Interview: Dundee boss Paul Hartley relishes his ‘boring’ life

Dundee manager Paul Hartley at Dens Park. Picture: SNS
Dundee manager Paul Hartley at Dens Park. Picture: SNS
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It says everything about Paul Hartley that, while attempting to prove his life is not completely dominated by football, he brightens at having
thought of something he believes strengthens this argument.

“I have made friends up here,” the Dundee manager announces, proudly. “I play golf with them,” he adds. He even names them. “Big Scrimmy, know him?” If it’s big Brian Scrimgeour, the former Dundee and Falkirk defender,
then yes. Who else, out of interest, 
are invited on these trips to Downfield Golf Club?

Slightly less triumphantly this time, since he knows he has been rumbled, Hartley replies: “Big Bobby.” That will be big Bobby Glennie, who everyone in these parts would instantly recognise as the one-time Dundee centre-half and whose well-kent face bears the mark of multiple broken noses in the dark blue cause.

So his new friends are two former Dundee footballers, both of them 
significantly older than Hartley, who turns 40 later this year (it’s incredible 
to think he has already been a manager for six years).

And what do this unlikely trio talk about as they trample down the fairways? “Football,” Hartley concedes. “We talk about football.” It’s a fair cop, he accepts. Football dominates the life of someone with precious little down time in any case, given he has recently become the father to a baby daughter. He has had four days’ holiday this summer – in Crieff.

“I don’t do anything exciting,” Hartley says. “I think I am pretty boring to be honest with you. All I think about is the game. I love it. So yes, if I have a game of golf we talk about football.”

Ask his peers to describe Paul 
Hartley and it’s almost certain the phrase “hard-working” will feature.

That’s certainly the view of Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager. He once told me that if he is at a game in Scotland on whatever night, and providing Dundee are not playing of course, it’s a good bet Hartley will also be there, either scouting potential new talent or studying how another manager does things. “I use to play with him,” notes Hartley of O’Neill, approvingly, since they both seem to share the same work ethic.

They were together for a spell at 
St Johnstone. But it’s unlikely O’Neill’s number is saved in his phone; not many of Hartley’s old team-mates’ mobile numbers are. He hasn’t time for such fripperies as catching up with old mates. He can’t be expected to keep up with all of them – after all, he played over 600 games for ten clubs in a near 20-year career. That’s a lot of ex team-mates. But then he claims not to be in touch with any of them.

“No, hang on,” he says. “I spoke to one of my ex team-mates from Bristol City the other day… but then 
he is now an agent. 
Bradley Orr, he looks after guys like Jordan Rossiter [the recent Rangers signing]. I knew he was in town the other day, so I phoned him, up. I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I just wanted to see if he had any players!”

Hartley was never a great socialiser, he explains. Even as a player, he tended to draw the line at going out with his team-mates.

“A right weirdo!” he laughs. “I’d always get on with the players in the dressing room. But away from it, I 
cannot say I have kept in contact with anyone. That’s not to say if I saw them now I wouldn’t talk to them. But it was just not me. I liked to be my own 
person, my own man.

“Do I have players’ numbers in my phone? Nah. Not interested.”

Not even his blood brothers, the 
Riccarton Three? One of Scottish football’s strangest stories in recent times – if ten years ago can really be termed recent – was when three senior Hearts players, Hartley, skipper Steven Pressley and Craig Gordon, called a press conference in an attempt to lift the lid on the increasingly barmy Vladimir Romanov regime.

“We just thought, ‘look we are going to make it public’. It’s for the team’s 
benefit. We just sat there and let Steven do the talking! But no, we were part of it. They called us the Riccarton Three, which still makes me laugh; it is like we had just come out of jail.”

He is still adored by Hearts fans. It isn’t difficult to imagine he might end up back there. But as he points out, he wasn’t always so well regarded at Tynecastle. “I remember I got paraded at Hearts, it was me and Dennis Wyness. Because of my Hibs connection, there were a lot of boos when I got announced at half-time. It was the last game of the 2002-03 season. And 
do you know who we were playing? Dundee. It took me a period to settle in and then I was off and running. £1.2 million to Celtic, and I didn’t cost Hearts anything.”

Romanov should have kissed Hartley’s feet. It’s possible to wonder whether Hartley’s experiences with the difficult Romanov made him instantly suspicious of an approach, in September 2014, from Vincent Tan, the Cardiff City owner fond of wearing replica shirts and high-waisted trousers.

Not that Hartley saw the Malaysian businessman’s dress sense for himself. “I only spoke to Vincent Tan on the phone – at least I think it was 
Vincent Tan!” That was enough for Hartley to decide to continue his managerial 
education at Dundee.

“We had the conversation,” he says. “But it did not feel right. I did not feel in control of the situation. I am a manager that needs to be in control, certainly in terms of the football side of things, and team selection. I was not getting that. So I said no.

“Financially it might not have been the right decision,” he adds. “It was a big decision because that opportunity might not come again. But I just want to be here, establish this club, make us better. The dream is to try to win some silverware here.”

This week, in the countdown to the new league season, Hartley’s been hard to pin down. Despite tasking two experienced first-team players, James McPake and Darren O’Dea, with taking charge of Dundee’s Under-20 side, he was still at Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat by Cove Rangers in the Irn Bru Cup. “I am at every under-20 game on the bench. I can’t sit in the stand. I am with the group.”

The following night he was at Parkhead, for Celtic’s Champions League qualifier against Astana. He wanted to observe how Celtic are doing things now under Brendan Rodgers – and Dundee don’t even play Celtic until October.

“I wanted to see what sort of team they are,” he says. “Are they possession based, do they play it forward early? We are coming up against Celtic 
this season, so what’s their style going to be?

“This is my job, my life,” he adds. “I have to try to be in football for the next 25, 30 years. I want to try to work as long as I can, stay in my job as long as I can. The priority for me is to try and be as successful as I can.”

It isn’t luck why Hartley has made a name for himself unearthing gems from the lower leagues. Dundee are currently fielding calls from English clubs for prize asset Greg Stewart. If he leaves before the end of the transfer window, as seems likely, the club who signed him for nothing will net perhaps as much as £500,000.

That’s the reward for being diligent enough to attend lower league reserve matches, which is where Stewart first caught Hartley’s eye: Alloa reserves v Cowdenbeath reserves, five years ago. “I saw this left-footed player: ‘Oof, he can play’,” the former Alloa manager recalls. Hartley describes Stewart as one of the most technically gifted players he has worked with or played alongside – and that includes international football.

On being appointed Dundee 
manager in February 2014, the first thing he did was tie-up Stewart on a pre-contract deal from Cowdenbeath.

The subject of Stewart’s future is one of several burning issues on the day The Scotsman has arranged to meet with Hartley, who is prepping before a “meet the manager” event at Dens later in the evening. “How much did [Leigh] Griffiths go for?” he wonders, with reference to Dundee’s sale of the current Celtic striker to Wolves in 2011.

This is clearly in reference to Kane Hemmings’ recent departure to Oxford United for £250,000, a sum considered low by some Dundee fans, perhaps overlooking the fact he, too, was sourced for nothing. The meeting later in the day means Hartley will be at Dens until after 9pm, having arrived at the ground before 9am.

Occupied elsewhere in the stadium, he is running slightly late for his 2pm appointment. Following the club’s owners’ purchase of an area of land on the outskirts of the city suspiciously large enough on which to build a new stadium, it’s pleasing to have time to sit and appreciate the intricate details of the Dens Park main stand. From 
the DFC-patterned carpet to the sign above the door, which reads, perhaps a little archly: Welcome to the city’s 
oldest football club.

The club wasted little time during the summer advertising season tickets as being for Dens Park, “home of the city’s Premier football team”. So it is a little surprising the boast above the door hasn’t been revised slightly to include this further bragging right over the neighbours.

Remarkably, Hartley is the first manager since Willie Thornton to lead Dundee into a top-flight season devoid of matches against Dundee United: 1959-60 was the last time this happened. It’s slightly more recently – April 2011 – when the Dens Park side last won a game north of Dundee inside 90 minutes. This could be 
playing on minds as they prepare to tackle Ross County in Dingwall this afternoon.

Despite the obvious strides forward made under Hartley, he knows supporters arriving for the “meet and greet” later are likely to be preoccupied with negative stories, such as Gary Harkins’ exile. Not just fans, 
journalists too. From stand-in skipper and one of the heroes of the night Dundee relegated their rivals to persona non grata, what happened?

“That’s a situation between me and the player [Harkins],” he says. “I have my view on it. It is just my view. Between myself and the player, we have different views. He won’t play again for Dundee as long as I am 
manager.

“That happens sometimes,” he adds. “We have enough midfielders now, we have enough talent there also.”

There’s clearly been a breach of club discipline during pre-season. But even were this not the case, one wonders whether Harkins, while abundantly skilful, falls into the category of player Hartley prefers – and once was.

During his own playing days, 
Hartley settled into the role of a 
bustling, deep-lying midfielder who, like now, relished hard work. This was after bursting on to the scene as a dashing winger at Hamilton Accies. He scored his first professional goal right outside the window where we are sitting, on the afternoon of 16 September, 1995. “Left-footed,” he recalls. “Inside the box.” He points towards the Bob Shankly stand. “That end, with the old terracing and the greyhound track. 1-1. I always loved coming here.”

A west coast boy to the tips of his toes, he has found life in the North-east very much to his liking, setting up home immediately in 
Dundee following his appointment. He mentions having spoken recently to “Rixy” – yep, you guessed it, about players. Graham Rix, briefly his manager at Hearts, once starred for 
Dundee in a memorable victory on the turf outside. “4-3 v Rangers,” replies Hartley, quickly.

“I know the history,” he says. “Obviously there’s history with the Scottish Cup [which Dundee haven’t won since 1910]. We are the new Hibs, I know that. That is something we have to address. I am disappointed about the League Cup of course 
[Dundee have already been knocked out, despite being joint highest-
scorers at the group stage].

“I know the frustration of the supporters,” he adds. “But I think over the last two years we have brought some good football to the club. They know they will be entertained. There will be frustration, but that happens.”

Despite the loss of Hemmings, 
Harkins and likely departure of 
Stewart, he scoffs at those who rank Dundee as relegation contenders this time around.

“I have great belief in the squad that we are going to do OK,” he 
says, expressing delight with this summer’s recruitment work so far, including this week’s addition of the exciting Faissal El Bakhtaoui. “But the league is hard this year,” he 
cautions. “I think it is the strongest it has been for the last six, seven, eight years.”

He will continue to adapt, as shown by the Hartley trademark of players emerging early from half-time to perform a variety of exercises, one of which requires the fastening of a large plastic band to a dug-out. “Me and the fitness coach [Tam Ritchie] were like, how do we get better, how do we improve? I don’t want to talk to them for 15 minutes. What do you say? Two, three minutes max, get your point across. Then get them out again. We have changed things again this season,” he adds. “It will be 21 minutes only for the pre-match warm-up. I saw something Paul Clement said when he was at Real Madrid, ‘we only do 21 minutes, we don’t do 40 any longer’.

So I thought: ‘I am going to look into this’. Normally you are out at 20 past two and in at just before 5 to. Now we will come out at 25 past and head in at around quarter to…”

The city’s oldest football club might soon be on the move. But then nothing should stand still if the impressive, and ever-so-slightly obsessive, Hartley has anything to do with it.