GARY Locke had sound reasons for appointing Billy Brown as his assistant shortly after he became manager of Hearts. Having been given a high-pressure, high-profile job very early in his managerial career, he needed the backing of someone with far greater experience. Someone he could trust utterly, who knew him and the club well.
Now that Brown is about to leave and Hearts apparently have no plans to recruit a replacement, Locke can only hope that he has learned enough in a short time from his older colleague to survive on his own. He will still have the able and willing assistance of Robbie Neilson, but the under-20s coach is even more of a novice than Locke is. It’s all about the manager himself, and how much resilience he can muster during what remains of one of the most difficult seasons in Hearts’ history.
So far, the signs have been good. Indeed, in recent weeks, as the pressure of the fight against relegation on minimal resources has clearly begun to get to Brown, Locke has displayed a growing maturity. As a Hearts player, he was indomitable. Completely committed to the cause, and capable of bouncing back quickly from reverses. That commitment is undiminished in him as a manager, but bouncing back in the same way is a tougher task when you are responsible for the whole team. Yet, while there have been times when Locke has been deeply frustrated, perhaps even bewildered, by events on the park, he has always maintained his dignity.
It is not that long ago that Locke, having returned to Tynecastle as first-team coach under Jim Jefferies, was set to be No 3 in a new coaching team. According to club sources, Peter Houston was within hours of taking over as manager, and poised to appoint Paul Hegarty as his assistant, when the call came from Hearts’ then owners in Lithuania: Give the job to Gary.
The significance of this is that some of the people who wanted to appoint Houston are still at Tynecastle.
Under normal circumstances they would never have appointed Locke so early in his coaching career, and the manager himself would agree with them in that respect.
So managing director David Southern and director of football John Murray have been placed in an unenviable position. They have a senior employee to whom they would not have given the job and his results, to say the least, have not been good enough to persuade them to have a rethink. Locke’s sympathisers argue that no-one else in the same situation, no matter how experienced, could do any better. They believe that, with a threadbare squad, most of whom are still eligible to play for Neilson’s team, some heavy defeats are inevitable.
From the point of view of Southern and Murray, however, accepting that inevitability is pretty close to acknowledging that relegation is an inescapable fate. Beating the drop may look impossible now, with Hearts trailing behind the rest of the division by 20 points, but the gap was smaller a couple of months ago and, of course, there were more games still to play then.
So, according to some employees and to friends of Locke’s, those two men decided there should be a change of management. Locke and Brown should go. Even if bringing in a new coaching team was no more than a throw of the dice, it was worth a try. There was nothing to lose.
But, just as Vladimir Romanov and his lieutenants ruled out the appointment of Houston last year, so administrators BDO appear to have decided against replacing Locke. And that is where the picture becomes murky.
Under normal conditions, a football club has a simple structure. The manager is answerable to one authority – the board of directors. But at Hearts, who have been in administration since last June, there are three different authorities with varying degrees of power: Southern and Murray; Bryan Jackson of BDO; the Foundation of Hearts.
In legal terms, the buck has stopped with BDO since they were appointed administrators. But Jackson’s primary task is to steer Hearts out of administration and, having decided to keep Southern and Murray on, he leaves some aspects of the running of the club to them. At the same time, since naming them as preferred bidders for the club, he keeps the Foundation informed about developments.
According to the Foundation, they are kept in the loop but not asked their opinion. In the case of Brown’s departure, this means that, while senior figures within the group were aware it was a possibility, the actual decision had nothing to do with them.
It became clear last week that Jackson had decided to keep faith with the present manager. He issued a statement that went well beyond the traditional vote of confidence, saying the club would stick by Locke and hoped he would reciprocate that loyalty.
To those who were aware of the internal unrest, that was a signal that the issue was over for the rest of the season. Associates of Southern say that he concluded then that not only was Locke staying but Brown would also remain. Instead, Jackson appears to have agreed on a halfway house by keeping the manager and jettisoning his assistant. He, not Southern or Murray, conducted the discussions with Locke and Brown about Brown’s impending departure.
Some Hearts employees, as well as supporters and Foundation members, have become sceptical about Jackson’s role. They see the parting of company with Brown as an unnecessary act of bloodletting, and argue that Jackson should spend less time on matters such as that and the appeal to the Scottish Premier Football League against the club’s signing ban, and more time on the phone to Lithuania, where the matter of Ubig’s 50 per cent share in Hearts remains unresolved.
BDO’s counter-argument is that every penny counts. With no date in sight for taking the club out of administration, they need to eke out their budget for as long as possible. Hence the decision not to renew Brown’s contract, which was due to expire at the end of this month. Hence the pay cuts agreed yesterday by Southern and Murray.
It would be inaccurate to typify all this as a power struggle. There has been no muscle-flexing, and everyone involved has so far remained extremely polite. All the same, the removal of Brown has left Locke with an even more difficult job than he had before – something that in recent weeks he may not have thought possible.