IT may not be carefree, but life is most definitely a picnic for Ian Murray these days.
“I was up at 7.30am before the Morton game making packed lunches for everyone,” says the fledgling Dumbarton boss with a wry chuckle. It’s not the life many imagine when they think about football management. It’s not the reality Murray anticipated either. But there are no gripes.
He has already convinced the club to bring the chef in to provide pre-match food for the players at home games. He hopes they will eventually cater for away matches as well. In the meantime, though, Murray will continue to do what is needed to prepare his squad for what is likely to be a long battle to avoid relegation from the First Division.
When he took over the “Sons of the Rock” in November, the part-timers were in danger of being cast adrift at the bottom of the table. But Murray has steadied things and two wins before yesterday’s 2-0 defeat of Partick Thistle – which he accepts “were probably unexpected by everyone except us” – against Falkirk and one of the title favourites, Morton, have given things a different perspective. They have also given the team belief.
Only a few weeks earlier the Greenock side had trounced Dumbarton 5-1 but, on 2 January, they responded with a 3-0 win and, while they succumbed a few days later to Dunfermline, to allow Jim Jefferies’ men to retake top slot, there were still positives from the match.
Less than 72 hours after he had been given the job at the Bet Butler Stadium, Murray watched from the sidelines as his new squad lost out 4-0 to Dunfermline. The match a few weeks later was far more closely contested, with a solitary goal separating the sides.
“The good thing is that the players don’t like losing. They take defeats quite hard. Confidence was low and self-esteem had taken a hit and, when that happens, you can get in a rut. I’m not long out the dressing room so I know how players think and, if you keep losing, then it does start to play on your mind and you almost go into games 1-0 down before a ball is even kicked. But the other side of that is, if you are full of confidence, you go out expecting to win games and that was shown in the game against Dunfermline. We had won two on the bounce and we believed we could win that one and, OK, we got beat but we went down fighting.”
While so many of the leagues in Scotland are being slaughtered for the predictability of the key issues, the First Division still has everything to decide. At the top there are several contenders for the title and, where once the relegation issue seemed settled, there is now a battle raging.
As Murray poses for photos against the backdrop of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, there is a sign nearby urging “Caution: Sudden drop”. He laughs at the chances of that being a warning aimed at him. But he is far too realistic to dismiss the idea out of hand.
“We have a foothold now but we are not getting carried away.”
Dumbarton have shown signs of improvement and they are back within striking distance of the two teams above them. To leapfrog them, they need to capitalise on their games in hand. There is a long way to go and, while every manager has ideas about how his team should be set up, the type of tactics they should employ and the brand of football they should play, Murray is not distracted by romantic notions.
“Teams have to be able to change throughout a game. Hamilton are great at that, they can play any formation, Livingston are the same because they have good footballers so they can adapt quickly. But, if you are too rigid, people soon suss out how you play, a bit like what happened to us [when I played] at Hibs. Other teams figured it out and it made it very, very difficult for us to get out of the rut. There were times, and this is no disrespect to Yogi [former Hibs manager John Hughes] or the rest of the players at that time, but we were crying out for a change in approach but, as players, we had to go out and do as we were told. And that’s why the second half of that season [2009/10] was so tough.
“To be fair to Yogi, he did sit us down and ask us what we wanted but, at the end of the day, it still comes down to his formation and the players he picked and it worked at the beginning of the season. It was enough to get us back into Europe for the first time in a few years and we finished fourth in the league, so we did OK and I think people tend to forget that and he gets a lot of unfair stick but we did struggle the next season.
“At the moment, because of where we [Dumbarton] are in the league, I’ve told them that I don’t care how they play as long as they get points and that’s still our mantra because, if we don’t win any more points between now and the end of the season, then we are getting relegated. We could be the prettiest team in the league but we will still be relegated and I would rather be the ugliest team in the league and be picking up points and stay up. But, to be fair, against Falkirk and Morton, they did both.”
Murray admits he hadn’t expected to make the leap into management so early. Still just 31, he was playing across in the USA when the vacancy came up. “I applied to test the waters more than anything else,” says Murray, aware that more of his peers were making the move into management earlier as playing squads get younger.
His inability to get back to Scotland for an interview meant he almost blew his chance. But he got a second opportunity a couple of weeks later and, within an hour of meeting, the Dumbarton board, was offered the job.
“I think the young guys who came in as rookie managers over the past few years have helped me because they have shown what they can do. I think it is now filtering up the way because, even a couple of years ago, not many people got the opportunity to start as managers in the First Division, so I have been lucky. That was a big pull, that and the fact the team wasn’t performing to a particularly high standard so it meant a lot of the pressure was off. For now, I knew there wouldn’t be massive expectations.”
Being the manager of a part-time team presents its own frustrations and Murray has had to get used to peculiarities such as players working up until noon on match days.
And some of the demands on a manager are alien to a guy who, in the past, simply had to turn up at training to find his boots and training kit clean and waiting for him. Still registered as a player, Murray says he will pick himself if he feels he is fit enough and can add something to the team. But he’s in no rush. The new challenges, everything from administration to dealing with agents, organising training sessions and friendlies, making sure everyone knows where and when to turn up and even making sandwiches, have given him a fresh lease of life.
“It’s helped alleviate some of the boredom that maybe comes after 15 years as a professional footballer. In terms of the whole drama and build-up to games I’m really enjoying the preparation and work that I’m now having to do.”
Past experiences have help mould Murray, the fledgling manager. Having worked under a number of young managers who earned their stripes before moving up to the SPL and beyond, he says he has learned something from most of them. “The best piece of advice I got when I was young, and it was from Alex McLeish, was ‘don’t let the crowd make the pass for you’. It is simple and it’s the same principle now I’m a manager. I have to make the decisions and, while I will listen to my backroom staff, the final decision is mine. It’s the same with the fans, we respect the fact they love their clubs and put money into the clubs but most managers will disregard what they have to say about tactics and team selection and rightly so because the manager is the man in charge, and he sees the players at training, and it’s his job on the line.
“My dream would be to take Dumbarton to the SPL and I think any manager of a lower league team would love to do that. It’s a big dream and a long way off but that would be a real sense of achievement. And it can happen. Ross County have shown that.”
Embarking on a career in a tumultuous profession which offers little security, Murray knows there are no guarantees, only a lot of hard graft. It’s a steep learning curve but, whether he is planning training sessions, picking the team or making those packed lunches, he knows which side his bread is buttered on.