IT’S a competition with bittersweet memories. Last season John McGlynn steered a Hearts side already mired in off-field issues and strangled by a signing embargo to the League Cup final. But others were in the technical area at Hampden as he watched from the stands after the club’s powerbrokers sacked him in the run-up to the big day.
Now after six months out of the game, McGlynn has returned to the bustle and banter and plotting of management and, on Wednesday night, his Livingston side will face Motherwell on his return to the tournament that saw him defy the odds and so many difficulties last term.
Given Livingston’s poor start to the season and their position at the foot of the Championship, there is no doubting their underdog status but McGlynn merely hopes that means they will be underestimated.
“We have to hope they drop their guard. But I have the greatest respect for Stuart [McCall, the Motherwell manager] and Kenny [Black, his assistant]. They are good football guys and they have some very good, creative players. I did all right against them last season, we beat them and drew with them while I was at Hearts but they are winning games again and I expect them to finish high up the league table again this season.
“The two games we have won this season have been in the League Cup and we have home advantage so it should be a good night.”
There were a few of those as Hearts made their way to last season’s final on a run that included a fairly straightforward win against McGlynn’s new club. But, in the couple of rounds that followed, matters were fraught, albeit ultimately fruitful. In the quarter-final against Dundee United, Hearts were forced to play for more than 40 minutes with ten men before winning on penalties. Then, in the semi-final against Inverness Caley Thistle, they repeated that feat.
“Those games have taken a few years off my life,” states McGlynn. “You’re going well and then players are sent off and you have to dig in deep. You have to earn your wage. You have to make decisions on your feet. Do you shut up shop and close the game down? Do you buy time or go all out for a winner to avoid extra time and penalties? Do you counterattack? Do you sit back? Then you have to reorganise again for extra time.”
Figuring all that out and discovering he had players who were capable of fighting to the end for each other and for him gave him immense satisfaction, especially as the sale of higher-paid players and injuries to regular starters meant he had to rely on younger and younger squad members.
“The side against Inverness in the semi was particularly young and they had to stand up and be counted and they were exceptional that day. We played nearly 50 minutes with ten men against a team who were flying and we all know now how well Inverness did [last season] so the players deserve a lot of credit.”
But the foundations for that win had been laid much earlier in the season as McGlynn was keen to plan for every eventuality after a league match against Terry Butcher’s men.
He added: “We had a game early in the season against Inverness, where we were 2-0 up and we ended up drawing 2-2 after Inverness went down to ten men, so we worked quite a lot on ten v eleven and it’s actually amazing how often the ten would beat the eleven. If you give the ball away in bad areas then you are vulnerable to the counterattack because teams with eleven players usually push too many people forward. That probably helped in those cup games because you are always learning and we learned a lot from that experience.”
History has always been a valuable learning tool for McGlynn. A man who works hard and thinks deeply, he takes something from every experience, good or bad. From his time at Raith Rovers – where he proved his managerial credentials and was lauded by his peers as manager of the year – to his array of roles at Tynecastle over the years, he has absorbed all he can. It leads him to believe he is now better placed to lead Livingston up the league and deep into the cup competition.
“I had a lot of experience of working at Hearts before I went to Raith Rovers. I had done everything from the youth team job up to reserve team coach, to being first-team coach, caretaker manager, and assistant manager. I had gained a lot of experience and seen a lot and I was well aware of how the football club was run. But you are always learning. It was Jim Jefferies and Craig Levein who told me to take the Hearts job and not to worry if I got sacked. They said it wouldn’t damage my CV because most people in the game recognise that, with the previous owner, those sort of things happen quite often and it is not necessarily based on whether you were doing well or not. They were among the first people on the phone to reassure me afterwards as well.”
The time after his sacking was a bleak period. At 51, McGlynn had never been out of work and he didn’t enjoy it. Billy Brown advised him to get a bike and that helped him pass the time. He had the odd game of golf and he took in games around the country, from Brechin to Berwick Rangers, Ross County to Musselburgh Juniors. But not at Hearts. Not after the League Cup final, which Hearts lost 3-2 to St Mirren.
McGlynn said: “The football club invited me to that and I took them up on the invitation.” A tough day but surely one that presented him with some sense of satisfaction, knowing he was the manager who had guided the team there? He pauses. He still isn’t comfortable talking about that episode, fearful that anything he says could be construed as lambasting his former employers and that’s not his style. He fidgets before finally, almost whispering, “Yes… yes, there was satisfaction in seeing the boys, because I knew I had played my part in getting them there.”
So, have the wounds healed? McGlynn is still in touch with his successor, Gary Locke, who wished him well in his new job. He has been back to the academy but, despite taking in games all over the country, he hasn’t watched a Hearts game since that final. Why not? “That’s a tricky one. I’m not sure.” Another lengthy pause. “It’s not because I don’t want to go but this season I have been helping my nephew at Musselburgh. It’s not really that it’s still too raw.”
There is some hurt, though. Hurt that injuries, transfer restrictions, off-field turmoil and financial fears were not considered mitigating factors in last season’s results.
McGlynn is now looking forward to a new challenge. He says he has quality to work with and he is enjoying the fact that, at Livingston, football alone has his full focus.
“We face a challenge here and we all have to work together to take the club up the table. I don’t feel I have to prove myself to anyone but I probably need to make it work. After Hearts I need to do well because, in some way, my time at Hearts was a failure and I want to succeed because I’m a winner! That’s the attitude I want from my players. Hopefully, I will see it against Motherwell.”