, hopefully, the Premiership, but he still yearns to be a manager in his own right. His two attempts at it have been short-lived. He resigned from Motherwell in 2007 after John Boyle, their owner, asked him to get rid of his assistant, Paul Hegarty. At Swindon Town, just out of administration, he lasted 11 months because the chairman wanted too much, too soon.
He could have been the manager of Inverness when Butcher left, but he followed him to the bigger club and the better facilities, even though he would have earned more in the Highlands. He wonders if he is now pigeonholed as an assistant, if his face doesn’t quite fit.
“Do managers get jobs because a particular chairman likes them? He probably doesn’t know them, but he likes their profile. There’s plenty people getting sacked who just go from one job to the next. Is that because they’ve got good banter? I’m too blunt at times. With players. With chairmen. I get criticised for that.
“Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I’m doing, but my niche is coaching and management. That’s what I get my biggest kick out of. Whether it comes back I don’t know. It’s difficult getting jobs when you’re classed as an old-timer. A lot of people want to go for younger, possibly cheaper managers. That’s their prerogative. I’ve just got to keep plodding away.”