Is the grass always greener? SPFL managers who left for England

Robbie Neilson prior to his final match as Hearts manager. Picture: SNS
Robbie Neilson prior to his final match as Hearts manager. Picture: SNS
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Robbie Neilson has gone. Officially confirmed last night after three days of talk, the Hearts head coach has made the surprising decision to swap Tynecastle for Stadium MK.

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Going from second in the Scottish Premiership to 19th in League One has baffled many people. However, according to Hearts director of football Craig Levein, Neilson wants to manage at the top level in England and believes he has a better chance of getting there by succeeding in the lower leagues rather than staying in Scotland.

It’s a fair bet. No manager has gone direct from Scottish football to the English Premier League this century. You have to cut your teeth in the Championship or below.

However, to call the EFL a cut-throat world would be putting it mildly. Coaches are dispatched at will by tempestuous owners and it’s easy to get lost in the 72-club structure, for players and managers.

Here we look at how the nine most recent managers to have swapped Scottish football for life down south have fared.

Note: these are only managers who left a Scottish club to directly join an English one. It does not count the likes of Neil Lennon, who quit a job in Scotland (Celtic) knowing his next move would likely be to England.

Bobby Williamson

Hibs to Plymouth in 2004

Time in charge: 16 months

Was it a success? So-so

Williamson wasn’t the most popular of managers with the Easter Road faithful. He was famed more for his “if you want entertainment, go to the pictures” line than anything else. Therefore, it was somewhat of a surprise when Plymouth came in for him in April 2004.

He secured promotion by winning his first match and did manage to keep the south coast club up in the First Division (Championship). He was sacked following a poor start to the next campaign. Considering the club’s financial problems at the time, it seemed harsh. But he was replaced by Tony Pulis who comfortably kept the club up.

Williamson later became manager of Uganda.

Craig Levein

Hearts to Leicester in 2004

Time: 15 months

Success? No

Levein left just when Vladimir Romanov was taking control of the club, so he probably dodged the proverbial bullet even if it did not work out for him at Leicester City.

He took over a team floundering near the bottom of the Championship... and left them a team floundering at the bottom of the Championship, albeit one which had Mark de Vries, Alan Maybury, Stephen Hughes and Joe Hamill on its books. He had, however, overseen a dramatic 3-2 FA Cup comeback against Spurs, so it wasn’t a complete disaster.

After returning to Scotland he managed to do the seemingly impossible by turning Dundee United from a perennially relegation threatened club throughout the early 00s into a club which routinely challenged for Europe. It helped get him the Scotland national team job, but... but it’s best if we just leave that to the past.

Tony Mowbray

Hibs to West Brom in 2006

Time: Two years, eight months

Success? Yes

Mowbray is one of the most popular Hibs managers in living memory. He achieved such status by being the polar opposite of his predecessor Williamson and demanding attacking, attractive football from his players. He left after consecutive seasons in the top four, and the side he built would go on to win the League Cup under John Collins.

Even though he was relegated from the Premier League in his final season, the West Brom fans liked Mowbray’s brand of football and appreciated the rebuilding job he’d done to get the Baggies back among the big boys. It was enough to get him the manager’s job at Celtic, though less said about that the better.

Owen Coyle

St Johnstone to Burnley in 2007

Time: Two years, two months

Success? Absolutely

Coyle is the only boss on this list to use the switch to springboard himself into, what was perceived at the time, a better job in English football. After improving Burnley in his first season, he managed to lead the Turf Moor club to the top flight for the first time in 33 years. They looked to be avoiding relegation when, much to the dismay of Burnley fans, he jumped ship to Bolton. Coyle’s new club stayed up, while Burnley were relegated. However, it’s fair to say Burnley have enjoyed the last laugh. They’ve since enjoyed two other promotion campaigns under Sean Dyche, while Bolton are currently languishing in League One. Coyle, meanwhile, saw his career take a tumble. After underwhelming stints at Bolton, Wigan and Houston Dynamo, he’s now in charge of Blackburn.

Derek McInnes

St Johnstone to Bristol City in 2011

Time: One year, three months

Success? Probably not

After being the man who finally led St Johnstone back to the top flight, and keeping them up relatively comfortably, McInnes decided to swap McDiarmid Park for Ashton Gate despite the Championship club sitting bottom of the table at the time.

He resurrected their fortunes shortly after arriving and managed to avoid the drop, but City were a disaster the following campaign. When McInnes left in January, they’d suffered an seven-match losing streak and were eight points adrift at the bottom of the table. They were relegated at the end of the season.

McInnes came back to Scotland and managed to re-energise Aberdeen. The Dons have placed in the top three of Scottish football in each of the last three seasons and won the League Cup in 2014.

Steve Lomas

St Johnstone to Millwall in 2013

Time: Five months

Success? Definitely not

There used to be a gateway from McDiarmid Park which led directly to the English Championship; one which has, frustratingly for Tommy Wright, closed since Lomas decided to leave peaceful Perth and enter the Lions’ Den.

Lomas and the Millwall board should probably have taken a quick straw poll among fans and asked whether they would be happy with a former West Ham star taking over. They were not.

Millwall had struggled the season before in the Championship, but such was the fan pressure that even though the team didn’t do much worse in the 2013/14 campaign, Lomas was still booted out before Christmas. He’s not worked in football management since.

Steven Pressley

Falkirk to Coventry City in 2013

Time: One month shy of two years

Success? Arguably so

Pressley was sacked by Coventry after less than two years, but he still did a decent job considering the obstacles he was up against. In his only full campaign, Coventry were in administration, had been handed a ten-point deduction, and were playing their home games 34 miles away in Northampton. Despite this, they avoided relegation and comfortably so. He may have left with the team struggling near the foot of the table the following season, but they are still playing in League One now, which may not have been the case without Pressley. Besides, Coventry are generally looked upon as a complete basketcase of a club at the moment.

Fleetwood Town certainly weren’t put off, hiring him to replace his former Scotland team-mate Graham Alexander in October last year. Pressley did a decent enough job, saving the side from relegation, before resigning this past summer.

Alex Neil

Hamilton to Norwich in 2015

Time: 23 months and counting (though probably not for much longer)

Success? Yes (even if he is sacked)

Neil is currently heading for the chop. Norwich, who started the season very well and looked certain to challenge for promotion straight back to the Premier League, have now lost five consecutive matches. However, even if he does get the old heave-ho, the team are sitting in eighth position. That’s exactly the position Neil found them in when he first arrived from Hamilton. In the time between, they enjoyed a rapid rise up the table, a memorable play-off final win against Middlesbrough, and a season in the Premier League. There’s not much more they could have asked for when the appointment was made.

Alan Stubbs

Hibs to Rotherham in 2016

Time: About a week and a half (actual answer: five months)

Success? Oh god, no.

“Right, the Scottish Cup is in the bag. Now time for promotion, isn’t that right, Alan... Alan?”

Stubbs’ move to Rotherham seemed a little strange at the time and it looks even stranger now. He’d just won Hibs the Scottish Cup. He had the freedom of Easter Road. Not to mention the fact he still had the task of leading Hibs back to the top flight, which would have been another achievement to add to the CV. Instead, he swapped Edinburgh for Rotherham and it went disastrously. With one win in only 14 games in charge, he was given his marching orders in October.

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