Interview: John McGlynn on how pushy parents prepared him for Vladimir Romanov’s regime, and keeping spirits up during dark days at Hearts
Good friends who follow rival teams tend to go all queasy when the story of the Raith Rovers shipwrecking is told for the umpteenth time. No fans like the sworn enemies getting one over on them in any shape or form, and the 1923 calamity off the coast of north-west Spain grabs almost the entire quota of comedy and romance allocated to the Fife corner of the fitba firmament. But it should be said: the current manager at Stark’s Park sounds like the ideal man for such a crisis.
John McGlynn may never appropriate his Aston Villa and Scotland near-namesake’s “Super” handle, but he has a fine reputation as a Red Adair character who puts out fires, quells storms and, well, steadies ships. He did this at turbulent Livingston and most notably at teetering-on-the-very-brink Hearts during the tinpot dictatorship of Vladimir Romanov. Oh, and he possesses another skill which could prove valuable, especially in more mundane water-based misfortunes: he’s a time-served plumber.
McGlynn is in his second stint at Raith. First time round, I know that he wielded paintbrushes, drove minibuses and, yes, fixed leaks. “It was more than that – I fitted the showers,” he says. “We got them from Musselburgh Athletic, one of my old clubs, when my brother Charles was their chairman. Push-button, so the players didn’t run off all the hot water before the stragglers got in, which was a problem with our old ones.
“It might seem strange that Raith have to rely on cast-offs from down the ranks but junior clubs have got good access to grant aid and Musselburgh coming from a mining background had that going for them as well. I’m pleased to say the showers are still working although they won’t last much longer. So all you wee clubs: don’t chuck any out!”
It’s a cold day at the old year’s end and not much warmer in the Stark’s Park boardroom. McGlynn apologises for this and cranks up a heater but any visitors would be cheered by the display of handsome clocks, barometers and mirrors gifted by the likes of Morton and Clyde to mark Raith’s centenary – proof of football’s wonderful esprit de corps at this level.
This is the time of year when supporters from the Premiership, suffering withdrawal symptoms owing to their league’s winter shutdown, might want to seek out a game in a proud little town a train-ride away, returning them to terraces and honest endeavour. So what would I see if I came back to Kirkcaldy today for the home match against Peterhead? “I think you’d be extremely surprised because we play good football,” says McGlynn. “We have an identity and we’re easy on the eye. There are technical players in our team and we don’t just want to boot it – not even in games like last weekend.”
This was the local grudge match up the A915 at East Fife. “Let’s be honest, derbies can be murder,” he continues. “Often fans will be happy with a blood-and-snotters nil-nil. ‘Thank Christ that’s over,’ they’ll say, ‘no damage done.’” Well, Raith damaged their rivals’ promotion hopes by winning 5-3 to close 2019 two points ahead at the top of League One.
Not that anything’s settled yet. Not when Raith can seemingly be cruising with a three-goal lead only for East Fife to bag two quick goals. “Yes, I went from the greatest thing since sliced bread to: ‘What are you daein’ McGlynn? Are you watching this?’” Still, as they say in the third tier like everywhere else, he would have taken this advantage at the start of the season, and especially given the problems Raith have had with cruciates and medials – though East Fife haven’t been shaken off, Airdrie United lurk and Falkirk, who he mentions a few times, are the only full-time team in the division and cannot be ignored.
McGlynn is 58, bespectacled and bald and I’m imagining that at intimate theatres like Bayview the latter two aspects are rarely missed by the opposition rump. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he laughs, “but I suppose I could have selective hearing.” So when did the hair go? “I can’t blame Hearts for this but there are photos of me when I went there in 1995 to coach the Under-16s and I still had a decent amount. It disappeared quickly after that.”
The long-lost hair was red and like many carrot-topped Scottish boys born at the dawn of the 1960s he wanted to be Jimmy Johnstone by the decade’s end. McGlynn grew up in Wallyford, East Lothian and he still calls the place home. Apart from the hair, not much changed: he’s the same football nut he’s always been. For instance, he’s the son of a miner but when I wonder what living through the big strikes was like he says: “I mean, they must have been tough but when you’re a kid and you’ve got a ball, everything’s okay.” Then, when asked how he gets away from the game, he admits: “That’s the problem – I don’t. It’s football, football, football with me and it drives my wife Wilma nuts.”
Like most of us, McGlynn is informed by his background. It’s shaped his attitude to life, also work. There was that time in 2012 when, as the 11th manager appointed by Mad Vlad, it looked like he could be the last, ever. “Hearts could have gone bust but I went into Tynecastle every day and thought: ‘I’m going to put on a really good training session and, with luck, we’ll have another game on Saturday.’ That was the attitude in those days, or at least where I come from. The Wallyford way was a boot up the arse and get on with it. No one was going to feel sorry for me. Mental health hadn’t been invented!”
And the club didn’t die. And the sessions were enjoyable. Edgaras Jankauskas played under top managers and was guided to the Champions League by Jose Mourinho but once famously declared: “John McGlynn made the biggest impact on me. In all sincerity, his training excited me most.” McGlynn smiles bashfully behind his tiny frames. “That was very nice of the big man. And to think him saying that only cost me a fiver!”
His coaching career began with Lothian United Under-13s and experiences learned in the juveniles have proved invaluable. “I had a long apprenticeship to become a manager. Successful players can go straight into the job but I wasn’t one of those and so had to start way doon. But the great thing about that is you have to deal with parents – pushy parents and grumpy parents because their wee pride and joy didn’t get a game again. I tell you, cope with that and the likes of Romanov are no problem!”
For the record, McGlynn was an S-form Jinkyesque winger at Dundee United until Jim McLean told him he wasn’t fast enough. Then it was on to Bolton Wanderers where Frank Worthington was the star and Sam Allardyce – later to become English football’s Red Adair – was a team-mate but it didn’t work out there either. He had three years at Berwick Rangers before slipping into the junior ranks where he combined football with plumbing.
Back when wing-wizard ambition still burned, McGlynn and the rest of Wallyford Miners’ Welfare Under-14s turned up for training one day to be introduced to their new coach. This was Jim Jefferies, local boy made good and at that point a Hearts player. This association – JJ was good friends with McGlynn’s brother – would prove fruitful when Jefferies became the Jambos’ manager. He recruited McGlynn as youth coach, completing with No 2 Billy Brown an Honest Toun maroon Mafia.
“I’ve got a lot to thank Jim for,” says McGlynn, who, first time round, would spend 11 years at Tynecastle. Though a Celtic supporter in boyhood, Hearts quickly became his team. And that term would include three stints as interim boss, picking up the pieces after dramatic departures and picking the team. Most dramatic obviously was the sacking of George Burley in 2005 when Hearts were flying and top of the Premier League. Like everyone else, McGlynn was shocked. The fans had signed up for the Romanov revolution, some buying Cossack hats. McGlynn remembers standing at the back for a team meeting when Burley asked the room: “How far can we go?” “Steven Pressley shouted: ‘Win the league!’ I thought to myself: ‘Elvis, are you steaming? You’re off your rocker!’
“Then Takis Fyssas, who’d just won the Euros with Greece, said: ‘To the next match.’ That was my view, too. George had the players eating out of his hand but I was still thinking: ‘Naw, the bubble’s going to burst.’ And it blinking did, right enough.” On McGlynn’s watch, the Jambos relinquished their unbeaten record against Hibernian, and Maroon Adair made way for Graham Rix.
Early on in Romanov’s reign, he says, it was possible to pay little or no heed to the Lithuanian’s eccentricities, boasts and meddling as long as the results were good. “We didn’t bother about the other stuff. We thought: ‘We’re doing well and he’s splashing the cash.’” Hearts ended up splitting the Old Firm and lifting the Scottish Cup, but the season might have produced even greater reward. “He spent too much in the wrong ways. We could have won the league.”
As an interim, McGlynn’s auditions came too early. He remembers during Craig Levein’s first spell as boss being impressed by tact and diplomacy in the boardroom which he lacked. “When you’re talking with directors it’s a bit of a game and you have to play it.” So he left Gorgie with a plan: “I was going to Raith, hopefully to do well there and get the chance to come back as Hearts’ manager.”
The opportunity came after a second cup success in 2012. Half that victorious side left as McGlynn, who’d impressed with his youth work before, was expected as part of cost-cutting to bring through the likes of Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker and Jason Holt. Very quickly, though, Hearts were at severe risk of losing a whole lot more. “There’s no doubt Romanov’s people knew the club were going down the tubes, that his bank were going to take Hearts with them.”
The players along with McGlynn went without wages as, having battled through to the League Cup semis, the club were warned the tie could be awarded to Inverness Caley Thistle and an upcoming game against St Mirren might be the grand old team’s parting shot.
McGlynn knew the manager’s chair was an ejector seat; that he probably wouldn’t last long. “But I had to try. It was the job I’d dreamed about. Hearts were my club. I’d been part of the family there with Goggsy the kitman and Claire in the club shop where my daughter Mandy worked for a while.” Hearts got to play that semi, battled with ten men to win it, but cruelly McGlynn was relieved of his duties before the final so never got to lead out the team at Hampden. That was unfortunate but, as you might expect, the man from Wallyford got over it. “I look back fondly at my time at Tynecastle. We were within a couple of minutes of taking Liverpool to extra-time in Europe and the kids went on to do brilliantly for Hearts when all the fans rallied round and the club revived in the Championship. My dream died but you know, I can still have other ones.”
The latest ambition is to restore Raith to the second tier where if he’s successful – and in a highly competitive scene nothing is being taken for granted – the hope is Rovers won’t encounter Hearts on the way down.
“Doubtless the board here would love that as their fans would fill Stark’s Park but I don’t think it will happen. The new manager seems to have put some legs into the team. After losing the derby Tynecastle could have been a morgue for that game against Aberdeen but the fans got behind the team again. Some young guys have been brought back from Siberia and their enthusiasm has rubbed off on the others. If Hearts can get a little win soon I think they’ll all start to believe and start climbing off the bottom.”
I’ve got one last question about Romanov. Stephen Frail, also credited with Red Adairing, relates the story of the team being ordered out to Kaunas, where the bus parked next to a river and the driver whipped the players with vine leaves before they jumped into the water. Then, in a conference suite, they were flayed by Romanov for their failure to become the best club side in the world before the Tynie tyrant summoned his partner from Lithuania’s Strictly Come Dancing and the pair leapt into a lively foxtrot. Could McGlynn provide any more colour and incident from that trip, not that it’s really needed?
“Sadly, I wasn’t there that time. Sounds like fun though, doesn’t it? For pre-season after the ’06 cup win Romanov took everyone to Monte Carlo where a five-star cruise ship was waiting for us. We sailed down to St Tropez, as you do, and some other places which were none too shabby. When it was time to train little dinghies took the guys ashore.” Wow, I say, this sounds like one of those old Bacardi ads: did the Jambos run down the jetty in linen suits before changing into their kit?
“Not quite, but these were strange times for a boy from Wallyford, for sure. At least we weren’t shipwrecked … ”