If Gary Locke was in any doubt about how demanding this football manager lark can be, then the rookie Hearts boss has been given the ultimate crash-course over the past few weeks.
June is supposed to be the quietest month of the year for most football folk; a time wheneven the embattled managers can escape for a few weeks in the sunshine to try and switch off. Locke hasn’t had that relative luxury. He spent the early part of the summer eagerly lining up moves for the likes of Kris Boyd, David Goodwillie and David Wotherspoon as he sought to rebuild his ravaged squad. But then, while on his family holiday in Turkey, trying his hardest to take a break from his dream job, his plans were unceremoniously ripped apart when he got the news that Hearts had entered administration. After returning home to face the music last week, he barely had time to draw breath before welcoming what remains of his squad back to Riccarton for their first day of pre-season training yesterday.
After all the recent strain, the sight of a group of enthusiastic young footballers walking through Riccarton’s revolving doors was a welcome one for the manager. “I tried my best to enjoy the holiday,” he said. “Obviously it was great to be away with my wife and kids and you enjoy the sunshine and all the rest of it, but at the back of your mind you’re just constantly thinking about everything happening back home.
“I was in constant touch with [director of football] John Murray, who was keeping me up to date with the situation. It was horrible when he broke the news [about administration] and it certainly affected the last few days of my holiday. I felt quite helpless out there, but even if I was here, there wasn’t a lot I could have done. I knew the job would be stressful because every manager I’ve spoken to has told me that you never get a minute to yourself and that you’re always on the phone, and that’s been the case for me. It’s really hard to switch off from it. I tried my best when I was away on holiday to switch off and I did okay in the first week because there was no-one out in Turkey wanting to come and speak to me about Hearts.
“You’ve got to try and switch off at times, but it’s hard when you’re manager of such a big football club. Even when you’re lying on the sun lounger, you’re constantly thinking ‘could I get him in the team’, ‘could he play there’ and stuff like that.
“I only had those two weeks off in total. Although the players go off on holiday at the end of the season, I was still in here trying to rebuild for next season until all of this happened. I didn’t see this coming. It’s been a horrible first summer as a manager. It’ll just make things more difficult but I’m a determined character and I’m enthusiastic, so whatever team we start the season with, I’ll be quietly optimistic.”
Locke has barely been in charge of Hearts for four months, but for a man whose first official game as manager was a cup final, it is somewhat typical of his reign that he’s hardly had time to gather his thoughts since last season ended less than six weeks ago.
Needless to say, the support – not to mention tolerance – of his wife Lynsey has been crucial in helping him through the most testing managerial baptism imaginable. “Lynsey keeps me right,” he said. “She goes to all the games and thinks she knows the team as well as me, so I’m not too far away from having an assistant in that regard. She’s been brilliant. She understands that the job I’m in is 24/7. You need that – it’s important to have someone who’s going to back you all the way. I’m fortunate that I’ve got a really close family supporting me.”
Having been reunited with his players, Locke is now plotting a way to help his team overcome the most ultimate adversity. A youthful 21-man squad containing three goalkeepers and no out-and-out striker gathered at Riccarton yesterday where the foundations were laid for what the manager hopes could yet become one of the most special seasons in Hearts’ history. He knows they’re in a bad place just now, with the uncertainty remaining over the club’s future allied to a 15-point penalty and the ongoing signing embargo.
Nonetheless, Locke is hoping the backing of a full-house, blood-pumping Tynecastle combined with a tight-knit young squad emboldened by the sense of pride and defiance currently surrounding the club can punch above their weight and stay in the SPL. “I’m hoping to create a real family environment with the team,” he explained. “After everything that’s happened there seems to be extra pride about the squad. No disrespect to the players that have been here in the past because they’ve all been great, but I certainly feel we’ve got a squad where everybody wants to be here. Although it’s not a big squad, it’s certainly one that if everybody gives it their best shot, we’ll have half a chance.
“What’s happened has galvanised a lot of people. We’re not out the woods by any means yet, but if we keep getting the support that we’ve been getting then we’ll not be far away. Of course it’s not good to be in this predicament, but in some ways this might be one of the most exciting seasons for the fans. We’ve got a real focus from the very first game of the season.
“We can’t afford to drop many points at the start of the season. We’ve not got a big squad though, so it’s going to be an uphill struggle to stay up. We’ll try our best, though.
“We’ve got to try and be competitive. We’re a really young side and we’re 15 points adrift before we even kick a ball, but we’ll give it our best shot. The young players are going to have to do some quick growing up but the positive thing is that they’ve all had a taste of it. It was always going to be a big season for the young boys because the second season’s always more difficult. But most of them have come through the academy and they know what it is all about at this club and what it means to play for this club. I am quietly confident we can do reasonably well. It will be a huge task, but I’m delighted with the experienced boys who have decided to stay and help the younger ones.”