GARY Locke was able to bow out on a high as SPFL Premiership Manager of the Month yesterday after being deemed surplus to requirements by Hearts when the new regime at Tynecastle swept into power on Monday.
Under the terms of his contract with Hearts, which he is still technically under, Locke is prevented from speaking out about the precise nature of his departure or his feelings regarding how the matter has been handled.
However, he was able to express regret about one aspect of his swift exit – how it meant he had no opportunity to address the players who had gone through so much with him. He said: “That was the disappointing thing. I’ve obviously been in touch with the players, but it was disappointing not being able to see them personally. That goes for the fans as well, because they were fantastic from day one. They backed the team all season and I’d like to say thank you to them.”
If and when Locke returns to football management – and his aim is to do so as quickly as possible – he is sure of one thing. Any prospective employer will no longer regard him as an unknown quantity, or a novice who is still learning his trade.
Locke’s time in charge of Hearts only lasted around a season-and-a-half before being brought to an end at the start of this week by new club owner Ann Budge and director of football Craig Levein.
However, Locke is confident that he packed more into that period than many managers experience in a decade or more.
“Hopefully I won’t get called a rookie anymore,” he said yesterday after collecting the SPFL Premiership Manager of the Month for April.
“After everything that has happened this season, I think I’ve faced everything that most experienced managers could face in their career. This is a great way to finish and I’m really honoured to get the award. It’s great to get manager of the month and, hopefully, other people will sit up and take notice that I did a decent job.
“It was important I learned and it has certainly made me a stronger person and, hopefully, a better manager. It has not been easy, it has been a tough season. There’s been a lot of times when it did get really low, but the way we finished the season was a real high point. I certainly hope I never have to go through so many things like I have this season. If you speak to any manager, it wouldn’t be easy if you couldn’t sign a player. I hope to get back involved in the game and hopefully I’ve done enough to impress people.
“I believe I can walk away from Hearts with my head held high, as can Billy [Brown, the assistant manager] and Alan [Combe, the goalkeeping coach]. If you look at the goalkeepers, Alan has been a big part of that improvement. The team improved, there is no doubt about that. It is disappointing to leave but we can leave with our heads held high, knowing we did a good job.”
While Levein decided there was no place for Locke in the new-look Tynecastle set-up, over the past month the deposed manager brought out some excellent performances from his young team. They had three wins and a draw in the league in April and, although relegation was confirmed despite a win over Partick Thistle, Hearts ended up winning more points over the season than Hibernian, only going down automatically due to the 15-point penalty imposed for going into administration last summer.
“I think we can take a lot of pride in where we finished,” added Locke. “If it hadn’t been for the 15-point deduction we would have finished above Hibs and that is a fantastic achievement. And getting this award shows there were a lot of people out there that felt the team had done really well.”
While the loss of his job has been a blow to his pride as well as to his pocket, Locke still has faith in his own abilities and is sure he has more to contribute to the game. “I’d love to get right back into it.
“I’m well aware it won’t be easy – there are a lot of fantastic people out there who I have worked with that have struggled to get back in. I just hope I have done enough at Hearts for people to think: ‘He has done a good job’.
“I’ve loved my time in management and I’m really grateful to Hearts for giving me the opportunity. I’m not stupid, either. I know there aren’t a lot of jobs out there in Scotland or in England. I’m hoping to get back involved as quickly as possible, because football is all I’ve really known and all I’ve ever done.
“If it’s as a manager, great. If it’s a different role then it’s certainly something I’d consider.”
As a lifelong Hearts supporter, Locke’s ideal job in management would be the one he has just vacated. No such position will exist at Tynecastle for as long as Levein’s system remains in place, but just as Levein himself has returned after a decade away, could Locke conceive of himself being back in charge ten years or so from now?
“You don’t know what’s round the corner. I’m certainly not going to look that far ahead. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out but that chapter is closed for now and hopefully a new chapter will open for me really soon.
“I’ll always be a Hearts fan. You can’t just pick and choose which team you support. That’s the team I supported when I was born. My whole family support them and I wish them the best.”
Meanwhile, the Foundation of Hearts has streamlined its board of directors, with five representatives of supporters’ groups stepping down. The reduction in size has been planned for some time, and follows the earlier departures of Donald Ford and founding member Alex Mackie.
The five who stood down are Bill Alves of the Shareholders’ Association, Jane Lewis of the Supporters’ Trust, Dougie Masterton of Save Our Hearts, Calum Robertson of the Hearts Youth Development Committee and Henry Sneddon of the Federation. In addition, founder director Jamie Bryant has also stepped down and been replaced by Alastair Bruce. In due course the Foundation will hold elections for a new, six-strong board, with voting rights going to every member.