SFL play-offs: Hartley wary of Pars comeback

Paul Hartley (centre) celebrates with Alloa scorer Calum Elliot. Picture: SNS
Paul Hartley (centre) celebrates with Alloa scorer Calum Elliot. Picture: SNS
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AS A player, Alloa Athletic’s manager Paul Hartley enjoyed success at the highest level with Hearts and Celtic, and as far back as 1999 he won a Scottish First Division medal with Hibs.

Capped 25 times for his country, Hartley will today take Alloa to East End Park in a bid to oust Dunfermline Athletic from the First Division and thus perform the remarkable feat of leading his club to promotion for the second successive season.

The Wasps have a 3-0 advantage from the first leg of the play-off final at Recreation Park on Wednesday night, but having seen Dunfermline’s extraordinary 6-1 defeat of Forfar in the second leg of the play-off semi-final, Hartley is counting no chickens.

Hartley said: “It is a difficult game for us, everyone has written off Dunfermline but in the dressing room I have instilled into the players that this tie is definitely not over.

“We saw how they came back against Forfar, and they will get great backing from the crowd. We are in a good position, but that’s all.

“Jim Jefferies is a fighter, and speaking to him after the game in midweek he told me that we will see a different Dunfermline, and I am sure we will. They have proved they have fighting spirit, so we know what to expect.”

Hartley knows all about Dunfermline’s financial problems and has sympathy with them, and also his former club Hearts. But he wants success for the Wasps first and foremost, and is determined that his players will not park the bus. Rather, he wants to take the game to Dunfermline from the off.

“Even though we are 3-0 up we will have a go,” said Hartley. “We won’t be stupid, we will try and play the way that we played on Wednesday night because that’s the way we have played all season.

“The first 20 to 30 minutes will be very important. We will have to feel our way into the game quickly, get plenty of early touches on the ball and try and quieten the crowd down.

“The pressure is on Dunfermline, not on us. They are the First Division club fighting for survival. No matter what the result is, I will be proud of my players.”

Hartley is one of numerous former Celts now in management, but does not call the likes of Neil Lennon, Paul Lambert and Jackie McNamara for advice. He admits, however, that former managers have been his mentors.

“I have spoken to Gordon Strachan a couple of times and I am still in contact with Craig Brown,” said Hartley, “and also Iain Munro who was my manager at Hamilton, and Gerry McCabe who was one of my first coaches.

“But I am my own man, I like to do things my own way and I don’t want to rely on anybody else. If I need advice I will pick up the phone but as a manager you have to make decisions on your own.”

Though the Wasps were comprehensively beaten to the Second Division title by Queen of the South, Hartley is in no doubt that gaining promotion to the First Division would be a bigger achievement than last year’s Third Division championship.

“This is probably the biggest game of my managerial career so far,” he said. “When you work with a small budget and then you come up against a full-time team, a big club like Dunfermline, then you have to say that beating them to go up a league would be a fantastic achievement.”

Since taking this, his first managerial post, at the start of season 2011-2012, Hartley has formed a close relationship with Alloa’s chairman Mike Mulraney, and hopes to present him promotion number two.

He said: “I would be particularly pleased if we could do it for the chairman. He has spent a lot of money on the ground and in different areas of the club, and it would be a great reward for him. When I arrived here, we had no players signed, and we had to start from scratch and build a team within three or four months that could challenge for the Third Division title.

“We managed to do that, and we have added to it this season. There has been a rollercoaster of emotion at times, but overall it’s been a great two years.

“As a manager I am ambitious, I want to get to the highest possible level, but you have to start somewhere as a manager, and the chairman gave me the chance for which I am very grateful. Further down the line I will want to test myself at a higher level but just now I just want to get us into the First Division and hold our own there.”

Dunfermline Athletic are pinning their hopes on a return to grass, as Recreation Park’s artificial surface did not suit them.

They had a light training session yesterday and veteran manager Jefferies has been playing a subtle psychological game with his tyro opponent, claiming that “all the pressure is on Alloa now because they are the ones who can throw it away”.

At 4.05 pm this afternoon, the pressure will be on the players. At stake for Alloa is further success, at stake for Dunfermline may be their very existence. Who will crack first?