Interview: Jim Jefferies, manager of Dunfermline
He’s perceived as a ‘Hibs-hater’ after playing in the side that lost 7-0 at New Year, and managing the one that got beaten 6-2, but as he tells Aidan Smith, former Hearts manager Jim Jefferies is adamant he is not trying to relegate the Easter Road side
Jim Jefferies doesn’t know this yet because he’s still winding his way back from Dunfermline, but he couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate venue for our chat than the Braid Hills Hotel. Perched on Edinburgh’s southern suburban outskirts, it always makes me think of the New Year derby between Hibs and Hearts, or every second one to be precise, because when the game was at Tynecastle it was the turn of my father’s oldest friend, the Hearts-supporting assistant chief constable of the Lothian and Borders polis, to buy tickets for us all. Uncle Don lived just round the corner from the hotel so 1 January, 1973 for me would have begun right here. And if you think that’s a ridiculously contrived link to the 7-0 game, you should see the stuff my editor rejects.
Mere minutes in, though, Jefferies is talking about a whopping scoreline, at least 6-0 to the away team and possibly the magic, dreaded seven. He was manager of Gala Fairydean, the victors, and Billy Brown was in charge of Musselburgh Athletic. “It didn’t mean anything,” he says. “This was a pre-season friendly, a nothing match. I went to see Billy afterwards to take him for a drink or two in some of our old haunts, a couple of Wallyford lads just starting out in management, but he said: ‘Leave it, Jim, I’ll phone you in the morning.’ I was surprised but also impressed. That told me something about Billy, how much he wanted to win.”
Funny old game. Like when you’re a Gala player but already a junior Jambo and training at Newtongrange Star’s ground as Jock Wallace is putting his Berwick Rangers players through their paces on another part of the pitch, the same Jock who you followed into the garage on your motor mechanic apprenticeship. And he comes over and thunders “You – with me!” and four times you decline, only for him to be appointed assistant at Hearts two days later and make your life hell for a wee while. “The auld bugger knew he was going there,” smiles Jefferies, “he was just testing me.” No doubt for that much-cherished Wallace badge-of-honour: character.
It’s funny, too, when you’re the third-placed best-of-the-rest and go three games of the new season only to be summarily emptied – then you bookend the same campaign by turning up as manager of the bottom-placed team for a challenge that is right up there with your Scottish Cup-winning greatest.
But the funniest, strangest, most never-saw-that-coming moment of piquancy to be experienced by the man nibbling shortbread in this sun-bathed lounge will definitely be standing in the opposing dugout from the friend to whom he once issued a softer variation on “You – with me!”, so forming one of oor fitba’s most enduring partnerships, 23 years all told.
When will that happen – when will JJ want to beat BB and vice versa for the first time since that almost forgotten bounce match all those summers ago? Not today, because Jefferies’ Dunfermline are playing Hearts, which will be a drama in itself. So I’m hoping I can persuade him to chuck the each-game-as-it-comes credo out the window and talk about the post-split showdown with Brown’s Hibs. Go on, Jim, you can do it ...
“Have I thought about that game? Of course. I really wanted to play Hibs as early as possible in the split. There’s a school of thought about a winner-takes-all final game but that would’ve been quite risky, so I’m glad it’s not that. Can I find the positives in it being on the second last day? Of course. I always think positively. Take this weekend: we go first [Hibs don’t play Motherwell until tomorrow]. If we beat Hearts then we apply the pressure.”
Apply the pressure. Sounds like the last line on the instruction panel for a household appliance – or the opening gambit in a torture session. With so few matches to save the Pars, 61-year-old Jefferies will surely have to make the most of the days in between. Will he indulge in some mind games? Another smile. He’s not sure. Maybe it’s not him, that sort of thing. He recalls a match, first time round as Tynecastle boss, when he shouted his mouth off and got upbraided for it. “Hearts had just beaten Rangers at Ibrox for the first time in absolute ages. It was 3-0 – the Allan Johnston hat-trick game – going on a few more and I said as much afterwards. Archie Knox [then No 2 at Ibrox] got me and said I’d been a wee bitty disrespectful. I think I learned that day that you should be magnanimous, always.”
I’m not sure about that. Handsome away victories over either of the Old Firm are so rare they deserve to be crowed about. But Jefferies is a manager, I’m not, and I’m thinking: decent guy. Only then he tries the psychological warfare on me...
“You’re a Hibs fan,” he says, “so would you accept relegation if the team could finally win the Scottish Cup?” Good question – fascinating question. I give it my fullest consideration and 0.25 secs later say: “Of course.” “Really?” says Jefferies, “despite what Hibs would lose financially and in terms of prestige?” “Er, yes.” “Interesting, very interesting.” And suddenly it’s like I’ve betrayed a secret. I feel spooked.
Clever fellow; you can see why Dunfermline went for him in their hour of need. But it could have been Hibs, couldn’t it? Just a few short months ago, between Colin Calderwood departing and Pat Fenlon arriving, the back-page shockeroonee announcing Jefferies as a candidate might have looked like the work of the creative department of an excitable tabloid sports desk on a dead-slow Tuesday afternoon, but no less than Pat Stanton was giving it credibility. Could he have done the job, would he have wanted it?
Another smile, conspiratorial this time, and he asks to speak off the record. I should respect this because I’m bound to annoy him later by bringing up 7-0, but suffice to say that he seems to have had more going for him than the recommendation of an Easter Road great.
“What Pat said about me was very kind and after that the story grew arms and legs,” he continues. “And then I played golf with John Blackley and he was urging me to do it, too. ‘Bloody hell,’ I thought.
“At Berwick when we got a bit of success I used to trot out the line, not altogether jokey, that filling the team with Hibs supporters like Yogi Hughes and Ralphie Callaghan was the secret because with me not able to be too close to them they were always wary of me. It was the same at Falkirk with Yogi again and Brian Rice so, who knows, maybe I could have pulled it off at Easter Road. It doesn’t matter now. Pat Fenlon’s there and good luck to him.
“I’m sure there are some Hibs fans who would never have accepted me but I think it’s the Jambos who would have had more of a problem. It would have been an extremely difficult situation. I mean, I like a challenge but to be honest it’s a relief that I never got asked.”
When you’re a Jambo like JJ – and he variously refers to himself as Hearts-daft, diehard and -dyed-in-the-wool – then going with the rock-bottom club six points adrift is actually the easier option.
Rescuing the Pars is challenge enough. “I enjoyed my time out of the game after Hearts and I probably needed it and when the jungle drums started beating again the missus was like: ‘Are you sure you want to go again?’ I knew I’d cleared the junk out of enough cupboards for her. And I’d probably won all the golf money I was going to get out of John Blackley who used to be the worst putter in the world but these days is a bit of a bandit with the broomhandle. I love my golf but I’m a football man.
“Financially, I’ve been fortunate enough to do all right out of the game and, with the greatest respect, you couldn’t call this a big payday for me. I’m not at Dunfermline for the money. I always liked the club. And I like them even more now I’m there – nice town, handsome wee stadium, right humble people who all want to help you and see you do well. So you want to help them back, get their team out of this pickle which isn’t hopeless.
“Obviously, after reducing the gap between us and Hibs it’s gone up again. But there are still 18 points to play for. When I think back to similar situations in my career, Kilmarnock were involved in quite a relegation scrap but managed to win ten points out of 12 after the split and finished up eighth. At Falkirk we played some great football in the run-in, beating Hearts 6-0 in what proved to be Joe Jordan’s last game as manager, but we lost our final match at Motherwell and went down. And I remember Tommy McLean being interviewed afterwards amid all the jubilation and sparing a thought for the quiet dressing room along the way. Wee Tommy’s a right terrier but again that was magnanimous.”
In his basement battle with his time-honoured rivals, Jefferies is trying to remain on the moral high ground and so far he’s succeeding. Every time he gets asked – and it happens a lot – how much he’d relish seeing them plummet through the First Division trapdoor, he says: “I’m not trying to relegate Hibs, I want to keep Dunfermline up.” He adds today: “Because I played in the Hearts team that lost 7-0, and managed the one that lost 6-2, I’m perceived as a Hibs hater. Listen, we had a lot of success against them as well. A 4-0 New Year’s Day win at Easter Road cancels out 6-2 and there were a few more times where I thought ‘Come on, we can get to seven today’ including the very next derby when Erich Schaedler headed my beautiful cross into his own net.” Ouch, and I have to admit this is as vivid a memory as the same Shades steamrollering JJ to set up the last of the seven eight months previously. “I don’t care who goes down,” he continues, “just so long as it isn’t Dunfermline. And whoever it will be deserves their fate, I’m afraid. League tables don’t lie.”
He does not expect, nor want, any favours from Hearts today. “The Jambo fans would probably take a defeat to put pressure on Hibs but I’ve heard lots of nonsense about conspiracies down the years and I have to say in my experience that when a professional footballer crosses the line, his winning instinct takes over completely.”
And Jim Jefferies – ex-captain, former manager (twice) and all-time hero – will bear no grudges against the club he served with such distinction come 3pm today. “I’ve said my piece about my sacking. The timing was a shock but, all things considered, the actual act wasn’t. I remember telling Billy Brown and Gary Locke at the start of the second term: ‘Don’t think for a minute this will be like it was before. The people who run this show now see things differently.’ Hearts operate like any other club with foreign owners. These guys put the money up and they can do what they want. We might think they’re a little odd, but they probably think Scottish football folk are bloody strange too. I remember when we got the Euro place I wasn’t thinking ‘Success’, it was more: ‘I’ve made it to 12 months, 13 ... ’ Fourteen months might yet go down as one of the longest reigns of this era. So I’ve no animosity towards Hearts, an exceptional club. Good luck to them.”
Good luck to Hearts, good luck to Dunfermline, good luck to Hibs – Jefferies has been magnanimous himself, as befits a just-about-seen-it-all veteran of our game. Oh, and good luck to Billy Brown too in his capacity as Hibs No 2 these coming, critical weeks. “Obviously our routine has changed. For longer than we both care to remember we talked every day. Then last year it was two or three phonecalls a week. He called me last night, funnily enough, and told me a wee bit about Hibs’ last game and I told him slightly less about Dunfermline’s. But we’re old pros; we’re not going to divulge secrets. And for the next while we’re going to have to dance round the big issue to avoid it.”
Just like how Jefferies has virtually waltzed straight past the subject of that game, 39 years ago. But I’ll get him for the big anniversary, you wait and see.
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