Novice king of Queens: Allan Johnston on Queen of the South’s future
ROOKIE manager Allan Johnston predicts big things for his squad, writes Andrew Smith.
QUEEN of the South have taken the Challenge Cup to places it has never been in 21 previous editions of the tournament. Sponsors Ramsdens may not entirely delight in that fact. But the club’s penalty shoot-out defeat of Rangers at Ibrox in the quarter-finals could be potentially life-changing, never mind season-changing, for the players at his disposal, ventures Queens manager Allan Johnston. He accepts that his team, with home advantage for today’s last-four meeting with Arbroath, have a “massive chance” of reaching the final. That would appear obvious after they tanked Paul Sheerin’s side 6-0 in the Second Division only last month. Johnston, though, has concerns that the thumping will actually provide the Gayfield club with impetus. “They will be out to prove a point,” he says.
Yet the fact is the victory is one of 12 that Queens have racked up in 14 outings this season, their solitary defeat coming in the League Cup against Dundee United. And while that form has earned Johnston a second consecutive Irn-Bru Second Division manager of the month award he modestly suggests it should intensify interest in his squad.
“I think people will be looking at a lot of our young players when they can put in a performance like they did at Ibrox,” says the novice player-manager, who stepped up when Gus MacPherson was relieved of his duties as Queens were relegated from the First Division last season. “I think they will sit up and take notice of them through the rest of the season. It is good for the club too getting all the publicity.”
Johnston takes heart from the fact that the rave reviews have not turned the heads of his team. A superb start to his management career certainly won’t change the unassuming former Hearts, Rennes, Sunderland, Rangers, Middlesbrough, Kilmarnock and Scotland attacker. He doesn’t feel the need to be more outgoing. And if he can’t get his message across in the quiet, calm fashion dictated by his personality, then he can always look to assistant Sandy Clark to provide the rollickings and water-bottle kicking.
“He was my first thought [for the No.2 role] when I got the job,” Johnston says. “I worked with him before, he gave me my debut at Hearts, so I knew how good he was. Sandy’s brilliant because he doesn’t agree with everything you say. That is the last thing you want. I wouldn’t say we were pals, we wouldn’t phone each other up or anything, but we would obviously chat if we ever bumped into each other. I have picked up this award because the team is doing so well and everyone is working as a unit, from staff to players. Everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
It was the old Hearts connection of Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown who set Johnston on the coaching career path by allowing him to work on the training pitch when they were at Rugby Park together. He is grateful to MacPherson and his assistant for allowing him to continue with his development at Queens, a club he considers is the perfect proving ground, even if he has the invidious task of pulling it together following a painful relegation. “It is invaluable experience learning at a small club,” he said. “Sink or swim, isn’t it? If you start at a larger club you get everything done for you but at a smaller club you start realising how much work there is to be done. It can only improve you as a manager and coach.”
Johnston expects to obtain his pro licence this year, having gone to Middlesbrough to study the club’s training methods and youth set-up. Manager Tony Mowbray was “brilliant” with him, and the club’s academy and standard of young player “something else”. Yet he can draw optimism from the fact that Queens are also progressive in this area. “Our boys reached the Youth Cup final last year and that is important when we want to keep bringing players through,” he said.
Johnston played for Queens when they lost out to Ross County in the Challenge Cup final two years ago. This season, his club are bidding to become only the fourth winners of the trophy from beyond the First Division, a feat the Palmerston club achieved eight years ago. He doesn’t envisage playing in a second final, should Arbroath be overcome. “Ah, I don’t know. The players are playing so well right now I can’t justify a place in the team. We’ve got that level of competition for places and that is what you want.” What any club would want in appointing an untried manager would be for the new pick to appear as immediately comfortable in the role in the manner of Johnston.
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