Five tumultuous years at Hearts give Liam Fox plenty to reflect on as he looks to broaden his coaching horizons. There was no fallout or acrimonious exit, just an appreciation of serving the club he supported. It is hard to find a player, coach or staff member with a bad word to say about ‘Foxy’.
It is also difficult to find another 36-year-old carrying anything like the same management and coaching experience. The decision to end his playing career five years ago allowed Fox to learn early at Riccarton, where he coached under-17s, under-20s, reserves and first team. He also managed Cowdenbeath for ten months.
The aim now is to put that knowledge into practice elsewhere. Fox left Hearts last month after coaching the reserves since December. The lack of a reserve league in Scotland this season made his job redundant.
He refused the offer of a different role which would have steered him away from hands-on coaching. For five years he has immersed himself in studying for UEFA badges, mastering people management and helping footballers develop. It remains his passion. He will complete his UEFA Pro Licence in a matter of weeks.
Although disappointed to leave Hearts, he enjoyed a priceless grounding there for half a decade. “You go through a process where you are disappointed and maybe get a wee bit angry, but that’s life. I have massive respect for [manager] Robbie Neilson and [owner] Ann Budge,” said Fox, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“Me and Robbie had a previous relationship so I think he found the conversations quite difficult. As I did.
“The club were keen to keep me in a different role. It was going down a different path. I finished playing early to get a better start in coaching, which I still think was a good decision, so I wanted to stick with that.
“Naturally, I felt I had something to offer Robbie and the club, but he’s the manager and he needs to make tough decisions. I think he is the right man for the job, absolutely.
“It was a fantastic experience. I sacrificed my playing career to join Hearts and I’m well aware people will argue I should have retired earlier,” he laughed. “I made that decision and I think it’s been justified.
“For my age, I’ve got some great coaching experience and dealt with a lot of situations. I’ve had some great times and I’ve taken so much from working with a lot of good people. Hearts is a great club.”
Fox was part of the first-team coaching staff until Craig Levein was sacked and replaced by Daniel Stendel in December. He addresses the misconception that Stendel ruthlessly cleared the decks after arriving.
“Daniel wanted me to work with him,” explained Fox. “After I’d had a couple of days with him and seen what he was looking to do, Ann sat down with myself and Jon Daly and asked us where we felt we fitted in.
“I felt I could help Daniel more by taking the reserve group. I knew he wanted to bring his own people in and I thought I’d be of most value working with the younger players.
“People think Daniel just came in and cast folk aside. It wasn’t like that. He did actually want me to work with him but I really liked working with the kids.”
He had also endured a bruising few months as part of that senior coaching team. With Hearts bottom of the Premiership, no-one escaped flak. Levein copped a lot of it, assistant Austin MacPhee was also targeted, as were coaches Daly and Fox.
“Craig and Ann gave me my opportunity at Hearts and I will be forever grateful for that. Ultimately, we didn’t win enough games and didn’t do enough, so you’re open to criticism. There’s no hiding from that,” said Fox.
“Until you are actually the manager and making the decisions, you are there to support. That’s not me passing the buck because I have the utmost respect for Craig. He helped me massively. When you are on the staff and the team aren’t winning, people will take a shot at you.”
Fox’s coaching philosophy is based around a technical, passing style of play. That is simultaneous with managing individual personalities.
“Doing different roles at Hearts has given me an all-round skillset. I’ve adapted to working with different managers and different players of various ages,” he stated.
“If I’m honest, I don’t eactly know where I want to go yet. I think I could coach youths but I can easily switch to first-team level, which I think is a positive.
“Coaching is being able to go up and down a spectrum. At one end, you are strict and giving out orders. At the other, you are more relaxed and flexible.
“Every day, you need to go from one point to the other and stop at various points in between to deal with different players. They all respond to different treatment.
“Some need told exactly what to do, others who are perhaps more experienced don’t need it so regimented. It’s about finding different ways to get through to people.
“If players see you putting in time and effort with them, and then if your information and detail is good, they will buy into your methods. It’s the same with a 50-cap international or a 16-year-old kid.”
Managing Cowdenbeath at the age of 32 proved to be a useful but draining experience as they fought relegation. Fox eventually resigned in March 2017 and returned to Hearts. He is in no rush to venture back into senior club management.
“Not in the short-term. What I’ve seen is a culture of young coaches who want everything right now,” he said. “They want a job now and they want success. I’m not decrying that at all but, for me, I want to still be in the game in 25 to 30 years.
“I want to enjoy the process and the journey. At some point I’d like to get back to management and I think I can, but there is still more of the process to go through until I feel it’s the right thing for me.
“Coming out of Hearts, it will be good to see something different, work with different people and see different cultures in football. Ian Cathro really opened my mind to that because he had come from Spain and Portugal. He had seen different things.
“People in Scotland are obsessed with football but there is a big world out there. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong, people just have their own way. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and look at what else is there. I’m open to anything anywhere.”
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