At the Michael Woods Sports and Leisure Centre it’s the busiest day of the week. This is when Bodypump Express collides with Senior Flex and when Boogiefit and Insanity and Total Press-Ups compete for custom among the good, out-of-condition people of Glenrothes. Just then, a group of young men in red tops descends on the canteen for lunch. You might call their chosen activity Lenny Wind-Ups.
Nothing personal, but the Raith Rovers footballers simply want to prolong Neil Lennon’s sticky patch at Hibernian this afternoon. Their manager, Gary Locke, who’s making himself a wrap from the healthy options, looks positively invigorated: by the bracing wind on the training pitches; by the job of running a club where decency and realism are not in short supply; and by the identity of the opposition.
He squeezes into a child-size dayglo chair and remembers the first time he faced Hibs as a player: “I was still living at home in Bonnyrigg and my mum always made me my pre-match meal. It wouldn’t have been pasta like footballers get now but a massive fry-up. There were a lot of folk in the house that day – extended family and friends – and they were already on the pints.” This was the Edinburgh derby, Locke of course turning out for Hearts who he first saw play aged two, captained at 20 and would go on to manage at 38. In the Hibs team that day was Darren Jackson – now his No 2 at Raith – who drops by to say hello before directing some cheery abuse at one of their charges. “Sharper getting your lunch than you were out there,” quips Jacko. “That’s harsh,” is the reply. “No’ harsh – fair.”
Locke laughs and continues with his reminisce: “That derby was a great day. Jacko clattered me and we were yelling at each other for the rest of the game – but look at the pair of us now.
“I was lucky enough to lay on the winner for Allan Johnston. I knew where the Bonnyrigg gang were in the crowd and ran right over to them. They carried on the celebrations back at the Four in Hand pub. I left them to it, enjoyed more of my Mum’s cooking, read the match report in the Pink News and watched some rubbish on the telly feeling pretty amazing.”
Locke would have a lot of great days, not least in the derby which he never lost as a player. There would be awful days ruined by serious injury. And there would be near-tragic ones when, as boss of Hearts, he feared the club were about to be snuffed out.
But all of this is in the past. It’s shaped who he is as a man and a manager but Locke has moved on. He loves the routine at Stark’s Park. What’s his office like? “Cold,” he says and he has a first-time memory from here, too: “I was up against Tony Rougier. He’d just elbowed me in the face so I went for him. I was half an hour late with the tackle and got sent off.”
Today kicks off a corking series of games for Rovers. After Hibs they play Falkirk and Queen of the South followed by the Fife derby against Dunfermline Athletic. That sequence should go some way to shaping their season, so what’s the ambition? “To try and do as well as last time,” says Locke, whose predecessor Ray McKinnon took the club into the play-offs. “That’s going to be hard. There’s quality in the Championship. Never mind who’s already there, look at the two who’ve come up: Dunfermline and Ayr United both have a great tradition and are well-supported. But top four has to be the target.
“Raith are a great club, a fantastic club. A family club, well-run, with good people in charge. I heard good things about them before I applied for the job and did my research on them as well. I’d had it difficult at my previous two clubs and I wanted to make sure with this one that I was going to be able to just get on with the job, concentrate on the football and nothing else.”
So, bearing in mind those difficulties with Vladimir Romanov at Hearts and Kilmarnock’s Michael Johnston, what’s his relationship like with Raith supremo Alan Young? “The chairman comes along to training every Friday and he and Eric [Drysdale] the chief executive have been great so far. They leave me to it, which means that if results aren’t good they’re my fault. The manager takes the responsibility and that’s fine. But they’ve backed me as much as they possibly can. It’s difficult with the budget we have; there obviously isn’t millions of pounds to spend. But that’s alright because this club are living within their means. Once the budget’s spent there’s no more. I have to get on with it.”
Although football people traditionally never look beyond the upcoming game, and the next three for Raith are big ones, 41-year-old Locke, a dad-of-three, can see that short trip to Dunfermline on the near horizon, the Pars of course being managed by the recipient of his cross in that 1993 Edinburgh derby. “Myself and Allan go all the way back. We came through the youths at Hearts together. He’s older than me by a year – just a year although it looks a whole lot more! He’s a quiet lad which is a wee bit different from myself and although we’re rivals now the friendship will never change.
“I’m looking forward to us going to East End. I loved the first derby of the season and, okay, we won it but the build-up was fantastic as was the atmosphere on the day. Having the fixture back is great for Fife.”
Locke and Johnston’s bond also includes that spell together at Kilmarnock, ill-starred for both. Johnston recruited Locke as his No 2 when the latter didn’t know where his next job was going to come from. Then when Johnston left, the No 2 became the No 1. “I was going to go, too, but Allan said that if I got the chance to manage I should take it. I was grateful to him for bringing me to the club and then for giving his blessing for me to take over.” But Rugby Park didn’t work out for Locke either and he quit in January with the club second-bottom of the Premiership.
So how would he describe his relationship with the Killie chairman? “Michael’s Michael. It was difficult,” he says. “I’m not going to go into detail about what went on behind the scenes but there was a lot of unrest and to be fair if the manager’s not getting results he gets stick too and that’s what happened to me.
“I was big enough and tough enough to take that. And I always felt that given time I could have turned the situation around. Listen, there are things I would have done differently. I know I made mistakes but they’ll stay secret too. The trick is to not make them again and I don’t intend to.” Pressed on this, he mentions recruitment. Locke brought in a number of players with Hearts connections; few were a conspicuous success. But he’s not criticising his men. Players can take time to settle at a new club; time wasn’t on Locke’s side.
There’s an ongoing problem at Killie, he says. Expectations are unrealistic. “When I played for them they were getting big crowds, were well-backed with the likes of the Moffat family putting in a lot of money and the standard of player coming to the club was English Championship. But unfortunately over the last few years Kilmarnock haven’t been able to hold on to their crowds. Big factories have shut down and folk don’t have the money for football anymore.
“But when the crowds dropped from nine and ten thousand to three or four, the expectations didn’t drop. My team were expected to be top six and challenging for cups. That’s still expected even with the smaller crowds and with recruitment being a challenge. Kilmarnock go for the same players as Dundee, Dundee United, Hearts and Hibs but these clubs can pay a bit more, plus they play on grass which footballers prefer. Look at the Premiership these days: if Hamilton stay up it’s a fantastic season and the same for Motherwell if they finish mid-table. Kilmarnock’s expectations have to be similar now.”
So, after Killie, did he once again worry about his future prospects? “Of course. There are a lot of good managers who still can’t get jobs. I got a bit of praise at Hearts. I got no praise at Kilmarnock but that happens sometimes. Did I start to doubt myself? I looked at what I hadn’t done well. I probably kicked myself every day for a while.”
Who’d be a football manager? “I know. There are times when the criticism you get is really harsh. Robbie [Neilson] at Hearts has had it recently. Why do we do it? Well, when things aren’t going well this is the worst job in the world. But when everything’s hunky dory it’s the most enjoyable.”
That sounds melodramatic and Locke knows it is. As a teenage Tynecastle tyro he got given sharp reminders there were worse occupations every day in life. We’re talking about young footballers – admittedly English Premier prospects, not those in the starker confines of Stark’s Park – getting too much, too young. Locke says: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with young guys seeing the unglamorous side. At Hearts I had to clean the boots, clean the terracing – clean the toilets. Sandy Clark, who was in charge of the kids, used to say: ‘Could you do that for a living or do you really want to be a footballer?’
“That drove me on. Being a player is privileged, brilliant. I think some kids today think that if they don’t make it in the game they’ll just do something else and it won’t be anything like cleaning bogs. I decided I needed to be a footballer rather than risk something not very nice. I wasn’t going to take that chance.”
Locke’s Jambo debut was three months before that first Edinburgh derby, an inconsequential end-of-season game at McDiarmid Park that meant everything to the 17-year-old. “I came on in the second half for Derek Ferguson and felt like I’d just entered the World Cup final.” His whole family – brothers, uncles, cousins – were Jambos and even though he was invited to train with Manchester United and Middlesbrough and other Scottish clubs were keen on him, Hearts were always going to win the signature.
Years with a six in them are often auspicious ones for Hearts in the Scottish Cup but in the ’96 final at Hampden, with the game against Rangers just a few minutes old, Locke turned quickly and ruptured his right knee. It was the worst of the injuries he suffered, brought his great progress to a juddering halt, and although the career would last another 13 years, taking in a stop at Bradford City, then in England’s top flight, it didn’t reach the heights predicted for it, nor bring him the international honours which had surely been coming his way.
Always a captain, always a shouter on the park, Locke would have seemed future management material anyway, but those setbacks as a player made him extra-determined to prolong his football life after he’d hung up his boots. “Everyone will tell you that the time spent out of the game, through injury or not having a club, is the worst. You miss the camaraderie, the banter and also the pressure. As much as the pressure can sometimes be horrible, you miss it.” Still, there was no sense of entitlement about him taking over at Hearts. Nothing about the Romanov era could have been foreseen; Locke was as astonished as the next man.
“I was the cheap option,” he says. “Hearts didn’t have money to spend anymore. They’d done that under Romanov and it nearly proved disastrous.” Boxed in by administration and a transfer embargo and having been hit by a 15-point penalty, Locke in 2013-14 had no option but to play the kids. So when was the pressure he secretly enjoys at its worst? “By about October the young lads were making numerous mistakes and we were on a really bad run. I remember a few nights when myself and Billy [Brown, No 2] would be puffing our cheeks out and saying to each other: ‘What are we going to do here?’ We couldn’t sign anyone so it wasn’t going to get any better come January. We just had to keep believing in the young guys.”
Hearts were duly relegated and having seen the likes of Callum Paterson, Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker grow up quickly in extreme circumstances – while reckoning that he’d learned a few things about management and himself along the way – Locke couldn’t wait to begin the recovery job only to be relieved of his duties by new director of football Craig Levein as the Ann Budge era got under way.
Locke won a lot of praise for his dignified tutelage of Hearts during the darkest period in their history. The man himself, though, is more pleased that his proteges, including Scotland cap Paterson, are progressing in the game. “They weren’t ready for that season but to their credit their heads never went down and I think coming through that horrible time has made them better men off the park and better players on it.”
He doesn’t dwell on that all too brief spell running the club he loves with a passion. “It would have been great to get a shot at the job when everything was alright with the world for I couldn’t have been manager of Hearts at a worst time. But I don’t resent what happened to me – life’s too short for that. Football can be a cruel game; it doesn’t owe you anything. No matter your affiliation to a club, when your time’s up then it’s up. If people think I did my bit to help Hearts survive, that’s great. Good luck to Hearts but I want more of it to come to Raith Rovers now.”