Edinburgh City boss James McDonaugh on learning from Jock Stein, via Joe Craig

There is a sense that James McDonaugh’s life has been building towards this. From a six-year-old playing Football Manager on his grandfather’s ZX Spectrum, the Edinburgh City boss has been on an educational journey.
Edinburgh City manager 

James McDonaugh says he had a rebuilding job when he first joined the club. Picture: Neil HannaEdinburgh City manager 

James McDonaugh says he had a rebuilding job when he first joined the club. Picture: Neil Hanna
Edinburgh City manager James McDonaugh says he had a rebuilding job when he first joined the club. Picture: Neil Hanna

While others gravitate to management in a seemingly natural progression after time dictates that their body is no longer able to play the game, McDonaugh’s ambitions were always clear.

Even as he kicked a ball about, developing his favoured left foot and dreaming the same dreams of every football-daft kid eyeing a stab at the professional game, he harboured wider aspirations.

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“I got into coaching when I was still at school. I was in sixth year and the second years wanted to start a school team. I was so much into it because of the information I was getting from Joe Craig, the former Celtic player. He was my coach at under-18s at Strathrock in Broxburn and I just couldn’t get enough info from him.

“I knew he had played under Jock Stein and although he was a bit before my time, I knew he was a legend and in my mind that meant I was tapping into information that might as well have come from Stein himself and therefore it must be right.

“I didn’t just want to know about what he wanted me to do at left back, I wanted to know about the right midfielder, know what the striker is doing, what about the centre mid? I wanted to take it all in.

“I was so enthused by what I was being taught and I wanted to put that into practice and understand it more.”

That thirst for knowledge never deserted McDonaugh and he began to work his way through coaching courses and gain badges at a prolific rate and while he never made it to the top as a player, the lessons he learned as he made his best stab at it, fashioned the fundamentals on which he has built his career and a growing reputation.

“When I was in my 20s I was already on my coaching pathway so I was ten years ahead of some of the guys still playing. I was building the platform and delivering thousands of training sessions. I suppose it was a bit like the Dutch model, where they don’t parachute ex players straight into the top jobs, they learn their trade coaching youths. I met one of the De Boers in Holland and he was taking the under-14s at Ajax youths. He wanted to be a first-team manager but he was building up to that.”

By the time McDonaugh was 29, he had landed a coaching role at Hibernian and eventually was appointed head of Academy Coaching at the Easter Road club, where he saw and learned from seven different managers and nurtured the likes of Paul Hanlon among countless others.

“In the seven years I did that, around 50 of the youth players I worked with have gone on to either play for Hibs or are playing first-team football at another club. I think that’s a decent return,” says the 41-year-old, who also has a three-year stint as assistant manager to Peter Houston at Falkirk on his CV, before moving down the leagues but out of the shadows by accepting the Edinburgh City job in October 2017.

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In the two years since, he has completed his Uefa pro licence and it has become evident that both manager and club are on the up.

When he joined City they were embroiled in a relegation battle and having fought so hard to work their way up from the East of Scotland league, through the Lowland League and earn their place in SPFL League Two, it was not one they wanted to lose.

He turned things around, made sure they stayed up, and then launched a promotion bid last season. Ultimately, they fell short, losing to Clyde in the play-off semi-finals, but this term the target is to get up and they are well-placed to do that, according to McDonaugh. “When I came in the ex-chairman Jim Lumsden was also the kitman and he probably got a bit of a culture shock when I came in and started demanding things.

“Some noses had to be put out of joint, I had to be the big bad wolf, to blow the house down so we could rebuild it. Getting where we are now has not been easy but we needed to raise standards.

“In fact, the first thing I did was buy new balls because the ones we had, I’m not sure they were even round!”

League Two is a competitive division and although it is early in the season, City, Cove Rangers and Cowdenbeath look like the sides most likely to push for promotion. The capital side have a core of experienced pros, with the likes of former Hibs players Danny Handling, Alex Harris, Calum Antell and Calum Crane and ex-Partick Thistle defender Conrad Balatoni.

There is new investment with Tom Tracy coming on board, and that in itself is a sign that they are moving in the right direction.

“Would he have come in two years ago? Maybe, but he didn’t,” states McDonaugh. “He has come in as a result of us being at the top end of the table, being on TV and showing ambition. That is not down to one person, it’s the management, the staff, the footballers but also the volunteers and the board. It is a team of about 40-50 at Edinburgh City and by all working together, we have made it successful. Now that Tom is on board, hopefully we will become even more successful.”

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McDonaugh is too humble to say it but he has been a key factor. A man who has won one Manager of the Month award – with eyebrows raised that several more have not followed – he has a win ratio that beats most in the four top leagues.

“Yeah, that’s almost 100 games now and it is a 50 per cent win rate. When I found that out, I was curious so I looked up all the other current managers in the leagues and only Neil Lennon, Steven Gerrard, the Ross County boys and Robbie Neilson have a better record than that. So I must be doing something right, especially as we only won five of our first 29 games. So the record since has been pretty good!”

It explains why bigger clubs are keeping tabs on him and sizing him up.

Turn back the clock more than two decades. A young McDonaugh is sitting in the dressing-room having missed a penalty for Strathrock in a Scottish Youth Cup final. Craig is ranting and to the kid on the receiving end, it seems like he is being held responsible for the defeat, despite the fact they were trailing 3-0 when he wasted his spot kick. He stayed silent and took it on the chin.

There’s also the time when an old-school trainer is fruitlessly and unnecessarily running him into the ground, despite him picking up a tropical disease on honeymoon. Or the spell when, as a late developer, he was desperately trying to make up lost ground but his age meant he was too old for schoolboy forms and too raw to make the first team. Instead he shuffled about reserve sides, unable to break into to a Crewe Alexandra first team already rammed with the likes of Neil Lennon, Robbie Savage and Danny Murphy and instead grew more and more disillusioned in the Berwick Rangers and then Alloa reserves or kicking about on loan in the junior ranks, where the penchant for hoofball wore him down.

“Even at that age I had quite strong opinions on how I wanted the game to be played so it was dire. I didn’t realise but at that time I was already developing strong views on management and how the game should be played and players should be treated to help get the best out of them.

“All those things must have made an impression because I can still remember them all these years later and they have shaped the way I coach and manage players.

“If someone had managed me a bit better, spoken to me, been honest with me, or just helped me work on things I wasn’t so good at, it might have been different but that’s something I learned early on.

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“I suppose it has made me the manager I am now. I hate when I hear a coach say ‘I have taken you as far as I can’ or ‘there’s nothing more I can do’. There are always things to work on, always more we can do. I just want to keep learning and keep getting the best out of players. I want us all to be the best we can be and I’m not afraid to work hard to achieve that.”

And, in City he has a club that now mirrors his ambitions.